Food Tech

One challenge to scaling cultivated meat? Building a supply chain

Upside Foods COO Amy Chen broke down some of the challenges to us last week.
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Upside Foods

· 4 min read

A few days ago, we had a conversation about everyone’s favorite topic: food. Specifically, food grown from animal cells in stainless-steel cultivators. Using fancy biotech. We’re talkin’ about cultivated meat.

We caught up with Amy Chen, COO of Upside Foods, which recently announced a $400 million Series C—the biggest-ever funding round for a cultivated-meat company. The conversation happened on Twitter Spaces, and you can check out the recording of it by clicking on the tweet embedded below:

Reminder: If cultivated meat can scale in an affordable way—and receive regulatory approval—it could nearly zero out greenhouse-gas emissions, water usage, and land usage related to meat production, according to one Oxford study, and potentially help eliminate factory farming. But at this point, that’s a very big if—and while some analyses have found that achieving such a scale is possible, others have found the opposite.

Last month, Upside announced plans to build a massive facility that can produce tens of millions of pounds of cultivated meat per year. That’s compared to the 50,000-pound annual capacity of its EPIC facility, which opened last November and is currently the largest cultivated-meat facility in North America. For context, Americans ate 27.6 billion pounds of beef in 2020.

  • As COO, Chen, who joined last year after 15 years at PepsiCo, is spearheading the company’s efforts to accelerate production.

“We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress over the last five years in terms of demonstrating out what I would call the sort of proof of concept, and the most fundamental basic questions: ‘Can you grow meat?’ ‘Can animal cells actually grow outside of an animal’s body in a way that is safe and delicious?’ And I think we’ve crossed a lot of those thresholds already,” Chen told us.

Now, she added, “the real question is getting from those smaller, mid-scale proofs of concept to much larger scale.”

Chen said the newly planned facility is “a couple of years” away from being able to produce at the 1 million pound level, and that the company doesn’t have a firm time frame yet.

Scaling up

One of the main barriers the industry faces is a familiar one, according to Chen: supply chain. Specifically, building out a brand new one.

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“Many of the components that we’re talking about—whether it’s amino acids or glucose or salt—some of those exist now, in scales and quantities that are already used in food, and then others have just never been used in food,” Chen said. “So, maybe they’ve had limited application in biotech or in pharma, but they’re not produced at the same quantity that you would need to do what we’re talking about.”

Upside’s animal cells, depending on the product, need to “eat” between 50 and 80 components, ranging from different vitamins to salts, Chen said, and each potential source of those inputs needs to be vetted for safety, quality, scale, logistics, and reliability.

Chen also added that some of the components of Upside’s production process are subject to the supply-chain concerns affecting nearly every industry right now. One example: The cultivators it grows its meat in, which are made of stainless steel—a component that has surged in cost due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It’s not rocket science, but it’s a lot of hard, tactical, detailed work,” Chen said.

Looking ahead…Chen said cultivated meat is likely to remain a premium product for several years after it hits the shelves, but that in a decade or more, the company expects to “march down the cost curve,” and close the price gap, especially if conventional meat continues to rise in cost.

“One of the things we’re laser-focused on in this next chapter is: ‘How do you simultaneously build, scale, and bring down costs?’” she said. “And I think those two things go hand in hand.”

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