Edmonton startup gets $2.2-million boost to help develop lab-grown meat

A fast-growing Edmonton startup company that’s a new player in the cellular agriculture sector recently received US$2.2 million from three U.S. venture capital firms and a number of private investors.

Future Fields, which was incorporated in 2018, was founded by two University of Alberta graduates and a former U of A employee. All but two of their 13 staff members come from the U of A.

Cellular agriculture is the production of food sources such as meat without the use of animals or valuable farmland. Companies around the world are racing to get lab-grown meat onto the market because of the soaring global demand for high-value protein. 

One of the barriers the industry has faced is finding reasonably priced and ethically sourced growth factors, a vital component in the cellular meat production process. (Growth factors are the components in the growth media that signal cells to grow.)

That’s where Future Fields comes in. “Our platform is essentially a new way of producing growth factors at a drastically reduced price compared to anything that’s been done before,” said Jalene Anderson-Baron, a co-founder and chief operating officer.

Future Fields co-founders Lejjy Gafour, Matt Anderson-Baron and Jalene Anderson-Baron
(From left) Future Fields co-founders Lejjy Gafour, Matt Anderson-Baron and Jalene Anderson-Baron are developing an innovative growth factor for producing lab-grown meat far less expensively. The startup company has received $2.2 million from three U.S. venture capital firms and private investors. (Photo: Future Fields)

Until now, most cellular meat producers have used fetal bovine serum (FBS) or growth factors produced by microbes. Both sources are expensive, difficult to scale and, in the case of FBS, “it goes against the entire mission of the industry,” said Matt Anderson-Baron, chief scientific officer at Future Fields.

The company is still awaiting a patent on its proprietary growth factor platform, so the founders won’t discuss details of the technology at this point. But that didn’t stop the three venture capital firms—Bee Partners, Pioneer Fund and Narrative Fund—from investing in Future Fields.

Kira Noodleman, a principal at Bee Partners, said the sky-high cost of growth media has resulted in currently unsustainable business models in the cellular agriculture industry, with the real cost driver being the outrageously expensive key growth factors.

Future Fields’ new growth factor technology “is orders of magnitude less expensive,” she said. “Their potential to drive down costs across the cellular agriculture industry makes them an essential player in the synthetic biology stack.”

Industry poised for rapid growth

The cellular meat industry is only about six years old, but there are already 60 or 70 firms throughout the world, with particular interest in Israel and Singapore. Their governments have come out in favour of cellular agriculture to mitigate food security challenges, and others are expected to follow. One estimate predicts that cellular meat production could account for 10 per cent of the $2-trillion global meat market within a decade.

Originally, Future Fields was intended to be a consumer cellular agriculture company. Matt and Jalene, who are married, came up with the plan with their friend Lejjy Gafour, and they set out to make and sell lab-produced chicken. Like every other firm in the sector, they also set out to find a solution to the growth factor challenge—but unlike the others, they figured one out.

Future Fields office Matt Anderson-Baron and Lejjy Gafour
The founders of Future Fields credit support from the U of A Health Hub and Accelerator and the Alberta government’s GreenSTEM program for providing crucial lab space and funding. (Photo: Future Fields)

In the fall of 2019, Future Fields was accepted into an accelerator program in Singapore. “The people there said, ‘Why don’t you focus on this new technology for the growth media? Every company in this industry needs it,'” said Jalene. “That’s when we made the pivot—and that’s really when things took off.”

Rather than keep their solution to themselves, Matt said they decided to make their technology available to others, which would accelerate the development of the entire industry. “And there’s also a strong business case for us to create a really viable business by being the premier supplier of growth media for the entire industry.”

Once scaled up, Future Fields is aiming to produce growth factors that are 1,000 to 10,000 times cheaper than what’s currently available, said Matt. That will go a long way toward significantly reducing the cost of cellular meat from its current price of about $50 a pound.

Future Fields was also accepted into Silicon Valley’s prestigious Y Combinator Accelerator Program, which focused on startup fundraising and led to the $2.2-million investment.

Early support essential

Even before that, Future Fields was in the inaugural cohort at the U of A Health Hub & Accelerator. They use lab space at the TEC Centre Labs at Enterprise Square and are grateful for the support they received from manager Sandra Spencer and her team.

“If we hadn’t gotten into the (U of A) Health Accelerator program, it’s very likely we wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” said Matt. “As a biotech company, having access to lab space to do the work was absolutely critical.”

Future Fields is also supported by GreenSTEM, an Alberta government-funded program that helps young technology entrepreneurs. Jalene said GreenSTEM’s funding was crucial in the early months when their financial situation was somewhat “dire.”

With their new financial boost, the partners are looking for bigger facilities. “Moving out of the Health Accelerator is a little sad, but we’ve definitely outgrown the space,” said Matt. “And it’s time that we make room for the next generation coming in.”

This will also allow them to expand their staff, adding more engineers to their scientist-dominated team. The three co-founders have diverse backgrounds: Matt has a PhD in cell biology from the U of A, Jalene has U of A degrees in human geography, and CEO Gefour has an entrepreneurial background. And the rest of the team have wide-ranging backgrounds.

“I think our diversity has been our biggest strength,” said Jalene. “This is such a novel industry and it fully requires you to think outside the box in ways you never imagined possible. Having those diverse experiences and perspectives has 100 per cent been key to our success.”

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