When the Impossible Becomes Inevitable: The Quest for Serum-Free Cultivated Meat
By Paul Shapiro
Five years after its 2011 founding, Impossible Foods had raised hundreds of millions of dollars, was valued by its investors at $800 million, yet was essentially still pre-revenue. Was this all just VC fantasyland, asked The Counter at the time. The nonprofit food journalism outlet opened its 2016 story, “The Impossible Bet,” by wondering:
“What is the deal with Impossible Foods? How is it that at a time when most food entrepreneurs have to demonstrate revenue streams to get substantial investments, it has collected hundreds of millions in venture capital investment? … What are the venture capitalists looking at, and what do they think they see? We’re hitting — or maybe even sliding past — the time period when Impossible Foods said it would deliver a revolution, with no real sense of when the company plans to take the next big step. Did a bunch of smart guys get in on the ground floor of tomorrow’s diet — or is Smart Foods going to be one of the early warning signs of the Food Bubble?”
Hindsight is of course 20/20, but Impossible’s early investors so far at least seem to have indeed made a smart bet. Impossible products are now in thousands of supermarkets, not to mention every Burger King in America, and the company is reportedly eyeing a $7 billion valuation. Even if the valuation goes down (comparable to Beyond Meat in recent months), there’s no doubt the company has executed well and is making a real difference in the world.
Similarly, the same outlet published an article in 2021 making an in-depth case regarding the unlikelihood of cultivated meat reaching meaningful commercialization. One of the several reasons cited was the use of fetal bovine serum (FBS) as a growth factor in media culturing the animal cells. Used for decades in animal cell culture, FBS is extremely expensive, not to mention ethically concerning. But alternatives have seemed elusive. “Serum-free media can be both hugely expensive and challenging to develop,” The Counter noted.
Criticism of the cultivated meat industry’s use of FBS has existed for more than a decade. In 2012, for example, a guest column in Discover Magazine called FBS a “fatal flaw” of this kind of meat. Slate in 2013 called cultivated meat “a waste of time” for this reason and others, and the same publication in 2017 headlined FBS as “the gruesome truth about lab-grown meat.”
In my 2018 book, Clean Meat, I wasn’t as fatalistically skeptical as the above predictions, but I did write that cultivated meat “may well remain a pipe dream in the minds of those who seek a better future for animals and the planet, unless an abundant and cheap source of nutrients to feed the cells is discovered. Looking at commercially available animal-free media today, the critics of clean meat would be undoubtedly correct in concluding that current costs of production render it a prohibitively expensive luxury product at best.”
An FBS-Free Future Now Seems Inevitable in Alt-Meatland
Fast forward to today, and just like the skepticism about Impossible Foods in 2016 seems untethered to 2022's reality (again, hindsight’s 20/20), so too are the past arguments about FBS’s indispensability in cultivated meat production.
For example, Upside Foods (formerly Memphis Meats), BlueNalu, and Wildtype have developed their own animal-free sera. Mosa Meat has even published its recipe for serum-free media. Aleph Farms and WACKER offer their jointly-developed animal-free media to anyone. And Eat Just has developed a serum-free media that they say is ready for commercialization as soon as regulators in Singapore approve it.
At the same time, the much-publicized high costs to produce cultivated meat (remember the $330,000 burger in 2013?) appear to be on somewhat of a Moore’s Law trajectory, with companies like Future Meat Technologies claiming that they can make cultivated chicken for as little at $1.70 per breast. Upside Foods says their costs have come down “orders of magnitude,” and McKinsey says costs since the early prototypes have plummeted 99 percent. That’s still not sufficient to get down to slaughter-based meat costs, but you can see which way the wind appears to be blowing.
None of this is to suggest that cultivated meat’s success is inevitable, and The Counter’s thoughtful story points out numerous real hurdles to such success in addition to FBS replacement. It’s clear that new technologies will need to be invented if cultivated meat is going to scale up. The pioneers in this space certainly realize that.
“When our industry reaches maturity, the production systems will look nothing like those used in recent years,” Arye Elfenbein, co-founder of cultivated fish startup Wildtype recently told me. “We’re all in the earliest days of this very long journey.”
At this Point, The Petri Dish is Half Full
History is littered with examples of now-common technologies — from cars and planes to lightbulbs and the internet — that experts once predicted were commercially impossible. Similarly, it’s easy to cite now-successful companies that were once on the ropes. As recently as 2018, Tesla and Amazon were trading places as the two most shorted stocks on the market. Since then, the two companies’ market caps have, of course, skyrocketed.
The point isn’t to suggest that everything declared impossible becomes inevitable, nor that every struggling company will transform into a megahit. Sometimes skeptics are actually right. (Where are all our flying cars, anyway?) But all of the above is reason to take fatalistic skepticism of cultivated meat’s viability with a fistful of salt.
For years, critics have argued that FBS’s alleged indispensability made commercial-scale cultivated meat a non-starter. Today, the leading companies have invented technologies rendering FBS use all but obsolete. They’ve slashed their cost of production. Cultivated meat is already being sold in Singapore, and many industry leaders appear optimistic that the US will be next to grant regulatory approval.
This should give hope to those rooting for the success of cultivated meat (myself certainly included) that maybe the forecast isn’t as grim as the movement’s critics have asserted.
Perhaps five or ten years from now, we’ll be dining on cultivated meat in American restaurants and will be reminded of Nelson Mandela’s words: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Paul Shapiro is the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, the CEO of The Better Meat Co., a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast.