Cultured meat startup Prolific Machines unveils its ‘Henry Ford approach’ to cell growth
The global cultured meat market is poised to reach half a billion dollars by 2030; however, this kind of technology is still very much in the R&D phase for a lot of companies that have emerged over the past five years.
Cultured meat, also known as cultivated meat, is animal meat, but instead of slaughtering the animal to get it, cells are collected from the animal and cultivated in a lab where they are then assembled into a structure of tissue that resembles the same meat we all eat.
We've seen a few cultured meat companies unveil their products. For example, Novel Farms has a pork loin, while Bluu Seafood, a German company developing lab-grown seafood, debuted its fish sticks and fish balls last month. Same for Dutch-based Meatable with its sausages, SCiFi Foods with its burgers, and chicken for UPSIDE Foods.
However, the manufacturing process for cultured meat has historically been “both very difficult and very expensive,” Prolific Machines’ co-founder and CEO Deniz Kent told TechCrunch. That's what his company is out to change.
“You have to use these growth media proteins which are some of the most expensive things — one of the proteins we are replacing is like 30,000 times more expensive than a gram of gold,” he added. “It's really hard to scale anything for this reason because you have to use these proteins.”
Kent, who has expertise in stem cell biology, explained that these proteins have been used for decades, mainly in the biopharmaceutical industry. The technology works on pharmaceutical products that have big budgets, but not so good when you are trying to make a high-volume, low-margin product like meat, he added.
While having the idea for better proteins, he met physicist Max Huisman and machine learning engineer Declan Jones and convinced them to quit their jobs and form Prolific Machines with him in 2020.
That said, Prolific Machines believes it has a unique manufacturing approach for cultured meat cells and is coming out of stealth mode with $42 million in combined seed and Series A funding to build what Kent calls an “assembly line for biology.”
The company aims to do for biology what Henry Ford did for automobiles at the turn of the 20th century. Its technology, still in its early stages, is a way to grow and control cells without the need for any of those expensive recombinant proteins for cell production, he said. Prolific Machines will bring products to market, but will also license its infrastructure to other cultured meat companies.
“Back then, nobody really owned cars apart from super-rich people. What really changed things was Ford,” Kent said. “They built the assembly line for cars and found a way to manufacture cars at a price that normal people could afford. That transformed the industry because then you went from hundreds of car companies to only three companies having over 70% of the market.”
He believes the same thing is going to happen in the cultured meat industry: There are hundreds of companies right now, but “most of them will die because they won't have a way to manufacture cultured meat cheap enough. The ones that can find a way will survive,” he added.
Prolific Machines was part of SOSV’s IndieBio program in 2021. SOSV led Prolific Machines’ pre-seed round. Meanwhile, for its new capital infusion, the seed-round portion was led by Arvind Gupta, partner at Mayfield, and the Series A by Bill Gates–founded Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
“I never intended to invest in another cultured meat company, but when Deniz showed me what they were doing, I was blown away by the creativity in their approach to reinvent the assembly line for food production,” Gupta said in a written statement. “It is my goal to help reverse climate change by partnering with incredible teams, and I am convinced Prolific Machines will be a winner in the race for sustainable food production.”
Joining in on the two rounds was a group of VC firms and individual investors, including David Adelman, Mark Cuban, The Kraft Family, David Rubenstein, Michael Rubin, Breyer Capital, The SALT Fund, Purple Orange Ventures, Fred Blackford, Jake Poliskin, Matt Katz and Baruch Future Ventures. Add to that a group of celebrities and restaurateurs, including Kevin Love, Tobias Harris, Meek Mill, Ciara and Russell Wilson, Emily Ratajkowski, Maverick Carter, Sean Feeney, Michael Schulson, Mark Bucher and RJ Melman.
Kent said the Series A was raised a year ago, but the company is coming out of stealth now as it prepares to raise a quite hefty “$170 million-ish” Series B in the first quarter of 2023. The new funding will go toward building a 25,000-square-foot headquarters in Emeryville, California, and ramp up hiring to expand its assembly line programs, including fish, poultry and beef.
Meanwhile, he expects the facility to be done in spring 2023. Plans for the company’s first product include an unstructured Wagyu, which means ground meat. Prolific Machines also has a number of high-profile chefs — none that Kent could name now — who have agreed to partner with the company and use its first cultured meat products.