Merck KGaA, of Darmstadt, Germany, is a top science and technology company led by a team of specialists from diverse scientific fields in the areas of healthcare, life science and performance materials. The company is now working on the creation of technologies for cultured meat.
Vegconomist had the pleasure of speaking to Thomas Herget, a member of the board of directors at the UCLA Technology Development Group and head of Innovation Hub Silicon Valley, from where he drives the innovation field of cultured meat for Merck KGaA. He is also the former head of Merck KGaA’s technology office.
Why did Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany start to work on technologies for cultured meat?
At our Innovation Center, we identify and explore innovation fields in which we see potential for new business beyond our company’s current scope. One of these fields is clean- or cultured meat which is led by my team at the Silicon Valley Innovation Hub in close collaboration with our Life Science business. As a leading supplier to the biopharma industry and through our expertise in areas such as cell culture media and bioprocessing technologies, we are well positioned to accelerate the emerging cultured meat industry as a technology enabler.
There are additional reasons beyond the business objectives. As a company, we believe that we can use science and technology to help address critical global challenges. This motivation was recently emphasized by the launch of our sustainability strategy with the clear objective to reach the global UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Climate change threatens to reduce the amount of land and water available for agriculture, while our growing population requires more animal proteins at the same time. Cultured meat can provide a further, more sustainable and ethical option for meat-eating consumers. This vision keeps us highly engaged and motivated.
What is your USP as a company?
The technologies applied to culture meat cells are similar for the biopharma- and cell therapy industry. Our Life Science sector is dedicated to developing innovative tools, supplies & processes that make biomanufacturing reliable, faster and safer. The broad product- and solution portfolios have helped the pharmaceutical industry solve major technical challenges over the past 30 years. We leverage this expertise in areas such as culture media and bioprocessing, to develop innovative technologies and platforms that will enable the cultured meat industry, from R&D to the efficient scale-up of production.
You take a holistic view on this emerging industry, what does that mean?
Currently, we have more than a dozen dedicated scientists and engineers working on the innovation field and related projects. But we don’t stop there. We established cross-divisional working groups to deal with topics such as regulations and drive discussions with regulatory authorities and policy makers. We also work closely with external partners, including universities, start-ups and non-profit organizations such as the Berkeley Alternative Meat Lab, BAL Pro Germany and the Good Food Institute. And we raise awareness for the field and drive consumer acceptance by communicating and educating stakeholders and the public.
You want to cover the whole value chain, please explain that for our readers.
We won’t actually produce cultured meat or sell it to consumers ourselves. Our focus is to develop innovative tools and solutions to enable a scaled and safe production of the meat. And here, we are looking at the full production chain – from support in optimizing meat producer cell lines, the development of suitable and efficient animal-free cell culture media to technologies for the production of edible scaffolds and scalable bioprocess design.
One of your flagship projects is developing cell culture media. What is the status here and what else is coming up on the horizon?
Yes, serum-free cell culture media is still the major cost driver for clean meat products. Our flagship project receives significant internal funding to design and commercialize custom media formulations, in close collaboration with Life Science R&D. Our objective is the development of a safe, high performance and cost-efficient formulation. This means that we also evaluate options not utilized by the biopharma industry presently. We have already signed revenue-generating partnership agreements with leading cultured meat startups and will launch a first minimal viable product soon.
In addition, we kicked-off a string of innovation projects and continuously build strong connections and partnerships with startups and leading clean meat organizations. To complement the lab work, we also co-founded a Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium with external experts to build a computational modeling and simulation platform.
What growth do you expect for the market in the next ten years?
Becoming a commodity is still a long journey and there is still a lot of innovation needed. Our estimate is that it will probably take another five to ten years to find cultured meat in your supermarket. But the industry takes major steps forward. Startups make their first prototypes already available for exclusive tastings. SuperMeat, for example, offers their cultured chicken at a restaurant in Tel Aviv to get first-hand feedback from customers. We expect that products will be launched first in high end restaurants; this may happen over the next two years. This will help to drive consumer acceptance and test the production and supply chain resiliency.
At the same time, we know that there are still several important scale and cost challenges to solve before actual commercial products can be offered at a competitive prize. For this to happen, collaboration will be critical. Startups, meat producers, facilities construction- and engineering firms, regulators & policy makers – and suppliers like us – need to work together to push the field forward. We expect major innovation breakthroughs to happen during the next ten years through the collaboration mentioned and acceleration from the government through funding & public-private partnerships, e.g. UC Davis Cultivated Meat Consortium (CMC) in the US or the ‘Meat4All’ consortium in Europe. Post 2030, the industry will probably take off rapidly, gaining market shares from conventional meat consumers. Similar to what we are seeing with plant-based meats today – or at an even faster pace.