The phrase ‘alternative meat’ might conjure up all sorts of different ideas in your head of what that might look like. As I discovered, ‘meat alternatives’ are a bit of a catchall term for meat-like products made without the traditional agricultural practices we’re familiar with.
“The sort of meat alternatives we often think of are things like the Impossible Burger, plant-based products that are taking plant proteins and trying to force them to mimic meat in taste and texture. Alternatives also cover cultivated meat, where you actually grow muscle tissue outside of raising an animal, using the same building blocks and structure of meat. That’s what we’re focused on at Opo Bio.”
Dr Olivia Ogilvie is co-founder and CEO of Opo Bio, Aotearoa’s first cultivated meat startup. I asked Olivia to tell me about her journey into cultivated meat, and Opo Bio’s origin.
“I've always been interested in the future of food.
“I completed a PhD in food biochemistry - it wasn't in this space, but it was focused on gluten, looking at how we can change the structure of food to aid its digestion and what impact that has on allergies like celiac disease. No matter the food system, whether it's with wheat and gluten, or with meat, the whole concept of food structure is very relevant to what we’re working on today.
“Throughout my PhD I was closely following alternative proteins and cellular agriculture, because it’s such an interesting area of biochem and the future of food. Cellular agriculture at its basic level is about producing food using cells, and cultivated meat is a subset of that.
“After I finished my PhD, I was lucky enough to get a postdoc academic position at University of Canterbury, working on a project in this space based at University of Auckland. At the same time, I started working at a VC fund as an intern, and then went on to have a part-time analyst role at the fund. Opo Bio is a combination of those two things.
“As an Auckland University spin out, Opo Bio licenses some technology from the uni. The other two founders in the company are part-time academics at the university, part-time at the company. The underlying methods and protocols were developed in an academic research programme, sponsored by a government funded grant. We’re now working through the commercialisation of that research.
“We’re still a young company, we officially closed our funding round and spun out of the uni in July last year. We now have a research facility in Newmarket, and the team is growing.”
I asked Olivia why she believes cultivated meat is seen as contentious by some.
Says Olivia, “I think any new technology being used in food is contentious at least to begin with - food is so much more than food - it’s culture, it’s people, and everyone has an opinion on it. When it comes to cultivated meat, it depends who you ask as to whether or not it’s seen as contentious.
“There's established problems with plant based meat products, because you can't really create structured products. It's hard to recreate a steak or chicken breast or a piece of fish that actually tastes like what you’re trying to substitute. While there’s some good attempts out there, lots of people would recognise plant-based substitutes are different to the real thing, because there are inherent differences to do with the sensory properties and creating structure we’re familiar with. They also don't have the same nutritional profile, and therefore using them as a substitute in your diet could have issues.
“What we’re hoping to do with cultivated meat is overcome those issues and create products that do really truly taste and look and cook like meat because they are meat – theoretically they have the same nutritional profile, so people can use them as substitutes in their diet and not have to worry about the nutritional aspects.
“From Opo’s perspective, we're coming at it from the angle that by 2050, we're going to need 70% more meat to feed the world. And it seems pretty unlikely right now that we can do that with conventional animal agriculture. We think we need different ways to produce food and that cultivated meat is one of those ways. We see this technology as an ‘and’ not an ‘or’ to conventional farming.
“Particularly in New Zealand, some see it as contentious because they think cultivated meat will replace animal agriculture - there's some quite strong feelings about the future of food and the future of agriculture and what that might look like. We’re not saying that. Animal agriculture will always have an important place in our society and the way we consume food, but we need more food. New Zealand will still keep being the best in the world at producing low impact grass-fed beef and sheep, but we can take our reputation for high quality meat and build on that through cultivated meat. There’s a global opportunity here and if we’re not doing it, someone else will - why shouldn’t New Zealand reap the benefits of this opportunity?”
What are some of the unexpected challenges that Opo Bio is facing?
“It's obviously quite technical work - we’re focusing a lot of time in the lab, and that’s where basically all of our staff spends 99% of their time. We have a lot of technical challenges to work through - doing this work is difficult!” laughs Olivia.
“The other element is the regulatory frameworks globally to allow sales of these products. We’re B2B focused so consumer sales aren’t such a worry, but where we want to be on our regulatory pathways is being able to provide our customers with all the information they need to include in their regulatory applications. We are building a strategy internally to make sure all the data is collected as we test and develop these cell strains so the legwork is done for our customers.
“The global regulatory framework for cultivated meat is evolving pretty quickly. Right now Singapore is the only country with a specific framework for this. And hopefully, the US will release a framework specific for cultivated meat within the next 6 to 12 months. In New Zealand, or in the EU, we have frameworks, but they’re existing novel food frameworks, not specific to cultivated meat, whereas Singapore in the US are developing frameworks that should lay out their expectations of what companies need to do to create consumer-safe products. That makes New Zealand's policy job easy - we can tweak things around the edges that suit us, but there's actually something to base things off.
“There’s an Aussie company that has submitted to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand under the novel foods standard to seek approval for a cultivated meat product. We’re pretty excited to see the results of that, because it gives us a benchmark.”
I asked Olivia how her previous experience has helped her lead and grow Opo Bio to date.
“As I've already touched on, I did a stint at a venture capital fund. Being a deep tech startup, and having worked at a deep tech venture fund, it’s given me a lot of exposure to seeing startups grow.
“In my experience, most deep tech companies in the first couple of years have faced similar challenges, and while they might have different overall concepts around whatever they’re working on, there’s lots of similarities we can draw on, such as staying focused, trying to develop your tech, trying to develop your commercial proposition etc. So it’s been invaluable to have a bit of a front row seat and think about how we might approach things at Opo.”
What sort of future obstacles are the Opo team anticipating?
Says Olivia, “There’s a need to make sure we stay focused. Right now, we're focused on the cell lines and ingredients we’re developing. Keeping that focus is a constant challenge, not letting ourselves get distracted by all of the other exciting stuff that we could do, and focusing on proving technical milestones, so that we can advance our commercial traction.”
What advice would Olivia give for someone who's wanting to start their own startup or jump into the world of startups?
“I think the first thing is to make sure that you've identified a proper problem. I’m sure lots of people would say that, but I mean really understanding the problem and how your solution actually solves that problem. A lot of people do it the other way around, having developed a solution and then trying to find a problem.
“There’s also a lack of understanding that startups are really hard. Understanding what you want to do and what you want to get out of a startup is important to think about, because maybe you could achieve the same results by exploring your idea as a hobby. You don't necessarily have to have a full-blown venture-backed startup to achieve what you want.
“So just think about what you're wanting to do and why you're wanting to do it, and really have that conviction from the beginning, because it is going to be tough.
“I think that conviction piece is really key. If you throw yourself into a project, and you kind of get halfway through the project, and you realize that it's not everything that you thought it was gonna be, then you need something that can keep you going outside of just ‘I run my own company, and I've raised so much money’.”
And finally, what's next for Opo Bio?
“We have a laser focus on developing our bovine and porcine cell strains in terms of the product we offer.
“We're raising some money this year, which is exciting. We are trying to bring out our first commercial licenses for ourselves. Hopefully by the end of this year, or early next year, we’ll be in a position to bring on our first two large commercial customers, and really just building up our customer base and gaining commercial traction.
“It’s an exciting time to be part of the future of food, and it’s exciting that Opo Bio can be part of New Zealand’s role in that future.”
For more info visit: https://www.opobio.com/