Brno start-up wins millions in investment money to grow pork in lab

We’ve all seen the headlines about how animal agriculture is one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters and contributes to climate change. At the same time, most people are not willing to give up eating meat. How can we solve this conundrum? Entrepreneur Roman Lauš may have the answer – his Brno-based foodtech start-up aims to grow pork in a lab using cell cultures from pigs.

By now it’s already well-known – meat is bad for the environment. By almost every metric you can think of – greenhouse gas emissions, land and water use, biodiversity loss, and deforestation – meat production is one of the worst environmental offenders, and it’s only going to get worse with a growing global population.

Environmental activists and animal rights defenders have long been calling for more people to reduce their meat consumption or cut it out altogether – but what about those of us for whom that feels difficult or impossible? Are there any options for people who want to eat meat but don’t want to hurt animals or the environment?

Well – there may be. Mewery is, in its own words, “the first European foodtech startup developing cultivated pork on a proprietary microalgae base”. I asked founder and CEO Roman Lauš what this means exactly.

“So first of all, let’s start with what cultivated meat is all about. Basically, there is a new emerging market called alternative protein, which meets the need for protein in the growing worldwide population and the need for meat alternatives. These alternative proteins are solving this challenge we have ahead of us, not only climate change, but also antibiotic resistance and a growing population.

One of the main alternatives which you might already know, either from supermarkets here in the Czech Republic or worldwide, are plant-based alternatives, which is something that pretends to be meat, it’s very close to meat, but still in terms of texture and taste it’s not really there, and it’s mainly for vegans and vegetarians.

Roman Lauš | Photo: archive of Roman Lauš

But the new emerging part of alternative protein is cultivated meat, which is basically meat that you make from cells – so you take a tissue or a stem cell from the animal, and then you cultivate it in an environment which mimics the animal itself. So basically you are bringing the cells of the animal into an environment where cells can grow and divide, so they can also become the desired type of cell which grows into meat.

Meat is basically muscle cells, fat cells, and – to put it in lay terms – an in-between mass in between the cells themselves.”

I’ve found that when I tell people about cultivated meat, the reaction is often ‘eugh - meat grown in a lab! How disgusting and unnatural!‘ What do you say to those people? How are you going to convince them to try your products?

“Definitely – of course, this is a relevant point, because it is a very new technology which has never been used for food before. And yet if you ask people “What was in that hotdog that you ate today?”, they don’t know - that would be my first question. There's a common assumption that meat is basically healthy. But if you go deeper then you start to realise that it’s not so healthy – it causes heart attacks and cancers and a lot of diseases we encounter. And if you go even deeper, you realise that we hardly know what the sausages and hot dogs we eat consist of.

So this approach of cultivating cells in the lab, it’s a very different way of tracing what the meat is really made of. It’s a very sterile environment, the labs have to have a very high standard of safety and sterility where you can work with cells. So if you compare these two methods, you have a very traceable and very clear way of proving what you have in the medium, and you can also show what the end product consists of.

Photo: Mewery

So there will be a lot of education needed on the customer acceptance side – this is one of the challenges and it comes with all new emerging technologies. So there will be a lot of education needed on that level. What people need to understand is that you can have a new method of getting meat without having to kill any animals. This would be my first argument to consider.

And the second is that climate change is getting more and more serious and people are starting to realise that this is also a way of contributing, without changing your diet by becoming vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian - there is an alternative which is cleaner, healthier, and more nutrient-rich.

One really needs to understand that the process of cultivating meat in the lab is just another process by which cells grow. It’s not Frankenstein-meat, it’s not something completely strange – these methods have been used in pharma for many years.

The way we get meat now through industrial farming to our table is not sustainable – it cannot survive. So this is one of the options – not the only one, but one - for how to make our world more sustainable and to also get protein to an ever-growing population.”

Are you the first Czech startup to work on developing cell-cultured meat, or are there others?

“There is one more startup here in the Czech Republic, but we are the only ones cultivating pork and using microalgae technology.”

Why are you focussing on pork specifically? Isn’t beef much worse for the environment?

“There are a couple of reasons – firstly, we want to pioneer porcine cells, because on the academic level it’s not really developed, the protocols are not publicly known and there is still a lot of research to be done, so this is one reason that we are pioneering that front.

The second reason is that pork is the second-most consumed meat in the world, and number one in Europe and Asia. So we believe that our technology can take a significant part of the pork market.

Another reason is competition – most of the companies worldwide focus on beef or poultry, and we see it as a competitive advantage.”

Will the texture and taste really be the same as real pork? Would people not be able to tell the difference in a blind taste test?

“There have already been quite a lot of blind taste tests by some of the biggest US companies with professional food critics or analysts, and always with the same result – they could not tell the difference. So I believe it will be the same for us – until I have it on your plate I cannot say for sure, I don’t like to promise something that I cannot prove at the moment. But what is really clear and I really want to point that out – I always say, to simplify, we are creating meat from meat.”

Will the product be affordable for the ordinary consumer? In 2013, the world’s first lab-grown burger was served at a London news conference, funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, but it cost $330,000 to create. Is it cheaper to create cell-cultured meat now, and if so – why?

Photo: Hans Braxmeier,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED

“Yes, definitely. Speaking generally, the price parity with conventional meat will definitely be here by the end of the decade, to be very realistic. Of course, there are companies out there claiming they are already almost there, and they are going to market with tons and tons of produced meat – but there is still a way to go, in my opinion. But I think it’s inevitable that we will get to the point where we have price parity.

The main factor is basically the cost of scale-up – to be able to produce enough meat for consumers to be able to enter the market and capture a significant part of it. At Mewery, we are trying to develop our unique technology which is based on microalgae, and decrease the cost of cultivation by 70%. And we believe that by 2026 we can enter the market.”

With the outlook for Mewery products being available on supermarket shelves and in restaurants still some years away, you can’t look forward to your first taste of clean meat just yet – but now with the financial backing of venture capital fund Big Idea Ventures, it seems that an ever increasing number of people believe in its core idea and want it to succeed.