Didier Toubia's dream was born on the Ivory Coast in the mid-1990s, when the foodtech entrepreneur was a recent university graduate with a degree in food engineering and biology. In that country, resource-rich but plagued by bitter poverty, Toubia saw how to combine biology with sociology and technology, to provide proper nutrition for all human beings, rich or poor.
As with many dreams, that dream was abandoned for many years while Toubia developed an impressive scientific and business career. He immigrated to Israel shortly after his spell in Africa, worked as a researcher at the Volcani Institute, and founded two successful medical device companies.
Nonetheless, he couldn't let go of his feeling that providing food for the entire world posed the greatest challenge of our generation. After selling his second company, and with some breathing space, Toubia decided to dive back into the food industry and look for the way he could combine innovation and impact, and effect change.
In 2016, the opportunity arose when Toubia met and immediately connected with Strauss' The Kitchen food-tech incubator. The idea of creating a cultured meat company began to take shape.
At that time, the notion of lab-grown meat still seemed fairly absurd. In 2013, a Dutch professor named Marcus Johannes "Mark" Post presented a kind of gimmick - a thin hamburger patty costing $330,000 to produce. While this proof-of-concept was an impressive scientific achievement, few considered it a viable, cost-effective solution for the global food industry. But Toubia and The Kitchen decided to take on the matter seriously. "Our chances for success when we started the project were very low," he says in retrospect. "Today, we're really building a new industry."
Toubia is CEO of Israeli company Aleph Farms, and very close to being one of the world's first to change everything we know about food by commercially produced cultured steak. Last month, Aleph Farms raised $105 million, one of the sector's biggest rounds, and announced it will launch its first commercial product as early as next year, in an Israeli production facility to be set up in Rehovot.
Engineering tissue - Printing steaks
While Didier Toubia was walking around the Ivory Coast and dreaming of improving the world, Prof. Shulamit Levenberg was still working on her doctorate at the Weizmann Institute of Science. About a decade later, she participated in a groundbreaking study about human tissue formation. In her laboratory at the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, she is still working on a jaw-dropping medical development: three-dimensional printed tissue engineering for transplantation. She was able to develop a network of vascular blood vessels in muscle, heart, pancreas and spinal cord tissues that improves tissue function after transplants. This groundbreaking development may, in the future, restore a paralyzed person's ability to walk.
In 2017, when Toubia and Strauss were building Aleph Farm's foundations, they searched for the most advanced tissue engineering laboratory in Israel. Levenberg's laboratory had already previously begun experimenting with cultured meat at the request of doctoral student Tom Ben Arye, who took an interest in the matter out of compassion for animals.
Levenberg succeeded in taking her vast experience in developing 3D tissues for medical purposes, and turning that vision into scientific reality. She developed a basic technology for Aleph Farms: a special tissue engineering technology that can be used to grow meat separate from an animal's body, and to produce a finished product similar to meat as we know it. Since then, the company has completed development of its first product: a thin lab-grown beefsteak. Levenberg became a co-founder and chief scientific advisor to Aleph Farms and recently, in a world's first, closed in on the Holy Grail of cultured meat: a juicy cultured entrecote steak created with bioprinting technology. Dr. Neta Lavon has also joined the company as CTO and VP R&D.
Despite Levenberg's breakthroughs in medicine, it's her cultured meat developments that are the hot topic wherever she goes. "It's an amazing area. It has very, very great importance," Levenberg says. "We do things that are medically very important, and we feel they have a very important contribution to make. But there is something about meat that affects people differently. It touches each and every one of us. Everyone understands the potential to make a difference."
And that potential, as mentioned, translates into money: Aleph Farms funding round was led by the Growth Fund of L Catterton, one of the world's largest private equity investment firms, and one of the largest investment platforms in the Middle East. Strauss is the big winner of the round, this week reporting a NIS 58 million profit for the third quarter of 2021.
Mimicking the body
So how exactly does this happen? Levenberg explains the magic that happens in the lab: "We mimic in the cell culture what happens in the animal's body. We take from the animal the same cells that compose meat fibers, and grow them in receptacles that contain fluid with the cell nutrients to create a tissue similar to the animals. The cells are grown on a kind of plant-based 'scaffold' that replaces the existing intercellular medium in the tissue and so, over time, the cells differentiate into muscle fibers. We've developed tools to create a tissue that is very similar to the original tissue, with the correct cell composition. Our emphasis is on creating complex 3D tissue, with complete control over the components. "
What are the differences between your meat and meat from slaughtered animals?
