As the world’s collective wealth grows, so does the consumption of resources, including meat. The startup Memphis Meats aims to take the animal out of the equation while still satisfying meat lovers by growing meat from animal cells, which also could theoretically reduce land and water usage when compared to raising farm animals.
Stephen Hsu, a 2012 Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) alumnus who received his Master of Business and Science (MBS) degree, now works as a bioprocess engineer for Memphis Meats’ process development team. He emphasizes that the product his company is developing is completely different from plant-based products such as the Impossible Burger, which mimic the taste of meat, in that cell-based meat is derived from animals and thus is real meat.
“Strangely enough, what we’re doing is not that new,” Hsu said. “In fact, the idea has been thought about way back in the 1920s when biologists were first playing around with growing cells outside of an animal. From a technological standpoint, though, we haven’t been able to fully explore this possibility until just the past couple decades.”
He cites innovations in stem cell research and tissue engineering for medical purposes as key influences, which then prompted scientists to consider how the same work they were doing with human cells could be applied to animal cells. The seminal work came in 2013, when the world’s first lab-grown burger was consumed at a news conference in London, receiving positive feedback from food critics.
Memphis Meats was formed by cardiologist Uma Valeti and cell biologist Nicholas Genovese. Although Valeti is a licensed cardiologist, the goal of meat without animals is one of the reasons he started the company.
The company obtains animal cells from biopsies and other methods, and feeds the cells essential micronutrients needed to grow and develop. While it may take months or years to grow a full animal, developing the cells into meat is on the order of a few weeks to a few months, which now includes beef, duck, and chicken.
In order to best mimic physiological systems, cells are traditionally cultivated in animal blood serum. Memphis Meats, as well as other cell-based meat companies, are actively researching alternatives to the serum as it is both costly and detracts from the main purpose, which is to produce meat in the most ethical, minimally invasive way possible.
Currently, the main challenges the company faces are reducing costs, making their process scalable, navigating regulatory hurdles as they work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and United States Department of Agriculture to fully clarify the regulatory path to market, and educating the public about cell-based products.
When the 2013 lab-grown burger debuted, some people characterized it as “Frankenmeat.” However, there is now widespread support for cell-based meat—survey data suggests that roughly two-thirds of Americans would eat cell-based meat—as awareness around the ills of factory farming, from both an ethical and public health viewpoint, grows.
After graduating from KGI, Hsu worked in biopharmaceuticals, most notably as a Senior Research Associate for Gilead Sciences. He was drawn to Memphis Meats for the challenge of working in a completely new field.
“Now we have different species to play around with,” Hsu said. “In the biopharma industry, there are a limited number of species that companies generally work with to produce recombinant proteins. While you may have specific cell lines that have different phenotypes and different ways of growing, with new species in the equation, the scientific challenge is much more fascinating.”
They still have a long road ahead of them before the product reaches the market, but Hsu is committed to the company’s mission.
“If we can change the food production system, that will have a positive impact on the environment and animal welfare,” Hsu said. “Additionally, minimizing the carbon footprint could be game changing in terms of climate change. That’s why I joined the company—to see if we can make it a reality.”