When renowned tissue engineer and medical bioengineer Ali Khademhosseini started thinking about entering the cultivated meat space, he looked at it differently.
Many companies making meat from cells take traditionally farmed animals completely out of the equation, something that Khademhosseini didn’t think was necessary.
“The general assumption is that it’s not necessarily the animal that’s bad,” Khademhosseini said. “The planet has had plenty of animals for hundreds of millions of years. But it’s really the way we’re doing things. It’s the number of animals, and that’s really the big challenge.”
Omeat, Khademhosseini’s company emerging from stealth today, uses animals to make cultivated meat. Instead of using cell growth media derived from pharmaceutical-grade ingredients or extracted fetal bovine serum, Omeat makes it from plasma drawn from its herd of cattle. The plasma, Khademhosseini said, has a wide variety of nutrients and factors that can naturally grow cells.
The result is a cost-effective, humane and sustainable method of making cultivated meat, he said. Through its process, Omeat can get 20 times more beef per cow than if it was slaughtered.
The company has already attracted quite a bit of attention from funders and others in the cultivated meat space. Last year, it raised $40 million in an oversubscribed Series A investment round with participation from Tyson Ventures, Google Ventures and S2G Ventures.
Khademhosseini said he attributes the company’s early attention to the fact that Omeat’s methods are scalable and can more quickly achieve cultivated beef at a cost equal to traditional beef. Omeat also relies on traditional animal agriculture for its business model.
“This company is building a bridge between the cultivated meat industry and pretty much the existing food, manufacturing and supply world — everything from cattle to sustainable agriculture type of folks,” he said.
How it works
Compared to other cultivated meat companies, Omeat is both very similar and very different.
Omeat operates a traditional cattle farm. Its herd of cattle graze on its farm in California, providing both the cells to create meat and the media needed for them to grow.
But its cultivated meat R&D facility — as well as the pilot plant Omeat is currently building near Los Angeles — looks and functions similar to those of other cultivated meat companies. Khademhosseini said Omeat uses similar bioreactors to grow its cells — but everything inside comes from actual cattle.
This kind of structure makes Omeat more easily scalable, Khademhosseini said. As the company grows, it can partner with existing cattle farmers that can supply everything needed for meat cultivation. Those items can go to the company’s manufacturing facilities.
“I think that this is something that’s totally logical,” Khademhosseini said. “The simplicity of it, that’s the beauty and the interesting aspect of it.”
On its own, the culture media from cattle plasma can drive cell yields that are similar to other cultivated meat companies, Khademhosseini said. In its bioreactor facility, Omeat has refined its system to make several bioprocess improvements that he said have increased its yields by a volume of 20% to 30%.
Quickly reaching cost parity
Khademhosseini has been working to develop Omeat for about four years, but the company has largely stayed in the shadows.
The reason it is emerging from stealth now is that it met one of its key objectives.
“We’ve developed processes that we can basically get all our ingredients at the cost that would be required to make meat at price parity,” he said. “So it’s really a matter of scaling at this point.”
For many cultivated meat companies, cell growth media is the most expensive component.
Some of the substances used for cell growth have previously only been used for pharmaceutical products. They tend to be expensive in volumes, concentrations and in meeting the standards for food production. Other common components — namely fetal bovine serum, which reliably provides beneficial nutrients for cell growth — actually come from animals and cannot be inexpensively sourced.
Many cultivated meat companies have partnered with pharmaceutical, biologics and animal nutrition companies to create plant-based solutions and a new supply chain to solve the growth media issue. But for Omeat, this supply chain is grazing on its farm.
Plasma is collected from the cattle weekly, Khademhosseini said. The process Omeat has developed is very similar to those used for human plasma donation, he said. Unlike blood, plasma regenerates quickly, so the cattle do not feel depleted.
The plasma also has components that can completely replace fetal bovine serum in the growth media, Khademhosseini said. This is something that has been a struggle for other cultivated meat companies.
An analysis published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Research in December found cell culture media still represents the biggest chunk of the cost of cultivated meat — at about $64 per kilogram. Media made up 31% of the estimated cost — more than labor, equipment or logistics.
“Our results show that this industry will need to focus on reducing capital and labor costs as well as the media cost if it wants to compete on price with meats such as beef, pork, and chicken,” the report states.
While Omeat is concentrating on making a ground beef product right now, Khademhosseini said the cattle plasma solution works as growth media for other animal cells. The company has experimented and can grow chicken, pork and lamb with the same method, he said.
Omeat is working quickly to get its product to market, Khademhosseini said.
The company is working on building out its pilot facility, which he said should be in operation by the end of 2023.
And, Khademhosseini said, it’s working with regulators from the FDA and the USDA to gain approval for the process. If all goes according to plan, the company could be able to get products on the market by 2025.
But the scale-up plan is more than building bioreactors. Khademhosseini envisions partnering with existing cattle farmers for cells and plasma from their herds. He’s been working toward making inroads with that community, which he said has been challenging.
With his background in the medical field, Khademhosseini hadn’t had much interaction with cattle farmers. At the same time, traditional animal agriculture purveyors have not been welcoming toward alternative proteins.
Khademhosseini said they have gone to farms to “knock on the door and try to tell them why we wanted to make partnerships and things like that. It was really interesting, bridging these two worlds that really don’t interact much with each other.”
Khademhosseini hopes to spend the rest of 2023 scaling up the tech side of the business, building more relationships with traditional farmers and improving the product.
Omeat’s process is capable of producing meat at the same cost as today’s Big Meat programs, but with 95% fewer cows, he said. According to 2017 statistics from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock feed and production accounts for 77% of all agricultural land use.
Khademhosseini, who says he is a traditional meat-eater, said he’s long wanted to use his knowledge to make a difference in the world.
“Even though I had done other types of things in medicine and innovation products that made it to the real world, I thought this would be the biggest impact thing that I can do,” he said. “Sustainability has been really my biggest driving force.”