Last year when I was in Tokyo I actually saw the Culnet System with my own eyes, and IntegriCulture’s CEO Yuki Hanyu said to me, “We’re making our own medium.” A part of me sensed that it’s important, but my little brain that repeatedly failed Physics class in high school couldn’t apprehend what I was looking at.
Then, boom! The past month IntegriCulture has been all over industry news with its latest funding round making it the highest-funded alt-protein startup in Asia and announcement of partnership with Shiok Meats.
This week we’re featuring IntegriCulture but this is just Part 1. You can participate in Part 2 by registering to our inaugural summit, I’ll be doing another deep dive chat with Hanyu on 21 Aug 2020 and you can ask the questions that I’ve missed.
For now, let’s begin our Part 1 encounter with IntegriCulture: the science, science fiction, and farm to table beyond your wildest imagination.
|Business Type||Cellular Agriculture|
|Primary Value Proposition||CulNet® system that does not use immortalized cells or growth factors|
|Last Funding Type||Series A|
|Investors||Beyond Next Ventures, Real Tech Fund, NH Foods, Hiroshima Venture Capital, AgFunder, Naruhisa Nakagawa, MTG Co Ltd, A-FIVE, Venture University, euglena Co. Ltd., Kitano Hiroaki.|
|Funds Raised to Date||¥1.1B (US$10m)|
Cell Culture Medium is the Most Significant Cost Driver
According to our Senior Scientist Liz Specht in her report An analysis of culture medium costs and production volumes for cultivated meat, “The cell culture medium will provide the greatest marginal cost contribution in industrial-scale production. Estimates we have heard from [expert] sources range from 55% to over 95% of the marginal cost of the product attributable to the cost of the medium.” (Check it out, the original report has been updated recently.)
There are two main components to cell culture medium: (1) basal medium and (2) growth factors, the latter being the primary cost driver.
“Muscle cells require growth factors, many of which are produced by liver cells. Other growth factors are produced by some other organs. We culture the target cells — mostly muscle and fat cells — and organ cells in separate bioreactors, connect the bioreactors to form a closed loop where culture medium circulates like bloodstream, and let the cells help each other to grow. ” Ikko Kawashima, CTO of IntegriCulture, explained.
“We make our own medium.”
Instead of purchasing growth factors from an external source and mixing that “additive” into the process, CulNet System is designed to self-produce that ingredient within the same system to “feed” the target cells (e.g. meat) that are being cultured. IntegriCulture deems this an in vivo system as it mimics how cells interact in the natural animal body endocrine systems.
This diagram shows 6 feeder bioreactors on the left — feeder cells are typically different types of organ cells — feeding to a main bioreactor on the right with a myoblast cell. Culture medium with different combinations of organ cells can make the myoblast cells increase in size or differentiate into muscle fibers.
Since bringing down the cost of cell culture medium is a central challenge for all cultivated meat companies, it’s very exciting to see a cell ag startup not focusing on creating the end product per se, but in breaking the bottleneck and potentially accelerating the industry as a whole.
“We will be licensing our tech to food companies. They can produce the actual meat while we look after the bioreactor,” said Hanyu. When asked whether he considers his a “platform business”, Hanyu said, “We’re an infrastructure business.”
Who May Not Like Immortality? The Regulator and Customers
What may have started as an attempt to lower cost, turned out to create multiple competitive advantages.
1. Regulatory Issues
Theoretically IntegriCulture can start selling cultivated meat produced from the CulNet System in Japan, today. Wait, what? “Our technology is already in compliance with food regulations,” said Hanyu. How?
- No externally sourced growth factors
Externally sourced growth factors like FGF2 and TGFb are currently not approved as food or food additives in Japan. Food safety needs to be assessed and established, and regulatory approval must be obtained. “In vivo” growth factor created within the CulNet System does not require any additional regulatory approval.
- No immortalised cells
The CulNet System does not use immortalised cell lines. The team has successfully extended cell life from 7-15 days to over 250 days by housing them in a scaffold system called “cell chip”, allowing organ cells to keep producing growth factors for a long time without changing the cells. And Hanyu said, “on day 250 there was a power cut in the lab.” Oops! The downside of immortalised cells is that any gene alteration may cause the product to fall into the GMO bucket and into a much more complicated (and lengthy) regulatory approval route.
2. Consumer Perceptions
A lot of times it’s not just about the science, but perceptions. It’s an uphill battle to try and change existing consumer preference or scepticism.
- No externally sourced growth factors
People don’t like the idea of “meat injected with growth hormones”. The growth factors coming from organ cells within the system provides a higher level of comfort.
- No immortalised cells
Some consumers associate immortalised cells with cancer cells.
- No animal serum like foetal bovine serum (FBS)
The CulNet System creates “whole serum with growth factor”, negating any need to use animal serum e.g. FBS which has caused significant controversy as being unethical and consumer acceptance in using by-product of animal slaughter in producing cultivated meat is certainly questionable.
Democratizing Cell Ag
Everything that happens in the universe starts with an intention. Who said that? Deepak Chopra.
The case of IntegriCulture and its CEO Hanyu is fascinating because his intention was so clear from the beginning: to democratize cell ag. That intention has guided the direction of IntegriCulture to focus not on the end product, but building the infrastructure that will support everyone from startup to corporate, from a chef in the restaurant to a hobbyist at home, to grow their own food. Farm to table, completely reinvented.
IntegriCulture is a spin-off from Hanyu’s “citizen science” initiative to develop open source cell-based meat, the Shojinmeat Project. The project offers the public open source resources such as DIY cell culture manual and DIY cell culture medium manual.
“Our business model means that we attract more strategic investors. We don’t just need investments, we need strategic partners.”
Now that we’ve covered the science, in our Part 2 deep dive with Hanyu (free registration to join us online on 21 August here), we’ll talk about the grand vision of building the ecosystem.
CulNet Pipeline provides the CulNet technology to companies like Shiok Meats and Nippoham (NH Group) to “plug in and play”, and develop their own unique products.
CulNet Consortium brings together multiple industry players to systematize the technological elements of culture medium, bioreactor, bioprocess, quality management, and product processing. Deliverables include standardizing culture medium and certification of cell-cultured products.
Join us and Hanyu on 21 August 2020 (free registration here) to talk about the roadmap in cell ag in Japan and beyond. What about price parity? What about the farmers? How much do I need to start my “home brewery”? Believe me, Hanyu has thought long and hard about all these questions and ready to give us his answer.
Join us! No questions are off limits. Register for the inaugural Asia Summit on Alternative Proteins 2020 (ASAP)!