By John Reynolds on Wednesday 1 June 2022
Oxford-based Ivy Farm has raised millions of pounds to date and is gearing up for a "proof of concept" test of its cultivated meat technology but fears that the UK regulatory process could be slow and leave it in limbo.
An Oxford-based pioneering food firm is eyeing up a £70m plus fundraise to make cultivated meat (meat made from animal cells) a reality in the UK but fears the emerging industry’s chances might be scuppered altogether by regulatory concerns.
Ivy Farm Technologies, an Oxford University spinoff, has raised millions in its bid to become the first commercial producer of sustainable cultured meat in the UK.
It has recently raised £10m to fund a “proof of concept” pilot plant in Oxford, a 600-litre bioreactor where its cell growing ability, contamination levels, and other scientific checks will be carried out on its cell-grown sausages and burgers (made without GM additives) to see if they can be manufactured at scale.
Should all boxes be ticked (and some question whether the industry can be ever scaled), then the startup will go to market looking to raise £70m plus to help build 20,000 to 200,000-litre bioreactors and begin manufacturing its alternative meat products.
UK risks missing out on £2bn windfall
Dillon says the UK risks missing out on a £2bn windfall (preventing the UK becoming a powerhouse for cultivated meat, exporting its products and technology across the globe and reducing the UK’s reliance on imported meat) and losing thousands of jobs amid a brain drain unless the Food Standard Agency’s (FSA’s) approval process of cultivated meat is speeded up in the UK.
Dillon tells Future Food Finance: “We think we can be a hub here but we need to work together with the government, especially on the regulation point.
“If the pace of getting safe food products out is not as fast as it could be in other markets, we are going to have to face that choice of where do we raise money? Where do we raise capital? And that could be another market!”
The threat from Ivy Farm (its name is a play on in vitro) - and other UK cultivated meat firms - comes amid a crucial time for the industry.
Cultivated meat firms argue they can bring huge environmental and economic benefits to economies like the UK but critics say astronomical manufacturing costs - and production complexities - mean the industry can’t be scaled and investors are ploughing millions into nothing more than a bet.
There are signs that the UK government is keen to embrace cultivated meat.
Last year, FSA chair professor Susan Jebb described cultivated meat as one of “the new innovations that might help us to change course” away from climate catastrophe.
The UK government has also said it will review its Novel Food regulations, saying post-Brexit it will no longer follow EU rules (EU product approval for the technology can take up to three years) and the UK system will “support innovation in the sustainable protein sector”.
Post-Brexit, the FSA is now handling UK Novel Food applications, previously handled by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Yet Dillon fears the FSA Novel Food system will be similar to EFSA’s “black box” process, which would leave firms like Ivy Farm, which has yet to file an application with the FSA, in limbo.
Dillon says: “It means that we would submit a dossier and not hear anything for up to a year. That means, what do we do? Do we stop then doing R&D? Do we stop then deploying capital investment for manufacturing?
“If we don’t have a more open dialogue with them and an iterative approach to doing this, our investors will simply not invest in UK cultivated meat companies.
“They will put their money into companies that are in markets with a more transparent regulatory process.”
Calls for more iterative approach
Instead, Ivy Farm is calling for a more iterative approach, where the regulator and cultivated firm would work closely together pre-authorisation.
If Ivy Farm’s plea falls on death ears, Dillon says one option is that Ivy Farm would likely pursue a dual-market approval process, in the UK and either the US or Singapore.
A further hindrance, according to Emma Lewis, Ivy Farm VP product, is the regulator not factoring in tech advancements.
She said: “Our technology is nascent, so it’s evolving all the time. The situation in the UK and Europe at the moment is you submit your dossier on one process and then if it evolves that submission is then obsolete.
“You need to submit your new process, so I think that is another element where we would want to work with the FSA in terms of if our technology evolves during that submission that we can make small tweaks rather than having the whole resubmission.”
Peter Quigley, deputy director of regulatory services, FSA, said: “To date no applications have been made to sell cultured meat in the UK, although the FSA is actively engaging with a number of companies who intend to seek authorisation for cell-cultured products.
“If a business submits an application, we will assess it using our risk analysis process. The applicant must provide comprehensive scientific evidence to demonstrate their products are safe, to allow their products to be authorised and placed on the market.
“The FSA is available to provide guidance to companies on the regulatory steps involved in this process."
The regulatory issue was central to a recent event hosted at Parliament in the UK by Ivy Farm and the Good Food Institute - in which they called for more investment in the sector as well as regulatory changes.
Politicians from all parties, the FSA, along with representatives from companies including Roslin Technologies, Multus Media, CellulaREvolution, Waitrose, and Nomad Foods also attended.
“I guess the main ambition was really to advocate that cultivated meat should be at the forefront of food technology in the UK,” said Lewis, adding that at the event the FSA said it was open to working with Ivy Farm on the Novel Food process.
Where Ivy Farm is at?
Ivy Farm recently raised £10m- less than £40m previously earmarked - to build a “proof of concept” pilot plant which Dillon says will be up-and-running in June this year.
Should the concept be proved then it’s on to the manufacturing stage, with cells grown in giant 20,000 to 200,000-litre capacity tanks via Ivy Farm’s “unique scaffold” system where cells, which are exposed to nutrients and vitamins, grow.
Ivy Farm, which has raised £26.5m to date, will look to raise £70m plus to fund the manufacturing stage, Dillon says.
Dillon says: “Once you are in 600 litres a lot of the engineering packages is kind of proven at that scale.
“Can you grow it up? Can you get the cell density? Can you make sure you haven’t got contaminations and consistency of product?”
Its plan is to make sausages, then meatball beefburgers for retail and foodservice by 2023, aiming to produce up to 12,000 tonnes of cultured pork per year by 2025.
However, there are some who believe it can’t be done, with some of the challenges explained in this article and that investors are wasting their investment.
But Dillon says the challenges are “surmountable” and believes more cultivated meat products, following the first approval in Singapore, will be on the market in 2023, most likely in the US or Singapore.
It is a question of “when” not “if”, he adds.
Ivy Farm building up team
Over the past year, Ivy Farm, which was co-founded by Russ Tucker, originally from a family of butchers and whose non-GMO production process uses technology developed at Oxford University in the same building that developed the Covid-19 vaccine, has grown from a team of 18 to 50 and has recently moved into a new 18,000ft facility in Oxford.
It has recently been talking to gourmet sausage specialist Heck Foods over a partnership that might see cultivated Heck sausages in UK supermarkets in the future.
Investor appetite for cultured meat companies appears not to have waned, despite some quarters been circumspect about its chances.
Dillon adds: “We’ve got to prove that our technology can scale and that we have got to prove that we can commercialise it and investors have got to do their due diligence.
“There is hype around a lot of different technology but the good investors ask the right questions. There is always going to be funding there for funding the right ideas and the right technology.”