"We're able to determine the makeup of the steak precisely, from the percentage of fat, to its nutritional value. Today, when you buy a steak at the butcher, each portion is different. At Aleph, the fat percentage is predetermined and will be exactly the same in every slice, or can be changed on-demand. We produce bacteria-free meat with no E. coli, no Listeria, and also without antibiotics. We can maximize the amount of protein, reduce the amount of saturated fat and ensure there are high amounts of vitamins. Growing meat outside the cow enables optimization of the process within a sterile environment, which isn't possible in a farm environment. We're able to use just the amount of energy needed to make the steak, and just the amount of water and nutrients needed, without wasting resources. And all this within three-four weeks, as opposed to two-three years in the slaughter-based industry - that's the time needed from the time a calf is born and until its slaughtered. And, of course, we eliminate everything associated with animal abuse, loss of natural areas, and damage to the planet."
Toubia adds that it is not just an environmental or health issue - the economic benefits are clear. "We can provide meat whose supply chain is known in advance. Today, the supply chain is very inflexible, and we saw this during the Covid-19 period: a delay in one link in the chain can agitate the entire food sector. That's what happened when meat processing plants were closed due to illness. Our supply chain is much more efficient than with regular meat, completely controllable and flexible. That's a great advantage for consumers and the institutional market."
So healthier "pre-planned" products in an efficient economic system will be more in line with the planet's capabilities?
"Today's food system is built not to feed humans, but to maximize profitability for big companies, and to produce more food and calories but not in the right places or in the right way. These systems aren't focused on nutrition or on those in need of food. Cultured meat is the opposite - it’s more than just production proximity to consumers and equitable distribution of value in food. We can produce cultured meat locally, where necessary, regardless of natural resources or climate. We need a change in perception, and cultured meat can be the cornerstone of a new global food system for better nutrition that’s more in balance with the earth. We’ve got to reset the food system."
Although the countries in the Paris Climate Accords united to fight global warming, not a single word was said about food production, despite its vast impact on our planet and our lives. How vast? 14% of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere come from the animal feed industry. That same industry consumes 70% of the world's fresh water for the animals it raises for slaughter, and is also the leading factor in forest destruction (as in the Amazon, where farmers cutting down trees had led to a stage, scientists say, where it will cease to be a rainforest). This polluting industry also creates "Dead Zones" in the oceans, land erosion, and uses huge tracts of land for animal husbandry.
"The resources we currently use exceed their natural rate of renewal, and we have to deal with a worsening climate crisis," Toubia explains. "Our meat is produced in harmony with the planet. Aleph Farms' production facilities will also be carbon neutral."
Maybe the right solution for humanity is a complete change in direction to a plant-based diet, not ventures that produce cultured meat?
"Humans will not give up meat. Meat is related to the culture, to food, to history of humankind. Meat is the main dish. There’s that, and there’s everything else is around it. Many people aren’t willing to give up meat. Food is a ritual, it’s not just a functional product designed to nourish the body. It’s linked to psychology. "
The value of a piece of steak
The meat substitute market has been heating up for the past two years. In 2020 alone, $3.1 billion was raised worldwide in the field of alternative protein, of which $114 million was in Israel. Within that same category, cultured meat (also called cultivated meat) is considered the most intriguing, because it has the power to convert consumers whose diet is based on animal foods. The cultured meat industry still faces many challenges, but recorded a growth spurt over the past year. In early 2021, the world’s first commercially available cultured meat product was launched: chicken nuggets made by US-based "Eat Just". In 2020, cultured meat companies around the world raised more than $360 million - a six-fold increase from the year before.
As companies advance in the field, regulators around the world are considering approval of various products. Aleph Farms is one of the first companies in the world to enter the bureaucratic pipeline, and is already working with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for approval of its product, as well as with the Israeli regulator. But while many companies deal in products based on ground ingredients, like hamburgers or nuggets, Aleph is developing whole cuts that bear no resemblance to the meat substitutes currently available on the market.
"Our product is much more similar to the original tissue. It’s not a processed product, and not a mixture of components," says Levenberg. "We believe that the value we can bring with a product that’s a whole piece of steak is significant. It’s an experience that’s important for us to produce, and these are the products we want to position ourselves with. We view this image as valuable for the entire cultured meat category."
For cultured meat to replace the existing system, you need consumer buy-in on a huge scale. It that possible?
"According to market surveys we’ve done in the US, 80% of the population is interested in switching to cultured meat, at least in part. Among Generation Z, it’s close to 90%. Clearly the younger generation is leading the transition, but among the general population the percentage is also very high."
When will we see your product in supermarkets?
