It’s a milestone for the industry, though specifics—surprise?—are still hazy.
On Wednesday, cell-cultured meat company Memphis Meats announced it had raised $161 million in a Series B funding round, and that it would spend some of that money building the country’s second cell-cultured meat production plant. The company plans to break ground in the Bay Area.
Spokesperson David Kay said in an email that the pilot plant is expected to be operational within 18 to 24 months. The meat will be produced by growing muscle and connective tissue in a vessel the company calls a “cultivator.” The whole process takes four to six weeks.
Memphis Meats announced it had developed a cell-cultured meatball in 2016, then followed that up with cell-cultured poultry in 2017. But there’s a long road between a flashy launch video and the grocery store shelf. According to Kay, the company’s timeline for entering the market is largely dependent on the regulatory process, which is determined by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. “As soon as the regulatory path to market is clarified, we will be ready to start selling products at a small scale,” he wrote. “To get to market at a more meaningful scale, we will need to build additional infrastructure, which is why the pilot production facility is such an important next step for us.”
And then there’s the cost: Food and Wine reported a single pound of lab-grown beef cost $18,000 to make in 2017. That number is expected to fall quickly as production scales: In late 2019, CEO Uma Valeti told Wired the process had become orders of magnitude more efficient.
This protracted timeline hasn’t stopped investors like SoftBank Group (recently of WeWork fame), Bill Gates, and Richard Branson from investing in the company. Food companies including Tyson Foods and Cargill have gotten in on the action, too. There’s plenty of precedent, even in the relatively small alt-meat space, for pouring money into beefless burgers long before they make it to Burger King: Back in early 2016, long before the Impossible Burger hit White Castle, we reported that its parent company Impossible Foods had raised $183 million in venture capital.
Today, the Impossible Burger is starting to look like a success. Since we wrote that story, it’s launched in restaurants and grocery stores across the nation. It recently announced plans to develop pork products. And it attained a $2 billion valuation in May 2019—up from $800 million in 2016. Reuters reports the company is aiming to double that number in the next round of funding.
The company’s plant in the Bay Area will be only the second in the world to attempt to turn cells into tissue at scale.
Yet plenty of other highly capitalized food companies have failed, despite breathless coverage in the press. Remember Munchery, the on-demand delivery startup that raised a total of $125 million? It shuttered almost exactly a year ago. And then there was Blue Apron, which had raised $135 million, then went public in 2017. Today, its stock price has sunk to less than $5—and that’s after the 15-to-1 reverse stock split the company announced in June. Without this move, the stock would be fifteen times lower than it is today.
Still, investors hope that Memphis Meats is the real deal, not another overhyped food failure—and its new production plant may be a sign those dreams of alt-meat dominance are getting less abstract. The company’s plant in the Bay Area will be only the second in the country to attempt to turn cells into tissue at scale. The first was opened by Eat Just, Inc. in mid-2019.
Kay wrote that Memphis Meats will likely begin offering its products in restaurants at first, adding that chefs and diners can provide clear, immediate feedback. Impossible followed the same playbook, launching the Impossible Whopper at Burger King months before it reached supermarket shelves; Just Inc. (formerly Hampton Creek) launched its eggless egg scramble in restaurants first, too.
Cell-cultured meat has been on the horizon for years. Perhaps, with this $161 million infusion, we’ll all get to taste it soon.
Correction January 23, 2020: Memphis Meats will open the second cell-cultured meat production in the country, not the first. The first was opened by Eat JUST, Inc., in mid-2019 but not publicized.