An Interview with Matt Anderson-Baron of Future Fields

Future Fields is an innovative Canadian company working to bring the reality of cellular agriculture to consumers everywhere. Lab-grown meat, milk, and silk are all possible within this new technology field. YEGBiz recently interviewed Future Fields CSO, Matt Anderson-Baron, to explore where the industry is going.

YEGBiz: Today we are interviewing Matt Anderson-Baron who is the co-founder and lead scientist of Future Fields, one of Canada’s leading companies in the field of cellular agriculture. Matt, what does Future Fields do?

Matt Anderson-Baron: We’re a biotech startup in the field of cellular agriculture research and development based here in Edmonton. So, our aim is to commercialize cultured meat in Canada. So basically, we want to grow meat in the lab for human consumption.

YEGBiz: Tell me what that entails. How do you grow meat in a lab?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Although the idea is fairly simple, there are a lot of technical nuances to it. First, we isolate muscle cells from a live animal. This is done in a similar manner to a muscle biopsy that are performed on humans all the time. So the procedure itself is relatively non-invasive and doesn’t really harm the animal at all.

Once you have your tissue sample, you dissociate that tissue in a liquid media. The media provides all the nutrients that the cells need to grow and replicate. Once you have these cells in this media under the right conditions, you can grow enough cells so that you can re-create more tissue in the lab. Meat is primarily muscle tissue, so we want to grow more muscle tissue.

As I mentioned, it gets a little more complicated in how the cells grow and making that process efficient enough to produce meat, but that’s the basic idea.

YEGBiz: Now, does it have the same form and texture that you would see down at the butcher’s shop?

Matt Anderson-Baron: I mean, it’s too soon to say, but that’s the idea – that we would be able to recreate that product. It’s going to take some time, but the goal is to create a product that is indistinguishable from conventional meat products in terms of taste, nutritional profile, price, and texture. And we believe that it will eventually get there.

YEGBiz: Tell me about Future Fields. How many people are involved?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Right now, we’re a company of four. As you mentioned, I’m the lead scientist and my background is in cell biology. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Alberta in cell biology. So, a lot of the techniques and the skill set that I learnt in my grad studies applies to cultured meat production inside a lab. My thesis work was more in the biomedical field, but again, the techniques can be applied to cultured meat production as well.

We have another business and technology strategist who’s also a founder. We have a social scientist. She’s more involved in things like grant writing and looking at how this kind of thing is going to be regulated by the government. We also have another biologist who will be joining us, who will be helping out with some of that research and development.

YEGBiz: When did you incorporate?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Two years ago. So, we’ve been working on this for about two years now. All part-time. We all have full-time jobs right now, so it’s been slower than we’d like it to be. But we’re starting to gain some momentum, particularly within the last couple of months.

YEGBiz: Are there a lot of companies coming into the space right now, and is that a worldwide phenomenon?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Yeah, it’s exploded in the last year-and-a-half or so. I think the first real company started in 2015, so about four years ago. So, it’s still a relatively new field.

YEGBiz: What company was that?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Memphis Meats, who are based in the US. Most of the companies are out of the States. A lot of them have gone to Silicon Valley for money. There are a handful in Europe. Israel has a couple because their government has put a lot of effort into supporting the companies in this space.

As far as we know, we were the only Canadian company. I think there’s one more that’s come up in Vancouver. I don’t know how new they are. I just found out about them. But worldwide, they’re saying there are about 30 cultured meat companies now. I’m only aware of about half of those, so I think a lot of them are very early-on and just getting things going. So, in four years, we’ve gone from 1 to 30.

YEGBiz: Now, from an R&D lens, is there a number of new proprietary technologies that people are applying in this space, and if so, what problems are they trying to solve?

Matt Anderson-Baron: There are three major technical hurdles to cultured meat production. One of them is absolutely essential, and there’s really no way to get around it which is basically coming up with a cheaper formulation for the growth media. That is, the nutritive media that allows the cells to grow and replicate.

