Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|September 8, 2021|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Fresh from the laboratory to your plate - steak without the heartbreak. 

It could be a whole new world of money making for African entrepreneurs through technology that puts a steak on your plate fresh from the laboratory and far from the field. The world of growing your own steak in a petri dish looks to be part of the future of food.

Your knife and fork is poised over a hot juicy steak – but this one wasn’t running around a field. This one was born in the jelly of a petri dish in a laboratory in Africa. 

New technology sees laboratories growing the meat of tomorrow and entrepreneurs expect to make their slice out of it. 

Meat and Africa go together like rump steak and the hindquarters of a bull. It comes at a cost as raising cattle takes a heavy toll on both the land and the carbon footprint.  

The world is looking for a new way to create meat and two entrepreneurs believe they have the answer. South African entrepreneurs Brett Thompson and Jay Van Der Walt started the Mzansi Meat Co that wants to make meat in a petri dish, without harming a cow. 

“We’d been working in the alternative protein space for a number of years and decided that it was time to go for it. At the time no one in Africa was making it. The intention was always to build a sustainable foods business and getting the job done…even though we started a business at one of the worst times – just before March and the Covid-19 lockdown,” says Thompson.

In layman’s terms they took a 0.5 gram piece of meat and put it into a petri dish. 

“I remember speaking about this a few years ago in about 2014 or so and it was just completely a concept that was never going to land, and now it’s completely different,” says Thompson in their laboratory in the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) centre in Woodstock, Cape Town, where the two have been working on growing meat for the last year and a half. 

What happens is the team takes a small biopsy of cells from a living animal. They then put it into the lab and put it into the petri dish. 

“We can then take the cells and grow them in large amounts in the labs. We provide them with the right conditions, in a nutrient rich media, so it’s got all the vitamins so the cells can grow nicely and expand in number with all the proteins associated with that,” said Dr. Colin Venter, Chief Scientific Officer at Mzansi Meat Co.

Dr. Colin Venter, Chief Scientific Officer at Mzansi Meat Co. Photo Jay Caboz.

They call it cultivated meat. It tastes the same yet you don’t have to kill an animal.  

Like a good aged steak cell growth is slow. But the more they make, the bigger and faster it grows. 

“When we harvest from a biopsy we get about 10,000 cells – but when we grow them under the right conditions, we can get millions and millions of them in a short amount of time,” said Venter.

“The cells are like a controlled environment. They like a body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius. That allows them to expand. So, we have a bunch of these muscle stem cells. As they grow, we can differentiate them into elongated muscle fibres.”

As far fetched as it sounds, cultivated meat could provide an answer to the world’s growing need for food.  

Much like how plant-based alternative meats like Beyond Meat patties – which are made from plant-based proteins – have grown in popularity, Thompson believes that cultured meat will be the next thing to take over our restaurants and supermarkets.

The race to market is likely to be a close one. Even if the product is a success, regulatory approval has been one of the toughest hurdles. But this could change swiftly, after California-basedEat Just gained approval in Singapore to sell meat on the market for the first time. Fresh news out of Asia, the United States, Europe, and Australia is that they are also considering cultured meat, reports the Spoon.

Closer to home Mzansi Meat Co. is hoping to be the first in Africa. Here the team will not only have to face regulation and millions of meat lovers that will be scrutinizing the flavour with every bite, but it also needs to be affordable.  

“You’re right in saying that meat is delicious in South Africa and well-priced in comparison to the rest of the world. But it’s only well priced compared to overseas markets. Within the South African context, most people are only really eating poor cuts of meat, whether it is chicken feet or pig snouts. We want to be able to introduce [cultivated meat] to the people that are getting the off cuts and ultimately create something that will be the same and in a far more controlled and sterile environment,” says Thompson.

The cost of creating cultivated meat has dropped significantly since its debut in 2013. The first cultivated meat burger cost a whopping $330,000 to develop and was secretly funded by Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, reports the BBC

“At that stage there were only about five companies involved in the whole cellular cell agriculture industry. In 2016, four or five years later, there were about 75 to 120 companies, involved in either B2B or B2C sides of the industry. This has given the industry the ability to specialize, there companies that specialize in making the components,” says Thompson.

“The component has allowed for a lot of the price to drop off. The burger that cost $330,000 in 2013, now only costs $15. That specialization has allowed it to happen. With more people doing it, it has brought additional special skills into the space that didn’t exist beforehand. The technology might be complicated but there was never a full team of scientists spending full days working on how to grow meat.”

As for how long it will be before Mzansi Meat Co. steak lands on your plate fresh from the petri dish?

The company has set itself a deadline of having meat on the market by the second half of 2022. 

Chew on that. 

Within the South African context, most people are only really eating poor cuts of meat, whether it is chicken feet or pig snouts. We want to be able to introduce  to the people that are getting the off cuts and ultimately create something that will be the same and in a far more controlled and sterile environment, 

says Brett Thompson.

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