Faced with a rapidly growing population, unsustainable food production and resource limitations, the world’s food security is in a fragile place. A 2022 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on global nutrition estimated that 2.3 billion people worldwide faced moderate to severe food insecurity in 2021. At the same time, any gradual progress toward the United Nations’ (UN) Zero Hunger goal is challenged by political, social and environmental uncertainties. Combined, these factors highlight the need for innovative new ways to increase agricultural output and sustainable food production to meet increasing demands.
With the dire consequences of food insecurity looming on the horizon and the need for sustainable food systems, scientists have been searching for alternative food production methods—a realm in which lab-grown food products such as cultured meat have been considered to be a promising solution.
The hunger for man-made meat
Since the world’s first-ever lab-grown meat was introduced back in 2013, it has looked increasingly likely that such cultured proteins could be a solid staple in the future of food. Despite its high-tech trappings, the concept of cultured meat can be traced back to tissue cultures from the 1950s. In the years since, the lab-grown food industry has seen an exponential boom thanks to technological advancements and is now projected to grow to a value of US$320 million by 2028.
Recognising the key role lab-grown food will play in food systems, Singapore similarly broke frontiers in the cultivated meat industry as the first country to approve cultivated meat sales in 2020. Following this, the endless possibilities of cell differentiation and the opportunity to rethink food systems stirred Elwin Tan, Jason Chua and Benjamin Chua on a mission to revolutionise the current meat industry and improve food system sustainability.
The trio, who were then PhD students at A*STAR, saw the value of their academic research in stem cell differentiation and sought to harness these molecular mechanisms to culture meat tissues with muscle and fat profiles resembling that of industrially produced meat.
Together, they founded the startup Meatiply, a portmanteau of the words ‘meat’ and ‘multiply’, to commercialise their lab-grown meat.
“We felt that this [name] was a straightforward way to convey our vision of creating technologies and products that allow us to break free from the many problems of the ever-growing meat industrial complex,” explained Tan, adding that some of these problems include the risk of infectious diseases, inefficient land and water usage, large greenhouse gas emissions, questionable labour practices and animal cruelty.
Cultivating a journey of innovation
Meatiply began its journey in the laboratories of A*STAR. In 2014, Tan and Benjamin Chua were research officers at A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS). Both of them, along with Jason Chua—who joined the same lab the year prior—were starting in academia and involved in skeletal and mesenchymal stem cell research.
Shortly after they joined GIS, Tan came across an article on growing meat from stem cells which immediately piqued his interest. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, we’re growing skeletal muscle and fat stem cells here, could we also give this a shot?’” he said. Although Tan remembers it being a fringe idea at the time, the idea nestled its way into the back of his mind as he and the rest of the trio delved deeper into muscle development research.
Eventually, the trio began to work extensively on a collaborative research project that focused on understanding and stimulating muscle cell proliferation and differentiation. In particular, they looked at the mechanism behind a cancer-induced muscle-wasting syndrome caused by excessive fatty-acid oxidation. It was here that they crossed paths with Bin Tean Teh, Senior Principal Investigator at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), who became the eventual fourth co-founder of Meatiply.
Their experience working with Teh convinced the trio to further pursue their PhD studies with Teh as their supervisor. Throughout their PhD candidature, the trio developed not only a closer bond with one another, but also a shared enthusiasm for the many possibilities of stem cell research.
“Being part of a community of inspiring researchers opened our eyes to the various possibilities in stem cell research,” recalled Benjamin Chua.
All this while, Tan’s idea of lab-grown meats remained tucked away until a major turning point in 2019 finally kickstarted the trio’s journey: the Singapore Food Agency’s (SFA) launch of the 30-by-30 Food Story programme to combat Singapore’s overreliance on importing food to supply the nation’s nutritional needs. This, along with a growing number of successful alternative protein companies and startups like Shiok Meats, another A*STAR spinoff company, led to Tan realising that what he thought was a fringe idea was becoming more and more mainstream.
“Also, at the end of 2019, a brand-new Singapore Food Story First Alternative Protein Seed Grant Call was announced,” said Jason Chua. “We jumped at the opportunity even before finishing our PhD degrees and were awarded the grant.”
From bench to bioreactor
Despite the exciting opportunities presented by the lab-grown meat industry, the leap from research to commercialisation was certainly no easy feat. On the research and development side, transferring their knowledge of human cell culture to animal cells was also not as simple as they’d hoped.
“Until this time, we had mostly been working on human cells, and the literature told us that animal cells were not too different,” explained Benjamin Chua. “That being said, there were still several challenges that we needed to work through. Despite being similar, we found that the techniques and protocols we were so used to performing on human muscle cells did not directly translate to animal cells.”
It was teamwork and rigorous research that eventually led to the trio’s discovery of the right protocols and techniques for meat cultivation using chicken muscle cell lines, and have continued to propel the trio further in their journey of alternative protein production.
According to the trio, this collaborative spirit is key to cultivating an innovative mindset. Innovation requires a collective effort to break an issue down into different parts to be tackled with each person’s strengths, they explained. As Jason Chua points out, they each possess a particular set of strengths that complement the others, and the balance of these strengths makes them a ‘complementary team’.
Jason Chua also highlighted the importance of communicating not only with the team but also with other researchers and industry leaders to gain additional perspectives. Open conversations and constructive ideation strengthen the team’s morale and support their progress in tackling food production for a more sustainable future, Jason Chua explained.
Finally, Tan has one last bit of advice for young researchers: be cautiously optimistic. “It is not just an innovative mindset that is required to address the world’s greatest challenges. It is also the belief that if enough people work on a problem and explore all the strategies to address it, we will eventually arrive at a solution,” said Tan, to which Benjamin Chua immediately chimed in with the familiar adage, “If you never try, you’ll never know.”