You'd know a chicken nugget if you saw one, right? How about one grown from a single cell, with no animals harmed in the process?
Josh Tetrick is betting not.
He is trying to win over consumers with his lab-grown chicken bite following the world's first approval of his company's cultured chicken in Singapore at the end of 2020.
"We have the freedom to sell across Singapore, whether retail, food service, hawkers, you name it," Tetrick told CNBC Make It.
Starting with an egg
Tetrick is the founder and CEO of Eat Just, the California food start-up responsible for bringing the world's first lab-grown chicken to tables.
Its landmark approval for human consumption may potentially disrupt industrial livestock farms. But when Tetrick started out in 2011, that notion was a pipe dream.
"I had less than $3,000 in my bank account, and the idea was: We're going to start a food company that takes the animal, the live animal, out of the equation of the food system," he said.
Tetrick, who started his career working for non-profit organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa, wanted to fix what he saw as one of the world's biggest problems: Food sustainability.
And for him, the egg came first.
"We decided the place that we're going to start is figuring out a way to make an egg, a chicken egg, from a plant," he said. "All I knew at the time is there were 375,000 species of plants all over the world, and I bet that one of them could scramble like an egg."
Winning investor support
Investors liked his vision. Shortly after he founded the company, billionaire tech investor Vinod Khosla and his business partner Samir Kaul were on board, and invested $500,000 in the idea.
"That was enough to get me off the couch," said Tetrick. "I started hiring food scientists and biochemists and molecular biologists, analytical chemists, chefs."
But the egg was just the beginning.
"What we wanted to do next was real chicken and beef, but not from plants," said Tetrick.
"Real chicken and real beef that didn't require killing an animal, that didn't require using a single drop of antibiotics. And that's broadly a process called cellular agriculture."
How to create cultured meat
The process of creating cultured meat starts with a cell. In this case, from a chicken.
It can be taken either from a live bird through a biopsy, a fresh piece of meat, a cell bank or the root of a feather. That cell is then fed nutrients like those found in soy and corn before being left to mature in a large-scale steel vessel.
The process takes around 14 days from start to finish, and the end product is raw minced meat.
Creating the cell-cultured meat product was the easy part. The harder part was obtaining regulatory approvals, which took two years.
The chicken nugget is now available at Singapore restaurant 1880, retailing at around $17 for a set meal. More restaurants in the city-state are expected to come on board in the coming months.
Singapore takes the world's first bite
Singapore is home to Eat Just's Asia-Pacific headquarters and its first factory in Asia. The company is also considering making Singapore its global manufacturing headquarters for Good Meat.
While the island nation — which is slightly smaller than New York City — may seem an unlikely location for a global meat production facility, Aileen Supriyadi, senior research analyst at Euromonitor International, said several factors are at play.
"Singapore has the 30 by 30 initiative, so the country wants to have 30% of the food to be produced locally (by 2030)," she told CNBC Make It.
"Singapore can also utilize the scientific knowledge, especially the stem cell research. And Singapore being the hub in Asia actually helps those companies be able to export and sell their products to other countries as well."
Revolutionizing animal agriculture
The rise of food start-ups comes amid the scrutiny on industrial farming over its unethical practices and harmful effects on the environment.
The livestock industry, which supports the livelihoods of at least 1.3 billion people worldwide, has been racing to keep up with the demand for meat.
Meantime, every year an estimated 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food. The wider agriculture industry is responsible for 10%-12% of greenhouse gas emissions — a major contributor to climate change.
Not everyone is behind the cultured meat craze, though. Some are still skeptical of its nutritional value and suitability for human consumption, while its environmental and social impact remains to be seen.
However, Tetrick claims the process is cleaner and more ethical than traditional agriculture.
Then there are those who just find the concept odd.
"I say to them that industrialized animal production is probably the strangest and most bizarre thing happening, you're just not aware of it. If there's a way that we can do it better, let's get after it," said Tetrick.
Growing appetite for alternatives
In fact, demand for alternative meat products, such as cultured or plant-based meat, appears to be growing.
A report estimated that the alternative meat market could be worth $140 billion — or 10% of the global meat industry — within a decade.
"In Asia-Pacific, it's actually quite big," Supriyadi said of alternative meat. "In 2020 itself, the market size has reached about $800 million. So potentially with lower price, with greater knowledge, consumers will be more interested to purchase meat alternative products."
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are among the names making waves in the plant-based meat space, while brands like Memphis Meats are tapping cultured products. Tetrick said he welcomes the competition.
"I want companies to come in and be a part of solving the problem," he said. "I hope someone ... decides I think I can do it better than this dude who didn't have any experience of food technology before he started this."
Preparing to go global
However, disrupting the dominance of the established animal agriculture industry will not happen overnight.
"The limiting steps to ultimately making this ubiquitous are regulatory approval, scale and consumer education," noted Tetrick. "We can't just focus on one, we've got to focus on all three."
According to Tetrick, Eat Just has raised over $400 million from investors, including Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, Bill Gates' Gate Ventures and Singapore's Temasek. It is now seeking funding at a valuation of $2 billion.
"We'll continue to raise more capital," he said. "At some point, we'll decide to go public — we want to hit operating profitability first. This won't happen without a lot of capital, there's no getting around it."
But as Eat Just sets its sights on getting regulatory approval in more countries, Tetrick is certain the bet will pay off.
"You have to take leaps of faith every day, right?" he said. "We're acting as if the U.S. will eventually approve it. We're acting as if Europe will eventually approve it."
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