Hoxton Farms, a U.K. startup that wants to produce animal fat without using animals, has raised £2.7 million in seed funding.
The round is led by Founders Fund, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm founded by Peter Thiel. Also participating is Backed, Presight Capital, CPT Capital and Sustainable Food Ventures.
Still at the R&D stage, Hoxton Farms says it will use the funding to grow its interdisciplinary science team in a new purpose-built lab in London’s Old Street. “[We] will be working towards a scalable prototype of our cultivated fat over the next year to 18 months,” co-founder and mathematician Ed Steele tells me.
He started the company with longtime school friend Dr Max Jamilly, who has two degrees in biotechnology and a PhD in synthetic biology (the pair met at pre-school). “I spent my PhD using a genome editing technology called CRISPR to discover better treatments for children's leukaemia,” says Jamilly. “Along the way, I learnt how to grow complex cells at scale -- a fundamental part of the scientific challenge that we face at Hoxton Farms”.
Like other companies in the meat alternative space, the startup is founded on the premise that the traditional meat industry is unsustainable. This is seeing demand for meat alternatives soaring, but, argues Steele, these products still aren’t good enough. “They don’t taste right and they aren’t healthy. They are missing the key ingredient: fat,” he says. And, of course, it's fat that gives meat most of its flavour.
However, meat alternatives typically use plant oils as a fat replacement, which has a number of drawbacks. Some oils are bad for the environment, such as coconut and palm oil, and most lack flavour.
“At Hoxton Farms, we grow real animal fat without the animals,” explains Steele. “Starting from just a few cells, we grow purified animal fat in bioreactors to produce cultivated fat, a cruelty-free and sustainable ingredient that will finally unlock meat alternatives that look, cook and taste like the real thing".
Furthermore, he says that current techniques for culturing animal cells are too expensive. Hoxton Farms is using mathematical and computational modelling to "massively reduce the cost of cell culture," which the company believes will result in a production process “that is cost-effective at scale”.
“We’re combining the latest techniques from computational biology and tissue engineering to do science that wasn’t possible a few years ago,” says Steele. “What sets us apart is the fundamental philosophy that the only way to grow cells cost-effectively at scale is to combine the power of mathematical modelling with synthetic biology”.
It’s envisioned that his computational approach will not only help it compete with other companies working on the same problem -- competitors include Mission Barns in the U.S. and Peace of Meat in Belgium/Israel -- but also enable it to customise fats for different manufacturers. This could include fine tuning the taste profile, physical properties (melting temperature, density, etc.) and nutritional profile (saturated/unsaturated fatty acid ratio etc.).
Meanwhile, Hoxton Farms’ early customers will be plant-based meat companies who seek a more sustainable and flavoursome alternative to plant oils. Much further into the future, the startup will target cultivated meat companies that grow muscle cells but still need a source of fat, and other industries, such as bakery, confectionery and cosmetics.