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Where are we on the hype cycle? Part II

Winter is here.

Published December 21, 2023 | Updated December 28, 2023 | Isha Datar,

Two years ago today I shared my thoughts on where cell ag was on the hype cycle. It’s a good, quick read but the TL;DR is:

  • Cell ag is probably passing the peak of inflated expectations, and entering the trough of disillusionment.
  • We will experience a “cell ag winter”, akin to the periodic AI winters where interest and investment in the technology wanes.
  • This is still progress.
  • We have to get to the plateau of productivity by building lasting infrastructure for ongoing innovation to continue.

Where are we today?

I think I would make some revisions. This hype cycle analysis is moreso about cultured meat than cell ag broadly. To us at New Harvest, cellular agriculture includes all methods of producing agricultural products from cultured cells, and I would place precision fermentation and biomanufacturing in general at other places on the hype cycle.

So let’s focus on cultured (aka cultivated) meat here… where are we?

Winter has arrived

Since that blogpost went live we have seen more and more articles highlighting our collective disillusionment with growing meat from cells. The articles point to failures and shortcomings in the field, most often being the inability of companies to deliver product on their predicted timelines (see references below).

Should we be surprised? In pharma there is a rule of thumb about drug discovery: it takes 10 years and $1 billion for 1 small molecule drug to come to market. That is in a field where 1) there is a robust global innovation ecosystem with hundreds of institutions and long-term funding, 2) there are well-established, profitable companies often over 100 years old, and 3) the path from benchtop science to scale-up manufacturing is fairly well-understood, and most importantly, 4) you’re making a small volume, high value product.

Now let’s compare that to cultured meat. This is a field where 1) there is a scant global innovation ecosystem, with likely not more than $3B in the space as a whole, scattered among many players without coordination; 2) the oldest cultured meat company is 8 years old, and zero are profitable; 3) the scale-up challenges are largely unprecedented and theoretical and, again most importantly, 4) we’re making a high volume, low cost product.

The mission of cultured meat is inspiring, and the goal is big, hairy, and audacious. It’s important work but given how much science we have to figure out, of course we would see cultured meat begin its descent on the hype cycle.

Getting to the plateau of productivity

There are pros and cons to entering the “AI winter” of cultured meat. The cons are of course reduced investment and interest. But that creates a pro – a strong filter for the type of people and type of funding that are willing to go the distance to make lasting progress. It will be a force function for focus in the field.

The trick will be ensuring there is enough support to perpetuate ongoing innovation and not completely quell it – the plateau of productivity.

Here’s why I have hope that we’ll get there:

1) More public funding

Several countries have begun to invest in cellular agriculture research – the Netherlands, Canada, the US, the UK, Singapore, Israel, South Korea and Germany have begun earmarking funds and creating grant programs on the order of tens of millions of dollars. This is, of course, a drop in the bucket compared to funding dedicated to biopharma, but it is a good first step in establishing talent pipelines and foundational research for the field.

Just within the New Harvest network, we have seen the founding of the National Institute of Cellular Agriculture at Tufts University, the Cultivated Meat Consortium at UC Davis, the Cellular Agriculture Manufacturing Hub at the University of Bath, and the Institute of Cellular Agriculture at the University of Alberta. These institutes are now tasked with finding that plateau of productivity where they can attract the right funders and researchers to carry on making material progress that matters.

2) Pivots, adjacents and new names

During AI winters, research would take place under different monikers (ie. informatics, machine learning, computational intelligence, etc.) to emphasize tackling sub-problems in AI and/or to side step the stigma of AI proper. We’re going to see this happen in cultured meat.

I predict we’ll begin to see some sidestepping away from “cultivated/lab-grown/cultured meat” as the companies focusing on meat applications have attracted the most negative attention, and perhaps also from “alternative proteins” which has also seen a lot of negativity due to declining sales of plant-based product in the market. Like AI, “cultivated meat” and “alternative protein” describe a kind of holy grail end product, but not necessarily the pursuit of developing it. Not sure what the sentiment around “cellular agriculture” might be, though I tend to think it will be positive given all the academic affiliations.

The sub-problems I think we’ll see more groups tackling are in precision fermentation and biomass fermentation. We’ll see more work done on a broader range of food products (beyond just meat applications), and on sub-problems of cultivated meat like media components. This makes sense given the lasting interest and need for more public research in biomanufacturing, for food and beyond.

I think we will also see more pivots of existing cell ag and cultivated meat companies towards biomedical applications, where there is an existing high value/low volume market, and towards precision fermentation or even plant-based products for those who want to focus on putting product on the market. This makes perfect sense as those categories are a lot more appropriate for a VC-funded entity to tackle. These are moreso engineering/food science problems, not discovery problems, so there should be shorter timelines and less R&D budget required.

3) New approaches 

When CEO Brian Spears decided to close up shop for his cultivated meat company, New Age Eats, in March 2023, he shared the following reflection:

“Influence flows from top to bottom like pools of water. At the top is how each human sees him/herself and how we integrate the parts of us into a whole self. The second is how we interact with other selves to organize the world through incentives and disincentives. The third is the result of that incentive system.

I have been drawn to fix the problems in the third pool for years. That pool will never get cleaned up as long as the first two pools create dirty runoff, so I believe my next chapter will focus on those.”

I was thrilled to hear that we’re seeing the need for new incentive structures.

At the heart of cultivated meat is a question: is this a mission-driven technology or a market-driven technology?

The technology is just too challenging for it to be simply market-driven; and we have seen that in recent news about well-funded startups. The challenge is that all our incentive structures are geared towards advancing market-driven technologies. What do we do if we’re trying to achieve food security through a sustainable food product in a climate changed world?

The good thing is that we’re not the only ones thinking about this. There is a range of philanthropists and science funders in government and otherwise thinking about how innovation needs to be differently incentivized to advance mission-driven technology.

Here at New Harvest, we keep coming back to a focus on open to effectively move the field forward. The more we can break down the silos between sectors, actors, and disciplines, the better we move technology forward and reap the reward of a better world.

In our recent textbook chapter, “Creating an Infrastructure for Cultured Meat”, and our article in Nature Food, “Cultured Meat Needs a Race to Mission, Not a Race to Market” we spell out some potential approaches for advancing cultured meat specifically that orient around open access and collaboration as tenets for centering mission and focusing on productivity. In 2024 we plan on spelling out even more specific approaches to advancing the field in different ways.

One thing I’d like to see more of is a reframing of public vs. private. We tend to think about public research being publicly funded by government and philanthropy and conducted in academia; private research being funded by private investors and conducted in private companies. Those paradigms have already been shifting for decades. More important is the split between (open) pre-competitive research and (closed) competitive research. We need to shift the paradigm so more open, pre-competitive research is being done – even if funded and conducted by private entities.

Keep it going

It’s no secret that New Harvest has been a catalytic force driving ongoing innovation in cellular agriculture since day one. But we are experiencing the “cultivated meat winter” as well, and our community of funders are feeling the pinch of a tough market, expensive costs of living, and frankly, a ton of other incredibly important causes out there.

If you love what we do, how we think about this problem, and how we’re carrying the field forward, please consider giving to our organization. We’re a small but mighty team that will keep the fire burning for cellular agriculture through thick and thin.

I believe that good science can carry cell ag through booms AND busts. If you do too, then please donate today. Together, we can build a world where meat, milk, and eggs come from cells instead of animals.

Happy winter solstice, everyone!

About the Authors
Isha Datar