Tens of millions for UM cultured meat
MAASTRICHT. Cultured meat company Mosa Meat, a spin-off of Maastricht University, has received 55 million euros from private investors and 10 million euros from the Dutch government. Professor Mark Post will use this money to bring the cultured beef hamburger to market. Where it will be introduced first remains to be seen. “It could be in Singapore, if we get approval there earlier.”
Most of the privately invested money is coming from main investor Blue Horizon Ventures, a Swiss company that has been involved from the beginning and primarily invests in environmental innovations. Mosa Meat is also receiving 10 million euros from the Dutch government’s Innovation Credit scheme.
The money will be used to make the move from the lab to the market. This will take place on a small scale, in a pilot production process. The hamburger will appear on restaurant menus before making its way to supermarket shelves. “It has to be this way because of the small-scale production”, says Post, “but also because the hamburger is still quite expensive, about ten euros.”
Mosa Meat – now employing fifty people, a number that will have grown to 160 by late 2021 – is currently located in a factory hall in Randwijck, near Kringloop Zuid. A lab has been set up in the hall and, with the investment money, bioreactors will also be placed there. These will be used to grow stem cells, which can turn into any cell, into muscle and fat issue.
Post: “Another portion of the money will go to our ongoing research. By now, we’ve improved the taste and adjusted the serum or growth medium so that it no longer contains any animal components. The biggest challenge now is scaling up stem cell production.”
When will the first hamburgers hit the shelves? You previously said 2021.
“That’s not going to happen. COVID-19 has led to some delays, and these days it takes longer to get approval from the European Food Safety Authority. You have to provide quite a few analyses conducted by independent labs to demonstrate the safety of your product. We’ll submit our plans in spring 2021, which means we might receive approval in early 2023.”
Will the hamburger also be brought to markets outside Europe?
“Yes. In fact, we might just introduce it first in a country like Singapore, where we will also apply for approval. The process may be a lot faster there.”
Or in China, to mention a lucrative market?
“The cultured meat situation in China is still unclear. They’ve reluctantly started some activities, but the authorities have been pretty quiet on the topic. But China can be adaptable if it has to be, and then the approval process might suddenly be completed within two months. South Korea and Japan are much more active, we have more contact with those countries.”
Does Mosa Meat have a serious foreign department to make all those contacts?
Laughing: “The foreign department, that’s me. That’s just how it grew over the years. There’s simply a lot of international interest. And we’re not the only ones. Currently there are about sixty companies trying to produce cultured meat. Not just beef, like us, but also chicken, fish and pork.”
Dutch political parties are getting involved as well. VVD recently asked why the development is taking so long. And GroenLinks is worried that the Netherlands will be beaten by other countries. Is that possible?
“Yes, of course. With sixty companies, it’s a competitive field. In 2013, when I presented our first hamburger in London, the Netherlands was way ahead of the competition, but now we have to share that position with other countries. It’s just easier to get funding in Silicon Valley than in the Netherlands. We actually had an opportunity to relocate there in 2015, but I wasn’t feeling it. A party in Silicon Valley also offered to buy the company, but it wasn’t a suitable partner and the offer was too low.
So, yes, other countries might beat us. On the other hand, the meat market is so large that it has room for a lot of companies. And because of all the regulations and controls, no single company will dominate the market from the beginning.”
Post recently led an experiment to determine whether consumers will accept cultured meat. Almost two hundred participants were invited to taste meat; upon their arrival, they found out that cultured meat was also among the samples. Or at least that’s what they were told. It was a white lie – as cultured meat has not yet been approved, it can’t be served to consumers yet.
The participants first received information about the quality, the taste and the advantages to individuals and society before trying samples of regular and ‘cultured beef’ hamburgers. Everyone ate the ‘cultured beef’ samples and even liked them better than the regular hamburger samples. In fact, more than half of the participants were willing to pay more for the ‘cultured meat’.
The conclusion of the experiment, which was published in scientific journal Plos One in April: well-informed consumers will likely accept cultured meat. The fact that the participants were actually presented with two regular hamburgers didn’t affect this outcome, said the researchers.
To bring it closer to everyday life, Post will later set up a virtual experiment in which people in a supermarket environment can choose from various products to buy online. “This is more realistic than inviting people to a university to taste meat. Even if they can’t actually buy the cultured meat online.”
In a recent interview, you called the time we are in a tipping point. Why, exactly?
“In recent years, I’ve seen major changes in attitudes towards meat consumption. You can’t open a newspaper without reading about the connection between eating meat and our environmental problems. This wasn’t the case three years ago. As a result, there’s more interest in alternatives, including cultured meat. It’s not just something I’m reading about in newspapers, by the way; I’ve also noticed this when I give talks. A huge percentage of people in the generation under 25 are vegan or vegetarian, up to 25 per cent. Vegetarianism is truly going mainstream.”
But those aren’t the people who are interested in cultured meat, are they?
“Actually, they are. I was surprised as well, but the vegetarian movements in the Netherlands and neighbouring countries are very interested in cultured meat. They’ve been inviting me for talks from the beginning. They’re also promoting it among their members, partly for practical reasons. They think that cultured meat will bring a stop to environmental crimes and animal abuse sooner than convincing people not to eat meat. By the way, there are also vegetarians who will start eating meat again because they miss it and still like it.”
Who will benefit the most from UM cultured meat hitting the shelves: the investors, Maastricht University or Mosa Meat?
“All three parties will benefit, but the most important thing is that we will create a solution for a major social problem.”