At first, IndieBio’s offices look like another San Francisco workspace, complete with young people in hoodies slurping coffee and gazing at their laptops. But in the basement, is a laboratory where scientists are advancing some remarkable technology.
IndieBio is the world’s biggest biotech accelerator, providing early stage businesses with $250,000 (£192,000) funding, mentoring and rapid business development. It only backs the most ambitious of enterprises. “Either you need to make a lot of money, or blow people’s minds. Anything that falls in between – forget about it,” says IndieBio’s co-founder, Ryan Bethencourt.
IndieBio backs a range of endeavours, but its biggest single area is food. Bethencourt, who is vegan, says these startups want to completely redefine food production, reducing the environmental impact and ending cruelty to animals. “The aim is to ensure that people keep eating what they love, but to produce it in a way so it’s not damaging the planet,” he adds.
Among its alumni is Memphis Meats, which generated headlines last year with the creation of the world’s first lab-grown meatball. The company has subsequently succeeded in making “clean” chicken and duck (without needing to raise and kill the animals for their meat). Its CEO Uma Valeti says the process involves taking tiny meat cells from an animal (via a painless biopsy or sample). These are then fed nutrients, which enables the cells to grow, and they eventually turn into edible meat. “We’re developing a method that would allow the cells to self-renew indefinitely, meaning after the initial cells are obtained, we wouldn’t need to return to the animal for subsequent samples,” Valeti says. “Our goal is to entirely remove the animal from the meat production process.”
The environmental impact of reducing the world’s cattle herds, which are major emitters of methane, would be profound. “If the US switched to Memphis Meats beef, the reduction would be like taking almost 23m cars off the road. One burger could save the amount of water used in 51 showers,” Valeti says. A recent survey suggests that 65% of people would give “in-vitro” or “cultured meat” a try.
Memphis Meats has to spend around $2,400 (£1,800) to make 450 grams of beef. However, the price is falling and the company aims to hit the market in 2021. “Perfecting the research and scaling up will both play an important role in reducing the cost of production,” Valeti adds. “We are not out to end all forms of animal agriculture. We’re opposed to factory farms, not family farms. But family farms can only supply a tiny fraction of the world’s demand for meat.”
Not all entrepreneurs at IndieBio feel the same way. “My big plan is to end animal agriculture entirely,” says Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods. “We’ve moved past needing to kill animals and ruin the environment for food; we can do much better with the technology that we have.”
Selden’s company is developing fish without the fishing, by helping cells multiply “in a brewery-like environment” to create fish fillets. The business started in June 2016, and began lab work the following March. “We’ve already blown through massive milestones, including getting stable fish cell culture,” Selden says. “And we have [succeeded in] getting fish cells dividing in a bioreactor (something that has never happened before, ever).” They’re aiming to launch their first products in two years’ time.
Winning over a sceptical market
Technology also has the potential to revolutionise the wine sector. Alec Lee, co-founder and CEO of Ava Winery, says the team has found a way to “scan and digitise” the structure of a wine and then recreate it using amino acids, sugars and ethanol. The end product could be that classic vintage at a discount price – they have already tried mimicking a 1992 Dom Perignon.
“Each component we identify in wine gets sourced in its pure form and we recombine those components in the right concentration,” Lee says. “It’s in some ways a complicated mixing problem. Our goal is to be able to create very high quality wines that are affordable for the mass market.”
Not everyone in the wine industry likes the idea of wine production in a lab. Some experts have denounced his work, but Lee says improvements have been made and Ava could be on the market as early as next year with four wines. The challenge will be overcoming a sceptical market and ambiguous regulations.
“There isn’t really a good regulatory classification for what this product is,” he says. “But from a winemaker’s perspective, I think there’s been more positivity and intrigue than we anticipated. [What] resonates with them is the ability to archive the great wines they’ve made.”
Matias Muchnick, CEO and founder of NotCo, is using artificial intelligence (AI) to reinvent food. Its machine learning algorithm Giuseppe helps them understand the molecular structure of animal-based foods such as milk and eggs, then predict how they can make products like mayonnaise and yoghurt using plant-based alternatives. Its first product – Not Mayo – an eggless mayonnaise, is already on shelves in over 150 stores across the US and the company has signed deals with major chains, such as Walmart.
“The best part of it all is that 80% of our consumers are non-vegans, proving this concept can, indeed, go mainstream,” Muchnick says. “It’s priced the same as major brands like Hellmann’s mayo and it’s more profitable [because] we don’t use eggs.”
There are other products in the pipeline – Not Yoghurt, Not Milk, and Not Cheese. But Muchnick admits no one can be completely sure what the future of food will look like. But with technologies such as 3D printing, lab grown foods and AI, the possibilities are endless. And food businesses will need to make changes to retain environmentally concerned consumers.
“Consumers’ preferences and trends will be driven by millennials and, even if you don’t care about the environment, this generation does. This generation will run food corporations like Nestlé or Danone out of business if they don’t do something about it,” he adds.
Indeed, Bethencourt says that, while major corporations have visited IndieBio’s labs, he doesn’t believe they have taken on board the level of disruption coming their way. That’s a great opportunity for startups in this space. “We’ve talked to Unilever and Procter & Gamble and they are really not prepared for what’s coming,” he says.
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