Business / Tech

Japanese startup IntegriCulture dreams of feeding world with cheap meat fresh from the lab

by Keita Nakamura

Kyodo

Yuki Hanyu won’t put a time frame on it, but believes the day will come when the world’s burgeoning population will be able to eat its fill of meat — and all without a single animal being slaughtered.

It was with this bold vision that Hanyu, co-founder and CEO of startup IntegriCulture Inc., quit his job as a corporate researcher five years ago to join the ranks of entrepreneurs around the world taking on the still formidable challenge of moving synthetic meat from the lab to the dinner table.

“Cultured meat has been appearing in a lot of sci-fi animation series, but it doesn’t exist in our daily lives. So I thought I would take it on,” said Hanyu, 34, who has a doctorate in chemistry from Oxford University.

Given a growing and developing world population, demand for meat is expected to rise globally, creating both supply and climate change challenges.

But while this has already spurred interest in pseudo-meats made from plants and protein-rich insects, Hanyu is looking for ways to make it practical to mass-produce so-called cultured meat, a material grown from cells in labs that remains far too costly for the average consumer.

Global beef consumption is estimated to reach 72.5 million tons in 2028, up 17 percent from the average from 2015 to 2018, a report by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry’s Policy Research Institute said in March. Pork consumption is predicted to reach 130.8 million tons and chicken 116.1 million tons, up 16 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

After earning his doctorate, Hanyu worked as a researcher at Tohoku University and then at Toshiba Corp.’s Corporate Research and Development Center before co-founding his company with a colleague in Tokyo in 2015.

Its doors opened for business just two years after a “lab-grown” hamburger with a 140-gram cultured beef patty developed by a Dutch researcher attracted worldwide attention when it was served at a tasting event in London. The headlines partly focused on the fact that it cost some £250,000 (¥33.9 million) to produce.

Hanyu says the key to addressing the cost hurdle facing cell culture technology has been finding a way to artificially produce the growth hormones needed to stimulate cell growth rather than using prohibitively expensive naturally produced hormones.

“Originally, growth factors are made by organs inside the body, so we tried to ‘reproduce’ the internal system in which organs make growth hormones and cells interact with each other,” said Hanyu.

“For example, we make a pseudo-liver by culturing liver cells in a tank, then connect them with other ‘organs’ through ‘blood vessels,’ namely, tubes.”

Since being installed at its office last November, the laboratory-scale system, which has already been patented, has undergone repeated trial runs.

But while Hanyu believes the cost of producing a kilogram of cultured meat can be reduced to as little as ¥200 in theory, the firm’s process still costs about ¥20,000 to ¥200,000 per kilogram, depending on the type of cells used.

“I have no idea when we will realize this, but the key is how we will be able to increase the system in size and improve its efficiency.”

Another major issue is the unmeat-like appearance and lack of texture under current technology. Hanyu admits cultured beef is “no more than a mass of cells, or meat paste.”

In cooperation with a research team from Tokyo Women’s Medical University, the company has begun a study to determine how to create fiber or intramuscular fat inside cultured meat.

Hanyu believes global expectations for mass producing cultured meat are high, not only from the viewpoint of food shortages but also environmental conservation.

On a calorific basis, over a third of all farm products in the world are consumed as livestock feed, and over 80 percent of all cropland is used for the livestock industry in one way or another, according to reports by European and American researchers cited by IntegriCulture.

“The impact made by eating meat on the global environment is huge,” said Hanyu.

The company believes it is technologically possible to produce any kind of meat, including pork, chicken and even fish, and has set a goal of selling “cultured foie gras” to restaurants by 2021 and mass merchandising it by 2023.

Hanyu’s company is far from alone in its ambitions. In March, for instance, Nissin Foods Holdings Co., the instant noodle maker known for its signature product Cup Noodle, announced it had succeeded in creating a diced steak about 1 cubic centimeter in volume from cow muscle cells.

Japanese stock farmers are also trying to enter the field. Meat producer Toriyama Chikusan Shokuhin Co. established a partnership with San Francisco-based Just Inc. last year aiming to bring cultured wagyu to the global market in the future.

But Hanyu has an even bigger dream, which is to see his synthetic products one day being made and eaten in outer space.

Many believe that if human life is ever to become sustainable on other planets, it will be essential to come up with methods to supply some foods on the spot. The focus among experts in some countries has been on the potential of cultured plants or algae.

Hanyu said, however, that cultured plants are an “imperfect source” of protein, let alone a basis for a “satisfying” diet.

His company, he said, is already working with Tokyo Women’s Medical University and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) on a project to cultivate animal cells together with algae.

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