Currently, the culture media that the biomedical industry has used in the past is relatively expensive for cultured meat applications. Typically, those kinds of media are running anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per litre. And with that, because we’re talking about growing these cells in 20,000 litre batches, obviously that is going to get very expensive.

We’re looking at developing media formulations that are probably going to need to be somewhere around $3 to $4 per liter. That’s not necessarily impossible. A lot of it has to do with the fact that it hasn’t been something that anyone’s tried to work on because for the biomedical industry, the status-quo has worked. So, you don’t question it.

Typically, most cell culture media is supplemented with fetal calf serum. So, add this serum to the media because it contains a lot of the growth factors and different hormones that help support robust cell growth. So, the serum itself is also very expensive. It runs around 1000 bucks a litre.

And obviously trying to create an animal-free product doesn’t make a lot of sense if the production process requires a whole bunch of baby cow blood. So, trying to develop a substitute for that serum from a functional standpoint is one of the main technical hurdles, and that’s the one that our company is focusing on.

Then the other two, which may or may not be absolutely essential, are getting the cells to grow on scaffolds and within a bioreactor. So, scaffolds are necessary because typically cells in culture only grow in a single layer. They don’t stack on top of each other and grow in three-dimensions. That means that you’re not going to get a whole lot of tissue out of your sample because of a lack of surface area to grow on.

So, people have come up with ideas to get the cells to grow on a 3-dimensional scaffold so that they can grow and create a 3-dimensional tissue. The problem with that is you need a scaffold that is cheap, and it also has to be edible because it’s eventually going to become a part of the product.

Then the last hurdle is bioreactor design. Bioreactors are basically just big vats that you would grow the cells in. These have been implemented in a lot of other industries like the pharmaceuticals and even food production. But there’s nothing specific for cultured meat production. And because there’s a lot of technical nuances that will significantly effect cell growth; things like fluid dynamics, pH, and temperature – there’s a need for a purpose-drive bioreactor design specifically for cultured meat.

YEGBiz: Okay. So, you mentioned three things. You’ve got the bioreactor, the scaffold, and then the media. So, you said you’re focusing on the media. Is it your intent for Future Fields to become a meat producer or are you an input producer for a bigger cellular meat operation?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Probably a bit of both. Again, we’re focused on this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s the one area that we’re currently best positioned to tackle based on our skill set because we have two biologists on the team.

But its also the largest contributer to cultured meat production costs. So it seems like the most obvious thing to start with.  But, yeah, eventually the idea is that if we do come up with a cheap formulation that could work for cultured meat applications, we could also commercialize that product and use that as a source of revenue to support future R&D. It might also be something that we license out to a company that already produces cultured meat.

YEGBiz: To get this to a commercial scale, is that a five-year endeavor, or is that a 50-year endeavour?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Yeah. It’s tough to say at this point. Optimistically, we think it’s probably around five years, but it’s going to depend on a lot of things. I think a big hurdle is going to be the regulatory issues and the legislation surrounding cultured meat. You know, getting any type of new technology to be accepted, especially when it comes to food, can be cumbersome. So, we’re also focused on getting in touch with the right people now so that say in five years, if we do have a product ready, the framework to get the product to market will be already established.

In the States right now, they’ve already got that conversation going. I think they decided that the USDA and the FDA are going to jointly regulate these types of products because it kind of falls into a weird space where it’s almost pharmaceutical technology, but at the same time, it’s food. So, that’s going to be one of the big things to tackle now to try to expedite the entire process of getting it onto the market. So, optimistically I’d like to say five years, but who knows

YEGBiz: So, right now, you’re applying cellular agriculture to meats. So, it would replace chicken, and pork, and beef. Can it be applied to other foodstuffs as well?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean cellular agriculture encompasses anything where you’re using biological techniques to produce agriculture products. So, other companies are working on things like milk. They’ve engineered yeast cells to produce a lot of the proteins that are found in dairy so that they can create a milk substitute that is basically the same as the milk you would buy right now.

