Cultured meat, grown in a bioreactor rather than outside, could be one of the biggest food trends of the decade. But it relies on technology built around growing yeast and bacteria cells, not animal tissue – and Unicorn Biotechnologies wants to change that with new equipment created with mass food production in mind. It has just raised $3.2 million to transform its bioreactor prototype into a commercial product.
Although we hear about new cultured meat ventures and funding rounds with frankly astounding frequency (this one happened while I was writing this!), there are fundamental questions about whether this method of meat culture can evolve. The simple fact is that animals like cows are raised in huge environments that are mostly empty or filled with hay; every gram of cultured meat goes through an expensive and complex machine that probably wasn’t designed to do this stuff in the first place.
“Most biomanufacturing systems have been designed and optimized to manufacture bacteria (making enzymes) or yeast (brewing beer), or focus on making animal cell by-products (vaccines), not on the animal cells themselves,” said Licorne Bio co-founder and CEO Jack Reid. “Using this legacy material for cultured meat requires cell redesign. Our approach and core belief is that it is actually easier, and ultimately better, to design new hardware systems to promote growth around cells, rather than trying to fit those cells into engineered systems. existing.
Of course, it’s not like these companies with lots of money just buy things off the shelf. But the industry is changing rapidly 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 have to replace more than 1% of the beef.
Unicorn aims to change that with automation and modularity designed with scaling in mind from the start.
“One of the biggest challenges in biomanufacturing today is the optimization of bioprocesses. It can take years or even decades to turn a bioprocess into large-scale bioreactors (imagine steel tanks the size of of a small house),” said Reid. Unicorn’s modular approach uses many smaller systems working in parallel; smaller volumes are easier to control, and also easier to add or subtract to meet on demand or replace others.
Reid also claims a higher level of automation for its machines – which, to be clear, are still in the prototype stage. But bioreactors have only recently been found in biotech and pharmaceutical labs, and aren’t exactly designed for easy use and customization.
“We are creating an end-to-end automated system. To make it work, you don’t need a PhD, just plug in your starting ingredients, select the product you’re growing, and let the system take care of the rest,” he said. -he declares. While there’s almost certainly a bit more to it, the system will use built-in sensing, machine learning, and industrial automation technology for this purpose. Some of these are already showing up in innovations from other cultured meat startups, but this is a fast-moving industry.
Ultimately, Unicorn doesn’t want to make meat itself, 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 to increase food security in our rapidly changing climate), this will only materialize if disruptive technologies are made available to all actors establishing this field,” says Reid.
If a company has discovered a great cell line or growth method but is not expert in bioreactor engineering or nutrient flow, they would be able to implement Unicorn hardware as it evolves rather than to repurpose technologies from another era.
Reid disagreed with some of the more vocal critics of cultured meat’s potential, but said it’s true that with today’s technology (i.e. that of yesterday), we cannot reach the volumes necessary to make a dent in ethics and the environment. fundamental questions for the breeding of slaughter animals. Innovation is necessary to have any impact.
The $3.2 million seed round is expected to help push Unicorn forward; it was led by Acequia Capital, with participation from SOSV, Marinya Capital, Alumni Ventures, C3, CULT Food Science and others. They’ve already spent some of it on hiring a bit and are looking to deliver a proof-of-concept scale machine capable of producing kilograms of cells by the end of the year. Pilot projects with partners could begin around this time, or in early 2023.
“While much work remains to be done,” said Reid, “we remain confident that sustained innovation at the intersection of biology, engineering, and bioprocess automation will continue to unlock technologies tangible ways to help the cultured meat ecosystem reach its full potential.”