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Key Takeaways from our First Cell Ag in Canada Virtual Series Event

We had four Canadian industry leaders sharing their thoughts on where the cell ag industry stands today. If you missed out, we’ve got you covered! Here are the key takeaways from the discussion.

Published March 11, 2024 | Updated March 9, 2024 | Yadira Tejeda-Saldana

In February, we launched the Landscape of Canadian Science and Technology in Cellular Agriculture Virtual Series in collaboration with District 3 Innovation Centre and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC)*. This series is all about creating a space where we can share insights, ask the tough questions, and build meaningful connections among anyone interested in cell ag in Canada. 

Our very first event was a success! We had four industry leaders sharing their thoughts on where the cell ag industry stands today and the hurdles they face as entrepreneurs. And around 80 participants joined us, including government and industry reps. If you missed out, don’t worry! We’ve got you covered.

Here are the key takeaways from the discussion and some questions asked by our attendees for food for thought.

1. Scaling Up and Access to Infrastructure

The panelists emphasized the lack of infrastructure for technologies utilizing mammalian cells, especially compared to more established industries like fermentation. The pharmaceutical industry, often used as a comparable sector, can maintain high prices and doesn’t face the same pressure to reduce costs or scale production as the food industry, which faces distinct challenges. Rather than rushing into large-scale production, the agreement is that collaborative efforts and small-scale optimization could yield better results. Traditional methods of scaling up in biopharma don’t directly apply to cellular agriculture, necessitating adaptation of existing infrastructure and processes for cost efficiency.

While fermentation enjoys a more established status, Canada lacks commercial production infrastructure. Existing infrastructure primarily resides in university settings, requiring outsourcing at potentially higher costs compared to overseas options like China. At present, there’s no definitive blueprint for the required infrastructure for the optimization and production of most cell ag products. However, fostering innovation hubs where similar manufacturers can collaborate is viewed as beneficial for future advancements.

2. Regulatory Approval and Safety Concerns

 The recent approval of a precision fermentation product by Health Canada marks a significant milestone for the industry, setting a precedent and fostering regulatory dialogue. Engaging with regulatory bodies early and openly is crucial to ensure compliance and address safety concerns. However, due to capacity constraints, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) face challenges in addressing regulatory concerns in a timely manner. It’s recognized that modifying complex processes years down the line in response to regulatory concerns could lead to setbacks. 

Encouraging companies to submit safe products for regulatory approval, even if processes aren’t fully scalable, allows for iterative process improvements while ensuring safety and consumer trust. Collaboration among companies for regulatory insights and knowledge sharing is advocated for industry advancement. 

3. Funding and IP Landscape

Navigating IP ownership when collaborating with Canadian universities presents challenges, with universities often retaining IP rights. Surrendering IP rights could impact the economics of startups producing high-volume, low-margin products. This poses obstacles for startups requiring IP ownership for investment purposes. Additionally, some Canadian funding programs mandate collaboration with academic institutions, limiting access to public funding opportunities. There’s a need for mutually beneficial R&D structures to support startups while preserving IP rights. Colleges and Technology Access Centres offer more startup-friendly programs that encourage collaboration. 

A relevant analogy is drawn from the craft beer industry, where sharing recipes through consortiums led to industry growth, suggesting that IP protection might not be necessary.

4. Comparative Analysis with Other Countries

Canada is urged to learn from countries like the Netherlands and Israel, which have fostered supportive ecosystems for startups through collaboration among universities, industries, and governments, leading to innovation and economic development. Establishing structures conducive to collaboration at all stages of the innovation cycle is crucial for retaining companies in Canada.

Infrastructure costs in Canada are relatively high, prompting startups to consider outsourcing overseas to reduce expenses. More affordable infrastructure is needed to support startup growth.

5. Reception of New Technologies

Investing in expensive technology for low-margin commodities is challenging but necessary for industry advancement. Similar to the evolution of the computer industry, technological advancements eventually drive economic feasibility. Startups play a pivotal role in pushing industry boundaries and facilitating growth.

While concerns exist about the impact of new technologies on traditional industries like dairy farming, panelists report generally positive reception and curiosity about innovations. Continued dialogue and understanding are essential to identify advantages and disadvantages from both perspectives.

Q&A from attendees for food for thought:

  1. What can governments do to encourage and support the sector, including regulatory changes and financial support?
  2. Is there sufficient private capital for sector growth, or is public support necessary? If so, where should it be focused?
  3. Are there common technologies that could benefit from open access?
  4. How can cell ag products be introduced to the market sustainably?
  5. Could pausing facility expansions from major startups point to challenges beyond infrastructure that companies are facing?
  6. What are the biggest barriers between companies and regulatory bodies?
  7. How can genomics be deployed for cellular processes?
  8. How can cell ag companies share IP without losing competitive advantage?
  9. What are the main obstacles to widespread adoption of cellular farming technologies?
  10. What are specific examples of regulatory-company questions and conversations?
  11. Should manufacturing be done internally or with a CMO, and what are the pros and cons?
  12. When working with waste streams to turn them into high-value products, how do you address the unpredictability of the consistency and volume of waste? 
  13. What is the nutritional value of cellular milk compared to traditional milk?
  14. In what areas is the Canadian cell ag landscape performing well?

The big takeaway? Canadian startups are willing to collaborate to push technology forward and make it economically viable. But here’s the thing: We can’t fit a R&D intensive tech aimed at creating affordable products to boost food security, offer alternative income avenues for farmers and others in the food supply chain, all while staying sustainable amidst climate change, into the current funding, partnership, and intellectual property models. It’s a big challenge. We need to be creative and develop the proper ecosystem and frameworks that incentivize and foster collaborative innovation for the public good. 

Stay tuned for the announcement of our second virtual event featuring academic researchers!

Talk soon,

Dr. Yadira Tejeda-Saldana
Director of Responsible Research & Innovation, Canada | New Harvest

*AAFC is the department of the Government of Canada that supports the Canadian agriculture and agri-food sector through initiatives that promote innovation and competitiveness.

About the Authors
Yadira Tejeda-Saldana is New Harvest's Director of Responsible Research & Innovation - Canada