Food Tech

This startup wants to invent brand new forms of meat

Vow Food is experimenting with cells from 22 species, including crocodile and alpaca.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Upside Foods

· 4 min read

From juicy ribeyes to sushi-grade salmon, cultivated-meat companies have grand plans to reproduce the most popular proteins in the world. Their bet is that consumers will eventually switch to lab-grown versions of their favorite filets, due to the significant ethical and environmental advantages they can offer over traditional meat production.

But Australia-based Vow Food is placing a different bet: It wants to bioengineer entirely new, better forms of meat.

“We can just invent entirely new types of meat that are going to become as abundant, well-recognized, and well-understood as a Cheerio is, 80 years in the future,” Vow founder and CEO George Peppou said in June during a talk at New Harvest, an annual cellular-agriculture conference.

Vow announced its first brand—a cultivated-quail product dubbed Morsel—in May, and pending regulatory review, it will be available at one high-end restaurant in Singapore later this year, Peppou told us. It also just finished building its first factory in its hometown of Sydney, which will produce Morsel. Peppou declined to share exactly what Morsel’s made of, but told us that up front you get some “umami, roasted chicken” flavors before it melts in your mouth “like a beef brisket” and concludes with some “seafood notes.”

Cultivated meat is still unproven at scale, and right now it’s only legal to sell in Singapore. But the space is drawing more and more investment as the industry pushes for regulatory approval in the US and elsewhere: Since 2020, investors have poured at least $2.4 billion into cultivated-meat startups. McKinsey predicts cultivated meat could be a $25 billion industry by 2030, accounting for as much as 0.5% of the world’s meat supply. Even so, some experts are skeptical that the industry will ever be able to scale and compete with traditional meat producers.

Fantastical filets

According to a peer-reviewed article from May 2021, 71% of US adults said they’re at least somewhat likely to try cultivated meat as a replacement for traditional meat. Just under half (49%) said they’re at least somewhat likely to pay a premium for cultivated meat, which could be a necessity for at least the first decade it’s on shelves.

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Jenn Creevy, head of food and drink at WGSN, expects interest to “go up dramatically over the next couple of years” as cultivated-meat companies make an effort to educate consumers on, among other things, how the cellular sausage gets made.

When it comes to more experimental forms of cultivated meat like what Vow is offering, Creevy said it will probably appeal to a certain type of adventurous consumer, but for the masses, “it will be a struggle, and it will come many years behind the cell-based chicken.”

Peppou told us that the mainstream, imitative approach to cultivated meat is a “very tough business to be in,” both because he argues it will lead to a low-margin, high-volume commodity business, and because “we don’t believe consumers will change their behavior if we offer them what they already have.”

He said that’s why the startup, which has raised $6.8 million since its founding in 2019, mostly via a January 2021 seed round, is focused instead on creating new forms of meat.

“[Morsel is] not a perfect product: It’s expensive, it comes in relatively small pieces, it’s going to be very limited in its availability. But it’s not intended to replace your…everyday meat,” Peppou told us. “It will be for many people their first contact with cultured meat, and their first contact with this notion that cultured meat can be something that animal meat isn’t.”

Longer-term, Peppou said, Vow is working on more mainstream products that “look a lot like mince.” As it researches those products, it has the luxury of being unconstrained by specific animal biologies, enabling it to mix and match different animal cells in search of a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. The firm is experimenting with ~22 species, Peppou said, ranging from alpaca to crocodile.

“There was a period around 80 years ago where Cheerios were introduced for the first time, and they were this insane novelty,” Peppou said in his New Harvest talk. “For us now, they are so utterly mundane, it’s boring. We have the ability to do the exact same thing with cultured meat and cellular agriculture.”

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