Those companies have raised a ton of money. I think their Series B was just in the neighbourhood of like 40 million. I think those types of products, you’ll probably see a lot sooner than cultured meat. There’s another company that’s working with leather, and another company working on engineering cells to make spider’s silk. There are a lot of different applications using this kind of technologies.

YEGBiz: When it comes to the meat itself, what is the impact going to be to traditional livestock operations? What does the world look like? Do the ranchers down in Southern Alberta have to be worried?

Matt Anderson-Baron: The implications are huge, but it’s tough to say until this product is available to the public. But I don’t think that ranchers have anything to worry about. Cultured meat is never meant to replace conventional farming. Once to supplement the supply.

Scientists are predicting that by within a decade or so, the global meat consumption will outweigh the global supply. Conventional farming methods are only so efficient. There’s only so much meat you can produce with conventional farming. We’re already using a ton of land to produce meat. And not just using the land for cattle to graze, but we also have to grow a whole lot of grain to feed the cattle too.

Some countries feed upwards of 50% of their grain to their livestock. So, it’s a pretty inefficient way of doing it, and it’s just not sustainable.

So, I think the idea is that it’s important to start thinking about novel ways to produce food, and culture meat is just one of those ways. A lot of the data we have is solely theoretical because we won’t know until culture meat is at commercial levels, but the thinking is that this will be a much more efficient way to produce meat.

Transportation is another factor to consider. We can grow cultured meat anywhere. We don’t need to truck meat from somewhere in southern Alberta to Edmonton. We can grow it right here. So, there are a lot of things that would have an impact on meat production in general.

But again, the reality is that cellular agriculture is never going to completely replace traditional methods. There’s always going to be a need for conventional farming – especially smaller sustainable operations. More intensive farming practices, like concentrated animal feeding operations, are the kinds of practices that we would like to see replaced with cultured meat. Those are typically the more problematic areas of meat production.

YEGBiz: Problematic in what way?

Matt Anderson-Baron: In terms of environmental impacts, animal welfare issues, waste production – those sorts of things. Typically, those are more associated with the factory farm type of operations. Not with the smaller family farms.

YEGBiz: If the technology keeps advancing, five years is a very short timeframe. But 50 years is not. Can you see a time when factory farming will no longer be necessary?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Yeah, I do, but whether or not that actually happens is hard to say. Because again, really, it’s going to come down to what consumers choose to buy. If cultured meat is well supported once it’s available and there’s a high demand for it, we would see a reduced need for those types of operations. But consumer behavior is a difficult thing to predict – especially when it comes to introducing new technologies. So, it’s tough to say the magnitude of impact cultured meat will have at this point.

YEGBiz: So, maybe we go back just a second. In five years’ time, ten years’ time, how fast could you grow a side of beef in a vat?

Matt Anderson-Baron: Yeah. So, there’s actually a paper that came out very recently where they really crunched the numbers on cultured meat production from a technical  perspective. I believe the estimates were that it would take about 28 days to produce 3200 kilograms.

YEGBiz: Wow! That’s amazing.

Matt Anderson-Baron: That’s also a fairly conservative estimate. There are ways to increase the efficiency of that where you start taking batches of cells at various time points and splitting them further to increase the output. So theoretically, it may be even higher.

YEGBiz: Okay. In your perfect world in 50-years’ time, and by that time Future Fields ill have had a significant impact on the field of cellular agriculture. What will the world look like when it comes to livestock-based products?

Matt Anderson-Baron: I think what we would like to see is that consumers at a grocery store would see cultured meat products on the shelf right next to conventional meat products. And those products would be labeled accordingly and you as a consumer could make the choice which one you want to purchase.

One would be cell-based meat, and one would be conventional animal-based meat. As a consumer, you would have that choice. So, I think just creating another option for people out there. And hopefully, a viable option for a lot of people.

YEGBiz: Matt Anderson-Baron, thank you very much.

Matt Anderson-Baron: Thank you.