Delivering a new culture of meat eating

March 8, 2021

In a spacious, custom-made laboratory in the heart of Newcastle, a small team of scientists are painstakingly working around the clock on cultured meat technology, which is set to revolutionise the food industry and dinner tables across the world. But the goals of the six guys and gals in white coats are more than taking biotechnology and experiments to new places; they are a necessity. Current global meat production is not sustainable, and it remains reliant on animal agriculture and slaughter, which is detrimental to the environment, contributes heavily to increases in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, soil degradation, water stress and coastal ‘dead’ zones. The message is clearly getting through, though. The Vegan Society estimates 13 million Britons will have become meat-free by the end of 2020, and the market has taken off in the last 18 months with supermarkets and multi-national fast-food outlets offering countless vegan ranges and plant-based products. Deliveroo alone reported a 163 per cent spike in vegan orders during the first COVID-19 lockdown last year. And there is another alternative for meat-lovers. The cell-based agriculture methods being developed by biotech start-up CellulaREvolution in The Biosphere, based on Newcastle’s new Helix science district, will offer a long-term alternative to slaughtered meat. And, after securing £1 million from a set of strategic investors including CPT Capital, Stephan Schmidt, Orange Light Ventures, and funds managed by Northstar Ventures, the North East Innovation Fund Supported by the European Regional Development Fund, and the newly-launched Northern Accelerator Seed Investment Fund (NASIF), the new company is on track to support the delivery of cultured meat at real scale.

Dr Martina Miotto places her red overcoat on the hanger in her new Biosphere base and takes a seat at her desk, resisting the temptation to reach for the white lab coat on the back of the door, which has been like a second skin for most of her life.

Her team of six are in the laboratory on the other side of the glass where she will be stationed for most of her working day and they have matters in hand.

The future of our food is in those hands. And they know it. Hands which are developing the technology to transform the food we eat.

Here comes the science. Cell-based agriculture creates products from cell cultures, rather than whole plants or animals, taking a sample of cells from a live animal and placing them in a bioreactor. The cells are fed a nutrient- rich soup that enables them to grow and divide. Trillions of cells can be produced from a small sample and once enough cells are produced, they are turned into developed muscle and fat cells through a process called differentiation, before normal food processing technologies are used to form the final product – meat.

But it is expensive, and the industry faces significant hurdles as it works to move from the lab to the supermarket, particularly bringing down the price of cultured meat production and delivering at a scale necessary to achieve price parity with traditional meat.

And that’s where CellulaREvolution comes in – it is developing two products to address these issues.

First, a synthetic peptide coating that allows for cell culturing without animal serum and secondly, a new approach in how to culture cells that could represent a significant change in the cultured meat industry’s ability to produce at scale.

Martina says: “We have developed a continuous cell culture process that means cultured meat can now be produced quicker, more efficiently and in far greater quantities.

“Our innovative approach eliminates the animal-derived serum from the process.

“This allows the production of a truly ‘clean’ ethical product.

“CellulaREvolution’s bioreactor technology decouples cell production from the surface area available by releasing cells continuously.

“By moving to continuous cell production, the area required to grow cells can be drastically reduced – this increases yield and lowers production costs.

“It is quite common outside of biotech, and a lot of industries have made that switch from batch to continuous processes.

“If you think of the oil and gas industry, most of their processes are run in a continuous way,” adds Martina.

“It is a matter of translating that approach to cell manufacturing. That has not been done before and that is what we are trying to do.

“It is very exciting for different reasons, not only because of the fact we are doing research, have good technology and are really translating our work into areas that can have an impact.

“I am learning a lot of new things too.

“For example, we are developing a bioreactor that requires interdisciplinary work between biologists and engineers and I’m learning a lot about bio-processing and engineering.”

Preliminary simulations suggest that over a 30-day period CellulaREvolution’s approach can produce twice the number of cells in a six times smaller bioreactor compared to a batch system.

The ultimate aim is to ‘lower production costs per cell’, cutting the cost to produce cultured meat.

As the founding partner of the business, there are sponsors, clients and collaborators for Martina to attend to and the novelty of spending hours at a desk, laptop open, phones at the ready, planning and organising, has far from worn off.

“It’s a tricky question,” she admits.

“If you had asked me after my PhD, I would say I definitely preferred being in the lab.

“At this stage, though, I like both.

“I look at my calendar knowing it will be a mixture of meetings with our amazing staff to structure the work, plan the work, with meetings, updates, troubleshooting and problem-solving.

“It is more or less like that every day because when you are doing experiments there is always something to troubleshoot or optimise.

“I sit in front of the window overlooking the lab, so I am always looking inside and if I have a moment I do go in there.

“I have the lab coat on the door always ready.”

Martina’s mother Tiziana is a clinician at the local hospital near their small village in northern Italy, and she grasped the intricacies of the human body before she could read and write, igniting a passion and an extraordinary academic career that saw her awarded Newcastle University’s Enterprise Scholarship and a prestigious Enterprise Fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Such a passion for STEM brought her permanently to Newcastle and to her role of chief scientific officer of CellulaREvolution, which is a Northern Accelerator and Newcastle University spin-out.

