World

Opinion | The Revolution That Died on Its Way to Dinner

In January of 2020, the company announced it had raised $161 million in a funding round, the largest publicly disclosed investment for a company making cultivated meat.

Steve Molino is a principal at Clear Current Capital, an early-stage venture fund focused on sustainable food and an early backer of BlueNalu (cell-grown bluefin tuna, a reported $118.3 million raised). He’s no stranger to the practice of placing big bets with limited information, but even so, he was amazed to see the way money poured into the industry. “There were no real numbers to pull from that allowed anyone to say, ‘Wait a second, this is either going to not work — or, if it does work, take a really long time.’ Without that data,” he said, someone could give you a tiny sample of something “And you’re like, ‘Holy crap, this is the future.’”

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Josh Tetrick remembers being in Boulder, Colo., on Thanksgiving Day 2020, endlessly calling his team for updates from Singapore, where Eat Just was seeking its first government approval. “I lay down and I put my phone away for a while just to stop, like, incessantly checking,” he told me. “I fell asleep on the floor. And I woke up to our head of regulatory calling me and saying, ‘Josh, we got it.’”

Eat Just’s cultivated meat division had the capacity to produce only a small amount of chicken, and that at a steep financial loss. The process still relied on fetal bovine serum, a product of the brutal animal supply chain that cultured meat was supposed to make obsolete. The product, the company said, was about 30 percent plant-based ingredients, a cross between a chicken nugget and a veggie burger. Regardless, the approval was treated as a historic event. “No-kill, lab-grown meat to go on sale for first time,” The Guardian wrote, in a piece that called the development “a landmark moment across the meat industry.”

Investment in the industry increased by more than 300 percent between 2020 and 2021. Shiok Meats, which started as a cultivated seafood company, managed to raise a reported $30 million without even having a cell line that could grow sufficiently in culture, a basic requirement for success. New Age Eats, a company that made cultivated sausages that were only 1 percent to 2 percent animal cells, raised $32 million and began construction of a 23,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Alameda, Calif. The factory was an example of what an article in the journal Nature Food would broadly refer to as the industry’s “Potemkin pilot facilities.”

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