Grown from cells in industrial bioreactors rather than in animals’ bodies, clean meat – also known as in vitro, lab or cultured meat – promises a green revolution that will transform the modern meat industry, using less land and water, generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions and removing animal suffering.
However, according to the founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, Didier Toubia, the clean meat sector faces two challenges.
“The first issue is production and scale up, but all the clean meat companies are addressing this in different ways with unique approaches to driving down costs. In a few years from now, clean meat will be close to parity with conventional meat," he said.
The second challenge is resonating with consumers in terms of quality and content, and Toubia believes that here, Aleph Farms has a distinct advantage over its competitors.
'A 3D technology'
Aleph Farms uses GM- and antibiotic-free starter cells taken from an animal biopsy and grows them in a controlled, laboratory setting. The difference is it can grow all four elements of meat together in “a three dimensional way”.
“Our 3D technology gives us the ability to grow all the cells that make up traditional meat together – the muscle fibres, the fat, the blood vessels and the connective tissue, such as collagen, that binds it. This is our main competitive advantage: our meat grows together like real meat.
“Other companies grow single cells in suspension or layers in a petri dish and that means the tissues of other clean meat companies are not really integrated. Their meat is like a formulated, processed product with separate ingredients,” he told us.
Although Aleph Farms clean meat will not contain any blood as it is grown outside the cow, Toubia said blood vessels still have an important role to play in replicating the structure of end meat, which impacts its texture.
The result of this proprietary process, developed by Israeli Institute of Technology Technion, is a meat that is closer to free range meat in taste and texture while the ‘holistic’ growing method is a positive in terms of consumer acceptance, Toubia said.
While the 'single cell' approach to growing clean meat means final applications are limited to ground meat such as beef burger patties, Aleph Farms could grow a full steak.
Professor Shulamit Levenberg, dean of the Technion's bio-medical engineering faculty and Aleph Farms co-founder and chief scientific officer, said its use of the four cell types found in conventional cuts of meat was the key to "a product that will be closer to the beef that people crave".
Leveraging regenerative medicine
Aleph Farms was co-founded in 2017 by Israeli food-tech incubator The Kitchen, a part of food manufacturer Strauss Group, and Technion.
With funding from Strauss, financial investors from the US and Europe and the Israeli government, the start-up completed its seed round last year and plans to close the series A by end of 2018.
It is still at the R&D stage but says it will be producing commercial quantities of beef at its ‘biofarm’, which Toubia said will resemble a brewery, within two years.
Aleph Farms has been operating for just two years but thanks to its collaboration with Technion through Levenberg, the start-up has leveraged over 10 years of advanced research in the field of regenerative medicine.
Behind the (re)brand
Formerly known as Meat the Future, the company recently changed its name to Aleph Farms.
Aleph, the first letter of ancient Semitic alphabets such as Hebrew and Arabic, was originally derived from a hieroglyph depicting an ox’s head. The letter gave rise to the Greek letter Alpha, which the company says is a symbol of leadership and new beginnings.
Applying this know-how to the food sector required some adaptation– for instance, medical researchers use foetal bovine serum as the growth medium for tissue cells whereas Aleph Farms wants to be able to label its clean meat as animal-free and vegetarian-friendly.
French native Toubia, who studied biology and food engineering before moving into finance and business in Israel, said the start-up has found an animal-friendly alternative to foetal bovine serum but would not give details.
He did say that overall, however, the food space has been easier.
In regenerative medicine, researchers take human cells and grows parts of, say, a fully functional human heart and then transplant it back into the patient.
In comparison, the functionality of Aleph Farms cultured cells – taste, texture and colour – is less complex.
Aiming for export
Aleph Farms has identified Europe, the US and Asia as its key export markets.
“Israel is a start-up nation and we have good experience with technology, but the country is very small so there is no real local market,” the co-founder said. “From day one, we have to go global and we are used to doing that.”
It will also tweak the final products – in either its marketing or the product itself - to win consumer acceptance in each region, although the underlying technology will be the same.
Aleph Farms is not Israel's only clean meat start-up.
Future Meat Technologies has developed an IP-protected cultured meat technology that it licences to other companies. The company’s founder, Professor Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University, told our sister site FoodNavigator-USA the firm's ‘distributive manufacturing’ model’ was “effectively sending out the equivalent of seeds to farmers to grow their own biomass”.