There are two broad categories within the meat-substitute space specifically: plant-based foods that strive to mimic the texture, look and feel of real meat, and "lab-grown" cultivated meat that's created from animal cells in a test tube. While each is effectively trying to solve similar problems, vis-à-vis saving the planet by weaning humans off their animal protein dependency, they each have their respective pros and cons.
For starters, plant-based meat alternatives are already widely available to buy globally, whereas lab-grown meat is still in its relative infancy, with Singapore currently the only market in the world where cultured meat is permitted to be sold. The Asian city-state has emerged as a center of gravity of sorts for the burgeoning fake meat movement -- just this week, Australia's Vow announced a $49.2 million round of funding to bring its cultured meat product to Singaporean restaurants by the end of this year.
It's against that backdrop that Meatable, a VC-backed Dutch company that recently debuted its first product lineup in the form of synthetic sausages, today announced a partnership with Singaporean food startup Love Handle to create what it touts as "the world's first hybrid meat innovation center."
This builds on Meatable's recent expansion into the Singaporean market where it partnered with Esco Aster to develop cultivated pork products, with plans afoot to invest some $60 million in the next five years in the broader Singaporean market.
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The phrase "hybrid meat" in the context of a lab-grown meat company could perhaps stir some dystopian vision straight from the pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but when you learn that Love Handle is in fact a "plant-based butcher," one can start to relax a little -- Meatable isn't stitching together components from different animals. The two companies are teaming up to blend the best of both their respective worlds -- cultured meat and plant-based protein alternatives.
What Meatable and Love Handle are striving for here isn't entirely novel -- others are working toward a similar end, and we're seeing similar moves elsewhere to reduce animal consumption through products that mesh real meat with plant-based alternatives. The idea there is that while a burger might still contain real beef, it contains less of it, which can only be better for the environment (and people's health).
But what is the motivation, exactly, from a company such as Meatable, which operates entirely off the back of its "fake real-meat" foundations? It all boils down to costs, and getting things to market more quickly. Cultivated meat is expensive to develop in a lab setting, and critics argue that there is little to suggest it will be affordable enough to scale at any meaningful level in the near future. On top of that, there are significant regulatory barriers (even in Singapore where it is approved for consumption), not to mention the mental barriers associated with eating meat grown in a lab.
So by meshing cultured and plant-based meat alternatives, this could essentially lower all the barriers to entry.
"We've decided to start launching with hybrid products in Singapore to help customers become acquainted with cultivated meat faster," Meatable's chief commercial officer Caroline Wilschut explained to TechCrunch. "We know that the idea of consuming cultivated meat still requires further education in terms of what it is, how we develop it and how we can produce it without harming animals, the planet and people. The faster we launch, the faster we can start that education to build consumer acceptance and begin making an impact with harm-free meat."
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It's worth noting that Meatable isn't going all-in on the hybrid model -- it's still very much continuing its lab-based work to roll out 100% lab-grown meat. But with the new innovation center in Singapore, it's "seizing an additional opportunity in a supportive regulatory environment," according to Wilschut.
"Meatable continues with the development of full cultivated meat -- however, we've also determined that hybrid products can be launched faster than entirely cultivated meat," she said. "Meatable believes that a hybrid product will help gain acceptance amongst customers and maximise its reach within Singapore."
The goal here can perhaps be compared to something like that of a hybrid electric vehicle -- it helps bring a nascent technology to the masses more quickly. And while there are a few other players dabbling with hybrids in terms of adding a bit of cultivated meat to a substantively plant-based product, Meatable says that it's turning the tables on this concept.
"In this instance, Meatable and Love Handle are taking a cultivated meat-led approach, which means they are starting with Meatable's cultivated meat and adding Love Handle's plant-based protein to develop a hybrid product that -- in testing -- has emerged as indistinguishable from real meat in taste and texture," Wilschut said.
This gets to the crux of why hybrid products could be a better idea. Purely plant-based meat alternatives typically lack the taste and texture of real meat, so by bringing together two distinct forms of animal-free meat alternatives, this could help everything scale for everyone involved -- a win-win for both Meatable and Love Handle.
This leads us back to the main thrust of today's announcement. What, exactly, will the new innovation center in Singapore do? According to Wilschut, the lab is scheduled to open fully in 2023, with both companies co-investing in talent starting with around 10 new hires. It will sport a kitchen and a lab featuring all the machines and materials needed to bring hybrid food products to market, while it will also serve as a commercial front-end for everything going on behind the scenes, with space for consumers to try and buy products directly.
"Both companies will invest in the lab, operate the innovation center and will together hire the talent and resources to run it," Wilschut said.
Meatable and Love Handle say they plan to commercialize the new hybrid products starting in 2024, with a range spanning dumplings, pulled pork, pork belly, meatballs, cold cuts and patties.