Fungus Meat? Lab-Grown Halibut? Meet the Scientists Growing Your Next Meal
IN THE CORNER of IndieBio NY’s open workspace sit four guitars.
Well, technically they’re acoustic and electric hollow-body and solid-body guitars — and a keytar. The instruments aren’t there just to keep the startup founders who come through IndieBio’s six-month program entertained. They also represent a culture of progressive thinking.
“What we’re trying to talk about is evolution,” says Stephen Chambers, the managing director of the lab and general partner at SOSV, the venture-capital firm that founded it.
If we live in a world where most people strum an acoustic guitar, IndieBio is investing time and money into early-stage startups that want to go electric, keytar, or further. The new, 25,000-square-foot biotech lab in Manhattan is a proving ground for ideas that seem outlandish today.
The startups that have “graduated” from IndieBio’s accelerator program are working on a number of areas, from leather made of shrimp shells to using microscopic organisms to break down toxic chemicals. But many of the innovations revolve around what is perhaps the most pressing area when it comes to the climate crisis: food. About a fifth of all greenhouse-gas emissions are tied to agriculture and food, and rising temperatures are imperiling many crops and wild-caught species.
“Take your existential crisis, and I can relate it back to the food system,” says Doug Grant, the CEO of Atlantic Fish Co., one of the startups.
Grant grew up hunting in Mississippi, but after reading up on the climate crisis, he cut meat out of his life. With Atlantic Fish Co., he wants to take on overfishing and climate change by harvesting healthy fish cells and then feeding them nutrients in a bioreactor to create cultivated halibut that’s just like the real thing. Going through the IndieBio program, Grant says, “pours gasoline on the fire.” (In a good way in this case.)
Bosque Foods is another IndieBio alum working on food. But rather than cultivating cells, it’s cultivating mycelium, the threadlike structure that’s a part of fungus. Mycelium’s fibrous nature also makes it an ideal base to create products that can mimic whole cuts of meat. Like Grant, Isabella Iglesias-Musachio is starting with meat because of its outsize role in causing the climate crisis. But also because, as she puts it, “people are very culturally tied to meat.… What motivates me is trying to create products that consumers can switch over to and not give up those traditions.”
Meat-alternative giants Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat rely largely on pea or soy protein to create a texture similar to ground beef. A lot of other processed ingredients are needed to get there, too. The processed nature has contributed in part to declining sales of plant-based meat.
Grant and Iglesias-Musachio argue that their processes are much closer to nature than what the big names in alternative meat are doing. But whether Atlantic Fish Co., Bosque Foods, or any of the other biotech food companies pioneering new methods of raising meat can clear the cultural hurdles in front of them remains to be seen. When I say “early-stage startups,” I mean early.
UPSIDE Foods, perhaps IndieBio’s most successful startup, spent its four months in the program cultivating meat from cells to produce a single meatball. It has since raised nearly $400 million, and late last year became the first cellular agriculture company in the U.S. to get FDA approval for its cultivated chicken. If the USDA signs off on its products, high-end restaurants could serve cultivated chicken as soon as this year.
Just don’t call it lab meat. When I use the term as shorthand, Grant cringes.
“Cheerios were originally [created] in a lab. Where’s the Cheerios tree?” he quips. “Hopefully, one day it’ll just be meat. Or I would love it to be like, ‘Hey, this is just slaughter-free.’ ”
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