Co-founder Manvati says that people won’t give up eating meat so easily, given the response to a host of vegan alternatives in the West.
By Deepsekhar Choudhury
In his famous commencement address to a class of Stanford graduates, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had one message: Connect the dots. A group of scientists working on cancer drugs could lay claim to have connected the farthest of dots. While looking for molecules that could ‘suppress’ cell growth, they stumbled upon one which did the opposite.
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Based on that research, two scientists at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Siddharth Manvati and Pavan Dhar, founded Clear Meat in 2019. This startup has found a novel way to culture minced chicken meat in the lab and is aiming to place its product in store shelves in a years time. The startup has recently received funding from Gastrotrope, a venture of Mistletoe’s CEO Taizo Son, who is the youngest brother of SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son.
In the last few years, a number of reports by global bodies have said that animal slaughter leads to disproportionate harm to the environment as compared to its calorific value to humans. A paper published by Oxford scientists in 2018 said that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75%—an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined—and still feed the world.
Co-founder Manvati says that people won’t give up eating meat so easily, given the response to a host of vegan alternatives in the West. He says that achieving the same taste and texture as real meat is the key for plant and cell based alternatives. “There are certain biological pathways which have to be activated in order for the cultured meat to have the right look and feel,” says the biotechnologist.
The startup also has to grapple with the fact that genetically modified food is banned in India. Animal cells live only for 24 hours before disintegrating — so, a way had to be found so that multiplication of cells continued beyond their life cycles. Maintaining genomic stability while doing so was another big scientific challenge.
Walking this tightrope, the startup pany has developed the product from a proof-of-concept stage to a market viable product during the last one year. It is looking at both the B2C and B2B markets—the lab-grown chicken minced meat is likely to be available in stores as well as distributed to restaurant chains. The price point has not been locked yet, but will range from Rs 500 to Rs 800 a kilogram — much higher than what slaughtered chicken costs, i.e., around Rs 200.
The food safety regulator does not have a policy yet on plant and cell based meat. Manvati says he is optimistic that the FSSAI will come with a set of regulations in the next six months or so. Meanwhile, the product is going through a tasting process so that flavour and texture can be fine tuned. The co-founder says that since the novelty of the technique is the use of a certain reagent which facilitiates the cell culture, the process can be adapted to other meat too in the future.