She co-founded the company in 2019 with Professor Che Connon, the firm’s chief technical officer, and its chief executive Leo Groenewegen.

Martina was originally Che’s PhD student, and he supported and encouraged her to pursue the commercial potential of her research into tissue engineering and its real-world application.

CellulaREvolution benefited from Northern Accelerator’s ‘Executives into Business’ programme, which provided them with Leo to run the company, as well as financial support to steer the prospective spin-out through the early commercialisation process.

Thanks to her PhD mentor Che, Martina is now on the verge of an exciting leap into the business world, with large US food companies in particular watching the Tyneside biotechnological developments with interest.

They have recently secured £1 million from a set of investors that includes CPT Capital, Stephan Schmidt, Orange Light Ventures, and funds managed by Northstar Ventures, the North East Innovation Fund and the Northern Accelerator Seed Investment Fund.

It very nearly didn’t happen, however.

Martina almost followed her mother into the medical world before a change in focus, and it is perhaps fitting her work with CellulaREvolution has also identified potential applications in the medical and pharmaceutical industries, around areas such as the production of cell-based therapies, blood products or viral vectors.

“My mother studied medicine at the University of Bologna, and I remember at a very early age she had two big books of the Grey’s Anatomy, so before I was learning how to read, I was actually picking those books up and looking at the amazing images of anatomy,” says Martina.

“At high school, I did maths, physics, biology and chemistry, but I didn’t know what to do at university.

“I was very close to my high school friend Mattia and when he told me he was going to do biotechnology, I said, ‘ok, I will do that with you then and see what happens’.

“After completing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Ferrara, in northern Italy, I moved to Newcastle University to complete my PhD, where I graduated in 2018.

Martina continues: “A brilliant mentor in Italy gave me the opportunity to go to a conference in Nottingham where I met Che.

“I wanted to do a PhD and we got talking about an international experience and he said he might have something coming up in Newcastle.

“I’d never heard of Newcastle, however. I had been to London twice as a tourist, but that was it.

“I really liked it straight away, though.

“Newcastle is the perfect size for me; the people are very friendly, and it has been like a new home, though I quickly had to get used to the cold and windy weather!”

Italy’s loss has very much been Newcastle – and the UK’s gain – with Martina now overseeing CellulaREvolution’s plans to supply cultured meat companies with its bioreactors and continuous growth chambers.

The bioreactors are a capital investment for most companies and the firm believes future commercial arrangements will have two components: direct purchase and maintenance and service agreements.

There are ongoing collaborations with several cultured meat companies, signed up to jointly test their specific cell lines with CellulaREvolution’s technology and the company is confident its first sale is imminent.

“The work we are doing is important for different reasons,” Martina explains.

“It is important on the ethical perspective and it is important on the environmental perspective.

“As we all know, the impact farming has been having on our planet has been quite significant and the population is growing and expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050.

“In terms of meat consumption, it seems the trend is more people are eating more meat, so there is not going to be enough for everyone and the impact is quite significant.

“We need to find alternatives to that and one of those is plant-based products.

“They are good and, I do eat them myself now and again, but you have to take them as a different thing. They don’t really taste like meat.

“Cultured meat is addressed at meat lovers, people who really like meat, but they recognise the impact on the planet and the ethical implication of killing animals.

“It addresses taste and those kinds of issues, because the idea is to have a product which is the same as animal meat, but you don’t have to slaughter the animal to have it.

“Nutritionally, we are quite far away, but the technology is still in its very early stages.

“The whole idea is to have exactly the same nutritional characteristics as normal meat.

“For that, we are developing an artificial environment that allows cells recreating how meat is produced in the animal and end up with a product that is indistinguishable from real meat.

“At the moment, because it is technically quite challenging, most of the cultured meat products are a combination between some cells and some plant-based product.

“This is the first wave of product incorporating cultured meat.”

And Martina accepts that while the population is becoming increasingly knowledgeable on the environmental implications of our current meat consumption and production, education on cultured meat alternatives will be necessary to help drive CellulaREvolution in the commercial world.

She adds: “It is one reason why the name has changed from clean meat to cultured or cultivated meat because it gave the impression of something that was very artificial.

“It is important we educate people that it is nothing to be scared about and that because something is made in a lab it doesn’t mean it isn’t natural.

“It is exactly the same as meat and it is important to change that perception, particularly in countries where there is quite strong cultural passion for meat- eating and food.

“Studies are showing that more people are willing to try it, though.

“Some companies are saying it could be five to ten years before we see large scale production.

“Technically it is challenging, but in five to ten years we will have a product that is a good mix between plant-based and cultured meat, with increasing numbers of cultured meat cells.

“In a lot of conferences they use a quote from Churchill, who said, ’there will come a time when we will not have to grow the whole chicken, but just the hind’.

“Things are changing, and we are arriving at that point, one step at the time.

“I would like to make the dream come true to finalise what we are planning on the technological perspective and see our machines working and really making an impact on the markets we are targeting.”

Dr Martina Miotto