Just because you like to eat meat or wear leather doesn’t mean you’re all that happy about the way these products are made. Few guests at Outback Steakhouse, for example, would really enjoy going out back to slaughter their own steer. And we can probably all agree—whether we’re carnivores or vegetarians—that the cattle industry is an environmental nightmare. (Raising the protein in a quarter-pound patty of beef takes 7 pounds of feed and 53 gallons of water, and releases 13 pounds of carbon dioxide.)
What if there were a low-impact way to produce edible meat and usable leather, without killing any animals? That’s the idea New York-based Modern Meadow is exploring, and it’s just raised $10 million in Series A venture funding to expand its research facilities in New York.
The company is led by Andras Forgacs, 37, who previously co-founded Organovo, a San Diego-based developer of bioprinting devices for tissue engineering, with his father Gabor Forgacs. Modern Meadow isn’t using bioprinting technology per se to develop so-called “cultured” meat and leather products, but the younger Forgacs says the company’s R&D efforts draw on the same general expertise in biofabrication and tissue engineering.
Bioassembly is “necessary but not sufficient” for giving cultured meat and leather the look and feel of their traditional counterparts, he says. To give lab-cultured products the texture and flavor of meat, or the toughness and aroma of leather, the company will have to figure out how to feed and grow muscle and skin cells in complex structures, on a large and efficient scale—ideally without the aid of a traditional animal-derived liquid culture medium such as fetal bovine serum.
Up to now, Modern Meadow has operated mainly from offices in Columbia, MO, and NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, CA. Forgacs says the company will use the new funds—which come from Horizons Ventures, the venture fund of Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing—to open an expanded research headquarters at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in New York.
Modern Meadow is already experimenting with cultured-meat “chips.” But before it tackles meat production in earnest, the startup intends to develop high-performance cultured leather with properties that make it more versatile than actual leather. Leather products are a lucrative, $63 billion market, and Modern Meadow has a “truly innovative and disruptive” solution that could address global resource challenges by reducing the required materials and processes, Bart Swanson, managing director at Horizons Ventures, said in an announcement today.
Andras Forgacs traveled to Yountville, CA, on June 3 to speak about Modern Meadow at Xconomy’s 2014 Napa Summit (where Xconomy CEO Bob Buderi became one of a small number of notables who have sampled the company’s cultured-meat chips). I grabbed Forgacs during a break in the action to ask about the company’s history and goals and the new funding round. Here’s an edited write-up of our conversation.
Xconomy: Tell me the backstory of Modern Meadow. Where did the idea come from?
Andras Forgacs: I was a co-founder at Organovo, where we focused on developing technology around tissue engineering and 3D bioprinting of human tissue. We figured, if we can create human tissue that can be used for drug testing and drug development, and in the future for therapeutic applications, then what else can we do with this kind of technology?
It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to think that if I can grow muscle for medical purposes, I can grow meat. And if I can grow human skin that can be used for burn victims and wound healing, perhaps I can grow animal hide or skin for other purposes.
At Organovo, people would ask us, “If you can grow human products, can you build animal products?” It wasn’t the right fit, since the technology we were developing was very specialized to high-fidelity human organs, and the focus of the company was medical. But an opportunity came in 2011 to start a new company, driven by the availability of some key scientists to join as founders.
X: Is the motivation at Modern Meadow about the moral side of raising animals for meat or leather? Or are you more interested in the environmental implications, or is it just a sweet engineering challenge?
AF: It really is all of the above. Different people are motivated by different things. Some people who are part of the core of the company are driven by the opportunity to come up with materials that have fundamentally different performance and design possibilities. They are really excited about the innovation potential.
Most of us are also motivated by the environmental impact, and the understanding that we can be creating a more efficient supply chain with a much lower environmental footprint. For me, that is one of the best motivators.
And of course, animal welfare is a big imperative as well. We have some people who are vegetarians who are part of the team. We are not religious or dogmatic about it, but if we can achieve all of the above, and also protect animal welfare, that will be very important to us.
X: Is there a single, key technology or a defined set of patents or I.P. at the heart of Modern Meadow?
AF: There is a broad field that can be called biofabrication or tissue engineering. That has many aspects to it, and we really have a range of technologies that we are developing, and co-developing with others. It’s not one hammer that can hit every nail. To get leather right is a many-step process, and you need to innovate at every step. Likewise with meat.
A lot has been written about Organovo being a 3D printing innovator, and that is a great technology, but it is not the sine qua non. At Modern Meadow we are not focused on bioprinting, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense for us as an assembly technology, but we are working on a lot of things upstream and downstream that are relevant.
X: You’re aiming to bring a cultured leather product to market before you take on cultured meat. Is that an easier problem to solve?
AF: It’s easier technically. You are primarily using one cell type, skin cells. Structurally, it’s simpler. With muscle, you have muscle cells, fat cells, and potentially other endothelial cells. It’s also a more complex tissue from a biological standpoint. With leather, it’s a 2D, layered concept, but with meat you have more complexity if you want to get more biomimetic.
Importantly, the regulatory pathways [for leather] are also simpler. With leather, we can get to market, we can design a great process around it, and we can make sure it is of the highest standard environmentally, but it doesn’t need to go through an FDA approval process. With food, you have to go through the FDA.
And also—this is important—a lot of consumers embrace this idea [of cultured meat]. Whenever I speak to audiences at TED, or this event, more than half of the audience is willing to try it, or is interested. But people have really strong opinions about food, especially when it comes to new technologies or processes around food. They have less strong opinions around new materials. They love things like Gore-Tex and carbon fiber, et cetera. So we’d like to innovate first in technology areas where it’s easier to bring about change.
X: Do you envision Modern Meadows’ cultured leather as a one-to-one replacement for leather in the applications where leather is now used? I think of things like shoes, belts, briefcases, purses, wallets.
AF: It’s very limiting to think of this just as a replacement for traditional leather. Certainly, some of that is going to happen. But what is more exciting is the new design spaces and application spaces this opens up. You can create materials that have design, performance, and manufacturability advantages that are in a new category. It allows leather to behave more like a textile, which has not been the case so far. The textile market is so much larger than just leather.
X: Tell me about your funding history, and how this new round fits in.
AF: We are two and a half years old—we were founded in the fall of 2011. But we became operationally active in 2012. We were initially grant-funded, and then we raised seed capital of about $2.5 million. And recently we closed a Series A, with the first $10 million from Horizons Ventures, the venture arm of Li Ka-shing.
We are very excited about them. This round came together really quickly, and we could not be happier with them as an investor. They back fundamental innovations—they were one of the first investors in Skype, Facebook, Spotify, Summly, and Hampton Creek Foods. They really understand technology and they are able to add incredible value. There are few investors I can think of in the world that are a better fit.
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