"Our initial launch won't be at supermarkets. That will take a bit longer. To reach the retail market we need an efficient supply chain and significant price reductions. It will take another two to five years to get to supermarket shelves. We’re preparing the initial launch for the second half of next year. Within five years, we’ll be able to match the price of slaughter-based meat. During that time, cultured meat will become accepted everywhere."
Will your industry replace farmed animal meat?
"Cultured meat won’t eliminate traditional agriculture. The whole world is currently observing the development of organic and rehabilitative farming methods, along with pressure to reduce industrial agriculture. Our goal is to replace intensive cattle raising, which today accounts for 70% of global meat production. We will account for 70% of meat production and traditional agriculture will become sustainable, and make up the remaining 30%.
"Cultured meat is not a single solution. It is part of a very complex ecosystem that also includes farmers and all the players involved in the value chain of conventional agriculture, especially in the developing world.
"Cultured meat can help increase transparency in the conventional meat production system, and also become an important player in public health. For example: 700,000 people die due to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and this number will rise to 2 million by 2040. The food industry consumes huge amounts of antibiotics, which won’t be found in cultured meat. It’s no wonder that health systems in developed and developing countries view cultured meat as a benefit."
Why aren’t you vegan?
"If I were vegetarian or vegan, I wouldn’t feel the need to develop cultured meat. I’m promoting better meat. I want to solve the paradox of meat. I represent the average Aleph Farms customer. I try to eat less meat than I once ate, and eat higher quality meat. Many consumers like me are aware of meat’s shortcomings but aren’t ready to stop completely. We’re providing them with a slaughter-free solution."
Israel's chance to be a cultured meat superpower
Aleph Farms and Strauss' The Kitchen incubator are proud of their Israeli roots. They focus on building a "Blue and White" industry, and are full of praise for the local sector. But the reality is more complex: Israel has four pioneering, advanced cultured meat companies, some of which are being eyed internationally. However, while warming up on the sidelines, Israel could lose its lead and allow other countries to overtake it.
Cultured meat products require a complex and lengthy regulatory process; this caused Israel to lose out to Singapore which approved its first product in an expedited process in less than a year. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to try out Aleph Farms' juicy steak last winter, and promised to establish a special team to deal with the regulatory matter. The Ministry of Health has set up a team to consider a procedure for approving such products. At present, the only way to describe progress on this matter is ‘not meteoric’.
According to TASC Strategic Consulting and the Good Food Institute (GFI), the alternative protein industry could create 11,000 quality jobs in Israel and contribute NIS 11 billion to local GDP a year. "There are very few sectors, if any, where government funding could benefit from such a high return on investment," GFI Israel CEO Nir Goldstein tells Globes. "Not only economically - and it will be a market worth hundreds of billions - but also strategically, and the diplomatic value for Israel could also be very high."
Aleph Farms senses good will on the part of the regulator, and feel there is a good opportunity for the matter to leapfrog in the coming year, in concert with all of the parties involved: industry, academia and government. "Processes take time," Toubia says. "But this is important not only in terms of job creation and sustainability, but also for food security. Today, only 12% of the beef consumed in Israel is produced here. The rest is imported. We can increase the amount of cattle produced locally in Israel from 12% to 80%. We will create jobs here, maintain a local industry, and broaden the economy in Israel."
Levenberg: "We must remember that academia is the basis for all these developments. If we want to maintain the country's leadership in new developments and research, we must provide academia with resources, so that laboratories have good infrastructure, so we can continue to lead. We see more engineers and scientists entering this field, and we need to give them the infrastructure that will allow them to drive scientific innovation, so that it can flourish and grow worldwide. In this era, the connection between industry, science, and the state is very significant. Israel has the potential to become a powerhouse in this field."
Prof. Shulamit Levenberg (52)
- Personal: Married + 6.
- Education: B.Sc. Biology Hebrew University, Ph.D. Weizmann Institute and postdoctoral fellowship at MIT. Professor at the Faculty of Biomedical Engineering at Technion - Israel Institute of Technology.
- Professional: Founding Partner and Chief Scientific Advisor at Aleph Farms as well as at Nanosynex and NurExone Biologics.
Didier Toubia (47)
- Personal: Married + 3, born Paris
- Education: M.Sc. Biology and Food Engineering from AgroSup Dijon Master's B.A. Accounting from ESCP Europe, MBA Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management.
- Professional: Co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms. Former co-founder and CEO of IceCure Medical, CEO of NLT Spine. Co-founder of Yeap and BlueTree Technologies.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 3, 2021
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021