Cultured meat, grown in a bioreactor rather than in the field, could be one of the big food trends of the decade. But it’s relying on technology built around the multiplication of yeast and bacteria cells, not animal tissue — and Unicorn Biotechnologies wants to change that with new equipment designed with mass food production in mind. It has just raised $3.2 million to turn its prototype bioreactor into a commercial product.
While we’ve heard about new cultured meat companies and funding rounds with frankly incredible frequency (this one happened as I was writing this!), there are fundamental questions about whether this method of growing meat can scale. The simple fact is that animals like cows are raised in huge environments that are mostly empty or filled with hay; every ounce of cultured meat goes through an expensive and complex machine that probably wasn’t designed to do these things in the first place.
“Most biomanufacturing systems are designed and optimized to produce bacteria (enzyme production) or yeast (brewer beer) or are focused on producing by-products of animal cells (vaccines), not the animal cells themselves,” said the co-founder and CEO. from Unicorn Bio, Jack Reid. “Using this legacy hardware to grow meat requires re-engineering the cells. Our core approach and conviction is that it is actually easier, and ultimately better, to design new hardware systems intended to promote growth around cells, rather than trying to fit those cells into existing engineering systems.”
Of course, it’s not like these big money companies are just buying things off the shelf. But the industry is moving fast and critics have pointed out that even the most optimistic numbers pale in comparison to the traditional meat industry. If they want to change the world, they will need to replace more than 1% of beef.
Unicorn aims to change that with automation and modularity built with scalability in mind from the start.
“Today, one of the biggest challenges in biomanufacturing is the optimization of bioprocesses. It can take years – or even decades – to scale a bioprocess to large-scale bioreactors (imagine steel tanks the size of a small house),” Reid said. Unicorn’s modular approach uses many smaller systems operating in parallel; smaller volumes are easier to control and also easier to add or subtract to meet demand or replace others.
Reid also claims a higher level of automation for his machines – which, to be clear, are still in the prototype stage. But bioreactors have been found very recently only in biotechnology and pharmaceutical labs and are not exactly designed for easy operation and customization.
“We are creating an end-to-end automated system. To operate it, you don’t need a Ph.D., you simply need to ‘plug in’ your starting ingredients, select the product you’re growing and let the system take care of the rest,” he said. While there will almost certainly be a little more to it than that, the system will use integrated sensors, machine learning and industrial automation technology for this purpose. Some of it can already be found in the innovations of other cultured meat startups, but it’s a rapidly evolving industry.
Ultimately, Unicorn doesn’t want to make meat, but to act as an enabler for others in the industry.
While the potential for cultured meat is enormous (to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, animal suffering and increase food security in our rapidly changing climate), this will only be realized if innovative technologies are made available to all participants. that establish this field”. said Reid.
If a company has discovered a great cell line or growth method, but isn’t an expert in bioreactor engineering or nutrient flow, it can configure Unicorn hardware as it grows, rather than repurposing technology from a different era.
Reid took issue with some of the more outspoken critics of cultured meat’s potential, but said it’s true that with today’s (ie yesterday’s) technology we cannot achieve the volumes necessary to make an impact on ethics and the environment. fundamental issues for raising animals for slaughter. Innovation is needed to make the least impact.
The $3.2 million seed round is expected to help boost Unicorn; was led by Acequia Capital, with the participation of SOSV, Marinya Capital, Alumni Ventures, C3, CULT Food Science and others. They’ve already spent some money to hire some and are looking to provide a proof-of-concept scale machine capable of producing kilograms of cells by the end of the year. Pilot projects with partners may start at this time or in early 2023.
“While much work remains to be done,” Reid said, “we remain convinced that sustained innovation at the intersection of bioprocess biology, engineering and automation will continue to unlock tangible technologies to help the cultured meat ecosystem reach its full potential. ”.