Since 2015, over 150 startups have launched with an exceptionally difficult goal: to make meat from animal cells, no slaughter required.
It’s called cell-cultivated meat, and it’s made by taking a small sample of animal cells and feeding them a mix of amino acids, sugars, vitamins, minerals, and other ingredients for several weeks. Supporters of the technology see it as a way to satisfy rising global meat demand but with a smaller carbon footprint, and without the brutish factory farming of animals. But so far, it’s proven to be incredibly challenging.
One barrier to progress is that the field is composed of dozens of siloed companies all trying to solve the same scientific challenges — challenges that perhaps could be solved sooner if startups shared their R&D findings and compared notes.
They won’t, of course, because that kind of intellectual property is one of the most valuable assets to their investors. But there’s a growing movement to make cultivated-meat research publicly available through a different route — to build an academic field, educate scientists, and give them the opportunity to conduct and publish open-access research so the entire field can benefit from their discoveries. David Kaplan, a professor of biomedical engineering at Tufts University and executive director of the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture, is one of the movement’s pioneers and leaders.
In 2016, Kaplan established a first-of-its-kind fellowship program in the US for young cell-cultivated meat scientists at Tufts, in collaboration with the nonprofit New Harvest, which advocates for and funds open-access research in the space.
Over the years, Kaplan and his fellows have published research on cell-cultivated fat, the nutrition of cell-cultivated meat, and more. They impressed the United States Department of Agriculture, which gave Tufts a $10 million grant in 2021 to create the second, and largest, US government-backed research center for cell-cultivated meat: the USDA National Institute for Cellular Agriculture at Tufts. Since it opened, researchers and students have developed new fish cell lines, published research on novel ingredients to feed and grow cells, and begun looking at challenges related to scaling up cell-cultivated meat production.
Although Kaplan’s efforts are focused on academia, he and his team also work with industry. Tufts has an industry consortium program, in which cell-cultivated meat startups fund research projects, and a lab that’s working to commercialize research conducted at Tufts. And as one of the few universities training young scientists on how to cultivate meat from animal cells, Kaplan has also taught and advised many scientists who went on to work for startups, which can have trouble finding qualified job applicants given how novel the technology is.
The massive effort to reinvent meat requires abundant patience, vision, and collaboration. Kaplan’s wide-ranging efforts, and his reputation as a generous educator and innovative thinker, make him one of the few in the field who’ve shown they’re up to the task.