This article was co-authored by Olly Beswestherick
“Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
—Winston Churchill, 1931
Worldwide meat consumption is projected to soar to 73% by 20501 due to a rapidly rising population. It can be argued our current structure of agricultural food production is simply not viable for such a future. The search for alternatives to traditional meat has never been greater with: high costs, animal welfare issues, health concerns over chemicals, hormones and drugs use, sustainability issues, and environmental impact – all factors influencing the need for alternatives.
Lab-grown meat has the potential to help solve many of these problems. Whilst almost 90 years have passed since Churchill’s once science fiction-esque prediction, recent developments in the field – or petri dish – are finally drawing significant commercial attention.
The term lab-grown meat (also known as cultured or clean meat) refers to meat produced by the in vitro cultivation of animal cells. In a simplified overview, animal-acquired tissue samples are grown in the lab on a 3D scaffold where they replicate into muscle spindles and fibres, before being bathed in a defined solution of vitamins, growth factors and other such nutrients. Once matured, the muscle (i.e. meat) is harvested and processed to make it recipe-ready for the kitchen.
Compared to conventional farmed meat, lab-grown meat has fewer environmental impacts and could be considered healthier, safer and purer owing to its industrially defined production2. This also presents new possibilities of tailoring the constitutive make-up of the nourishment: meat could be made with a lower level of saturated fat, whilst boosting its nutritional value, for example. Meat purists may recoil, but whole new fields of nutraceuticals may be opening up offering tailored treatments for myriad conditions. Further new possibilities of offering low cost protein-rich foods to people in desperate need may be on the horizon.
Unlike plant-based “fake” alternatives on our supermarket shelves today, lab-grown meat is far closer to the real deal: directly engineered from animal tissue culture with the potential to serve the same texture, and taste, of regular meat, which arguably isn’t offered with these soy-based and/or wheat-gluten-based alternatives.
It’s this similarity to conventional meat, as enjoyed by some 89% of the world’s non-vegetarian or vegan population3, that’s gained lab-grown meat research significant traction over the past few years. Bill Gates made a recent investment in lab-grown meat companies – including a CRISPR-based biotech start-up – following his declaration that “there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people”, and that more options are needed for producing meat without depleting resources4.
Further commercial attention has arisen from a variety of meaty PR stunts. In 2013 for example, Dr Mark Post of Mosa Meat pioneered a proof-of-concept lab-grown beef burger made of muscle fibres derived from cow stem cells. Cooked and tasted live on air in London, the burger became a synthetic sensation, attracting hype on social media around the globe. The caveat was the hefty price tag on the menu: Dr Post’s clean burger cost €250,000 to manufacture5. Nevertheless, the pioneering patty marked an important milestone, proving to the world that lab-grown meat is scientifically possible. The next question on the minds of consumers – and indeed entrepreneurs and investors – was how to make cultured meat commercially viable.
The appetite for lab-grown meat has exponentially increased since 2013. For the iconic 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing, Israel-based startup Aleph Farms arranged for the production of lab-grown steaks aboard the International Space Station to raise further awareness for this alternative to conventional farming6. The steaks, quite literally, have never been higher, as is evidenced by a surge of biotechnology and food manufacturing start-ups in recent years. As competition starts to sizzle, companies look to obtain a taste of the future profits by securing intellectual property within the field.
The first lab-grown meat patent was granted in the US in December 2004 to American entrepreneur Jon F. Vein, for his method for producing tissue engineered meat for human consumption. The patent claims methods that produce cultured meat through the use of scaffolding, or seeding cells onto a support structure. Now owned by Just, Inc. the patent is set to expire in 2022, but Just’s head of IP Wayne Szeto has routinely pushed licencing opportunities towards other companies concerned about freedom to operate, stating that “this is not going to be ‘play with us or don’t play at all’7.
Other significant contenders in the lab-grown meat industry include Memphis Meats, Future Meat, Modern Meadow and Integriculture. The former two companies have pending patent applications in areas of genetic engineering and small molecules, respectively, for the production of cultured meat, alongside a menu of further pending applications including a particular cultured meat composition by Aleph Farms. Modern Meadow owns granted patents in the field in Australia, China, Europe, Japan and the US, whilst Integriculture has a granted patent in Japan.
The patent landscape for lab-grown meat production thus seems somewhat free-range, but it is growing fast. Whilst it can be easy to overlook quite how young the industry is, this highlights the rich opportunities ahead for companies innovating in this field. As the worldwide best-before date for commercial farmed meat appears set to expire, the need for widely palatable alternatives – and the need for significant investment – mean having strong IP in the field is essential as its commerciality begins to mature.
An analysis of patent landscapes and understanding freedom to operate is a crucial part of developing a solid IP strategy, but the key to gaining a foothold in the industry and securing investment is building your own IP portfolio around your technology. At GJE, our highly experienced patent attorneys in our biotechnology group will help you to develop an effective IP strategy to support you in successfully taking your invention from petri-dish to plate.
If you would like to discuss your intellectual property needs, please get in touch with Ross Cummings or one of the other members of our biotechnology team via firstname.lastname@example.org
- org. (2012). World Agriculture towards 2030/2050.
- Bhat, Z., Kumar, S. and Fayaz, H. (2015). In vitro meat production: Challenges and benefits over conventional meat production. Journal of Integrative Agriculture, 14(2), pp.241-248.
- “An exploration into diets around the world” (PDF). Game Changers, Ipsos. 1 August 2018.