High-stakes innovation: An interview with a cultivated-meat pioneer

Cultivated meat is meat—but is created by a process so different from conventional meat, it has revolutionary potential, says Didier Toubia, cofounder and CEO of cultivated-meat start-up Aleph Farms.

Aleph Farms is one of the companies pursuing leadership in a new category of meat: cultivated meat, which is grown from animal cells in a controlled environment. McKinsey partner Michael Taksyak sat down with cofounder and CEO Didier Toubia in June for a wide-ranging discussion about what cultivated meat is and where the industry is headed. The following is an edited version of the conversation.

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A conversation with Aleph Farms CEO Didier Toubia

Michael Taksyak: Aleph Farms specializes in steaks that taste like conventional beef but don’t come from cattle. How do you make cultivated meat?

Didier Toubia: We isolate cells that have the capability of making muscle tissue within an animal, and we transfer them into a controlled environment that replicates the same physical and nutritional conditions as inside the animal’s body. Those cells then continue to divide to form structured muscle tissue.

We use what is called a scaffold, which in our case is made of plant protein instead of collagen, which is animal protein. A scaffold is a matrix made of proteins that have roles for aligning and structuring cells to form structured meat tissue. In this way, we can replicate the same natural phenomenon occurring inside the body of an animal, but on the outside, under controlled conditions.

It takes three to four weeks in our case to make meat, versus two, three, or four years to bring cattle to the ideal age for meat production. But beyond that, instead of sustaining the animal for that long and then eating only 40 percent of it, we can reduce the amount of land and water needed to create the same amount of meat by 92 to 98 percent.

Michael Taksyak: How is cultivated meat different from plant-based meat?

Didier Toubia: Plant-based-meat analogue products are about replacing meat with plants—such as soy, wheat, and pea—and processing those plants to make them feel, taste, and look as much as possible like meat. The cultivated-meat concept is completely different. The approach is to stick to meat. We don’t replace meat with anything else. We just change the production process for meat.

Cultivated meat is meat. In our case, we have the scaffold incorporated into it. But beyond that, the mass of the product is actually meat cells.

So cultivated meat produces all the unique enzymatic reactions that occur during cooking, the Maillard reaction 1 in particular. All the volatile components are released, including free amino acids, which deliver the texture of real muscle fibers.

So, to this extent, we’re much closer to conventional meat than plant-based meat can be today. Of course, there is a need for plant-based meat, I believe, in the market as well. You know, we don’t believe that there is one single bullet for everyone.

Michael Taksyak: Is it tasty?

Didier Toubia: Yes, it is tasty. We’ve got unanimous positive feedback from all the people who have tasted it so far. So we feel quite confident with its sensory properties today.

Michael Taksyak: When will your products be available, and what will they cost?

Didier Toubia: We expect to launch our first products around the end of 2022. When we launch, we expect our products to be more expensive than conventional meat, like many other innovative products when they are first launched. But we have a clear path to reach price parity with conventional meat within five years from launch, meaning around the end of 2027 or 2028.

Michael Taksyak: What do we know about the health and safety aspects of cultivated meat?

Didier Toubia: Cultivated meat brings quite a few health and nutrition benefits. First, cultivated meat can be produced in a closed system with no need for antibiotics. Second, our meat grows in a sterile environment, so we can prevent foodborne illnesses associated with contaminated meat.

On top of that, we believe that because we control the production process, cultivated meat also allows for optimizing the nutritional profile. We can decrease the amount of saturated fat and make meat healthier for consumers who are reducing their consumption of red meat for health purposes. At the same time, there is the potential to optimize other good nutrients in meat, like vitamin B12, and also vitamins B3, B6, A, and D, which we can’t find in good quantities in plants. Iron, for example, is up to five times more digestible in its heme form, which is found in meat.

Michael Taksyak: Will consumers accept cultivated meat as an alternative to meat from animals?

Didier Toubia: Consumers today are looking for new solutions for animal proteins. A recent study we conducted in the US and in the UK shows that up to 80 percent of the market is open to cultivated meat; among Gen Zers, it’s more than 90 percent. We believe cultivated meat is here to solve the meat paradox. Let me explain what I mean by that: in the US, 23 percent of consumers claim that they’re reducing their meat consumption; yet, meat consumption in the country continues to grow.

Cultivated meat is bringing to the consumer the same meat we know today with similar nutritional profiles—and with the same sensory properties in terms of texture, taste, flavor—and culinary properties, but without the downsides.

Cultivated meat is bringing to the consumer the same meat we know today with similar nutritional profiles—and with the same sensory properties in terms of texture, taste, flavor.

Another factor that might lead to consumer acceptance: cultivated meat can be highly sustainable. Aleph Farms has committed to being carbon neutral by 2025, for Scopes 1 and 2 emissions, meaning on the production side and energy-wise. And we seek to add Scope 3 by 2030.

Michael Taksyak: How will vegetarians and vegans perceive cultivated meat?

Didier Toubia: It’s important to understand that cultivated meat is meat, and it is primarily intended for meat eaters. However, we do believe that many vegetarians would eat cultivated meat, because we inherently address their concerns in terms of the environment, ethics, and animal welfare.

We assume that many vegans—who are often a few steps ahead of vegetarians in terms of taking the animal entirely out of the economic equation—might have more hesitations switching to cultivated meat because we still rely on real animal cells to produce our meat.

Michael Taksyak: What are the biggest hurdles for the industry to overcome so it can become an at-scale phenomenon?

Didier Toubia: The first one is to build the right production platforms and technologies to allow for quick and efficient scale-up of production at a cost that would come quickly in line with conventional meat prices.

Scale will not be enough to reduce the cost. I think it’s a misperception to think that just assembling existing technologies that have been transferred from the biomedical industry and scaling up production will be enough to reduce the cost to a level that will make cultivated meat competitive on price.

We also need deep-tech innovation, and that’s what we do. At Aleph Farms, we’re innovating horizontally and vertically within the production process to make sure that we incorporate breakthrough technologies to lead on this.

The second key challenge for the cultivated-meat industry, in our view, is to meet the consumers’ expectations. Expectations are high, and we don’t want to rush to market with products that are not good enough and would not meet those expectations. At Aleph Farms, we believe that the focus on quality products will be key to drive this long-term acceptance.

Michael Taksyak: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted this industry?

Didier Toubia: COVID-19 has accelerated a lot of trends in the market. For instance, there is more demand for resilience within food production, beyond just efficiency. And cultivated meat can provide more resilient production systems and meet expectations for transparency and traceability of the supply chain, as well as more security.

Many countries, especially in Asia and the Middle East, have accelerated their plans for incorporating new production methods locally. Cultivated meat can also help here. Cultivated meat really fits into the trends of the food system.

Michael Taksyak: How can existing food companies participate in this new growth area?

Didier Toubia: There are great food companies out there that are really going through significant transitions toward more sustainable and healthier food products. Beyond this important type of innovation, you also need more transformative innovation. You need to add approaches that incorporate new processes, new production systems, and new types of products. The combination of both types of innovation can accelerate the transition we all need.

Overall, we see an industry where many of the market-leading food and meat companies see cultivated meat as a diversification of their supply and a way to accelerate their programs toward more sustainable food. So we do see a lot of openness in the market.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

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