Lab-grown meat – not yet on the menu
It is now eight years since the first lab-grown burger was unveiled by a team of scientists at Maastricht University, but since then the path to market has been slow. Lab-grown meat has attracted significant investment and there appears to be a large, untapped customer base waiting for products to hit the shelves. Could patents be playing a part in the delay, as has been asserted by some parts of the media?
The worldwide market value of substitute meat products was estimated to be $11 billion in 2019, and is expect to grow to $35 billion by 2027. Consumer habits are changing rapidly: in the UK increasing numbers of people are adopting vegetarian, pescatarian or vegan diets, with one survey recording the number of vegans increasing by 40% to a record 1.5 million people in 2020. Plant-based alternatives to meat such as the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have reached the mass market.
It seems that a growing awareness of the environmental harm caused by livestock farming is behind this trend. In August 2019 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report highlighting the impact that livestock farming has in driving climate change. Livestock farming is also a leading cause of habitat destruction in some parts of the world, notably the Amazon basin.
Meat substitutes conventionally look to a plant-based source of protein such as soya or wheat gluten. Lab-grown meat (also known as cultivated meat) is meat grown in a bioreactor and not requiring the slaughter of an animal. This offers the promise of a more realistic alternative to regular meat. Cultivated meat also offers a more sustainable alternative to livestock farming, to create a meat product that is as authentic as possible with a significant reduction in carbon intensity. The target market for cultivated meat is likely to be regular meat eaters who wish to reduce the carbon intensity of their diet but do not wish to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. A recent survey found that 80% of people in the UK and US are open to eating cultivated meat.
Since the first lab-grown burger, cultivated meat has hit the headlines intermittently. In December 2018 a team of researchers at Aleph Farms in Israel produced the first steak grown from cells in a laboratory. In November 2020 the authorities in Singapore became the first in the world to approve a cultivated meat product for sale to the public: “chicken bites” produced by US company Eat Just, Inc. However, cultivated meat is not expected to be widely available in shops for at least a few more years, and may remain more expensive than regular meat until the early 2030s.
To develop a cultivated meat product requires access to a cell line – a cell culture developed from a single cell obtained from an animal. Currently, most if not all cell lines for the food industry are proprietary, unlike for medical research where open access cell lines are common. The Good Food Institute are funding the creation of cell lines that will be openly accessible, and building a storage repository for a library of cell lines accessible for a fee. However, so far only one academic group has deposited a cell line. The high cost of R&D in developing cultivated meat products, including the cost of developing proprietary cell lines, is likely to disincentivise private companies from joining this initiative, with the Good Food Institute estimating that global investment in cultivated meat topped $366 million in 2020. It is understandable that companies will want to protect this investment by filing for patent protection.
To get an overview of the patent landscape for lab-grown meat we searched a public patent database for patent applications in the names of 28 major companies we identified as being active in the meat substitutes industry. We then reviewed their patent portfolios to identify patent applications relating to lab-grown meat (as opposed to plant-based meat substitutes or other related technology). It should be noted that this process cannot give a definitive picture of all patents relevant to the lab-grown meat industry, owing to the possible omission of smaller companies who may have filed patent applications, and also because patent applications are not published for 18 months and may have been filed in a different name and then assigned to one of the major companies. Nevertheless, we believe our review to be representative.
The first striking finding was that in total a relatively small number of patent applications have been filed for lab-grown meat: our review identified only 26 patent families (a patent application for an invention filed in one or more countries). Those patent families are held by a total of 10 different companies. The single largest patent applicant (8 patent families) identified was Upside Foods, a US company which was only founded in 2015 and yet appears to be moving to a dominant IP position. Their focus is on developing a lab-grown chicken product, for which they are currently seeking regulatory approval, and which is likely to appear soon on the menu of a Michelin starred restaurant in San Francisco. Other major patent applicants include Aleph Farms, Future Meats and Mosa Meat.
The earliest patent applications we identified predate the first lab-grown burger. Indeed, one of the earliest patents for lab-grown meat was first filed in 1997 and finally granted in 2007 in the name of the inventor Willem Frederik Van Eelen. The patent provides broad protection for a meat product produced through a particular process of culturing animal cells in a medium to produce a finished meat product comprising solidified muscle tissue. This patent has now been assigned to Eat Just, Inc. Despite this long history, there has been a significant surge in patent applications in recent years: indeed, over 60% of the patent applications we identified have been published for the first time in 2020 or 2021. Looking to the types of activities covered by the patent applications, virtually all target the manufacturing process: claiming the method of producing a lab-grown meat product or the industrial apparatus or materials used. This is to be expected given that the primary commercial objective of most companies filing for patent protection will be to block their rival manufacturers. Allied to this, over 60% of the patent applications also target the end result – a lab-grown meat product for human consumption, though in many cases this protection is restricted to the process by which the product is produced. A patent that is granted and covers either the manufacturing process or the end result would be a powerful commercial tool allowing the patentee to carve out a significant part of the market for themselves.
Despite the fact that the cell line is critical to the ability to produce lab-grown meat, only a handful of the patent applications directly disclose or claim the cell line. There may be several reasons for this: perhaps a desire to keep this key component as a trade secret, and perhaps a feeling that the chances of securing patent protection for this part of the process is constrained by the rules in place in various patent offices on the protection of biological processes.
In our judgement, the low number of patent applications that have been filed, relative to the large sums of money that have been invested in developing this technology mean that the patent system is unlikely to be a significant factor in the slow progress from laboratory to kitchen. Rather, this is a new and developing field with significant technical challenges to be overcome before a product is commercially viable. The lengthy process of obtaining regulatory approval for products is likely also to be a factor.
With sustainability, environmental and animal welfare issues at the forefront of many business minds, it will be interesting area of development with investors keen to see the meat we consume replaced with a proprietary patented food product. It will also be interesting to see how consumers accept these new non-animal products.
This article was prepared by HGF Patent Director Richard Gover.