SF Company taps Memphis connection and name brand for innovative startup:
CA: Futuristic food made in labs named Memphis Meats
A futuristic company in San Francisco will exploit Memphis brainpower and reputation for good, old-fashioned eating to help sell meat that comes from cells instead of slaughterhouses.
The start-up named Memphis Meats is perhaps the leader among the world’s four fledgling companies rushing to convert proven science — growing real meat from animal cells — into packages of hamburger, sausages and other meats at your local Kroger.
“We love the meat-loving culture of Memphis; it’s an iconic place,” said Dr. Uma Valeti, a Minnesota cardiologist who is Memphis Meats’ chief executive officer and co-founder. “There’s an association with good meat.”
The nation thinks so, too.
The startup tested about a dozen potential company names in a survey of 1,000 people, and “Memphis Meats” was most popular by far, Valeti said.
Such word choice and associations are important for a new bio-tech firm that will strive to win doubters over. For example, Memphis Meats prefers “cultured meat” to “lab meat” or “test-tube” meat.
The other two co-founders are Nicholas Genovese, a stem cell biologist who has pioneered ways to cultivate livestock stem cells, and Will Clem, a Memphian perfectly suited to bridge the divide between vegetarians and meat lovers.
Clem, 37, has both a background in tissue engineering and a restaurant he opened four years ago in Bartlett called Baby Jacks BBQ.
But Clem weaned himself away from Wright Medical after the Baby Jacks BBQ he opened on the side in 2012 rocketed in sales; without exception, every month has set a sales record, he said.
Now, he’s about to open in Arlington a second Baby Jacks BBQ for carry-out business only and has long-term plans to saturate the Memphis market with dozens of restaurants the same way Whitts Barbecue covers the Nashville area with 25 restaurants.
Clem was poised to open the Arlington restaurant last fall when he received a drop-everything phone call.
“I got a call from Nick (Genovese) saying he wanted to start a company in cultured meat,” he recalled. “After talking to him five or 10 minutes, I packed up the truck and was on the way to visit him the next day.”
Clem would remain hunkered down in a business incubator in San Francisco for the next four months.
Consider that he had just signed a lease and was only two or three weeks away from opening the second Baby Jacks, and had at home a wife, six-year-old and newborn.
“That’s how important I thought that project was,” he said.
Clem, Genovese, Valeti and others worked day and night alongside 14 other start-ups at IndieBio, a downtown San Francisco accelerator devoted to addressing the world’s big problems with biology.
They had a state-of-the-art lab, office space and other start-ups with which to bounce around ideas. “Because we are so far away from home, literally, the focus is on this business and nothing else the entire time,” Clem said.
And several times a day they met with investors to pitch their business.
The pitches worked. By the time Memphis Meats and the other 14 companies gave their seven-minute presentations on “Demo Day” Feb. 4, Memphis Meats had raised $2.75 million, far exceeding its goal of $1.5 million.
Clearing any regulatory hurdles — once they are written for this new paradigm in food — should not be difficult, Clem said.
Just like with traditionally produced meat, regulators are most interested in ensuring the products are safe. Since cultured meat will be made without bacteria, “that’s actually not that tough a hurdle,” Clem said.
Here’s how cultured meat is made: Isolate cow, pig or chicken cells that can regenerate; feed the cells oxygen, sugar, minerals and other nutrients; and use a tank to grow the cells into skeletal muscle that can be harvested in nine to 21 days.
The meat industry produces 40 percent more climate change than all forms of transportation combined, Friedrich said. “The solution to the inefficiency of the meat industry is cultured meat. We think the meat industry itself will be shifting to cultured meat and more and more governments will be investing in cultured meat.”
The other three companies working to bring cultured meat to the market are Mosa Meats in The Netherlands, Modern Meadow in New York, and the Modern Agriculture Foundation in Israel.
Memphis Meats seems “a little further along,” especially in fund-raising, Friedrich said. But by most accounts, the firms are about five years away from offering cultured meat through high-end stores and further away from selling it at prices comparable to supermarket meats.
Memphis Meats this month released a video of its cultured meatball that took two weeks and cost $18,000. But that is 100 times cheaper than it would have cost before the co-founders began their incubator work last fall, Clem said.
“And we’ve got a plan to bring that down over time,” he said. “Once we are equal to the price of (traditionally produced) meat, that’s kind of the Holy Grail. That’s what we’re shooting for.”
Clem and Friedrich foresee production of cultured meat being like the beer industry, which includes giant producers like Budweiser and craft breweries and restaurants.
The traditional meat industry may choose to transition into large manufacturing of cultured meat. But local, smaller companies — even restaurants — could make the meat.
“Let’s say you go into a restaurant and you see someone brewing beer in the corner,” Clem said. “This (cultured meat production) doesn’t look unlike a beer brewery. When you think about how a lot of beers are cultured, it’s not unlike those techniques … This is something we could bring into a restaurant.”
Memphis could offer more than its barbecue cachet to Memphis Meats. The city could host a big, cultured-meat production facility.
“We love Memphis,” Valeti said. “If there is an opportunity for setting up a company plant there, we would love that. But at the same time we will explore the skills sets at other places in the U.S.”
Meanwhile, Clem is eager for the day when he can add a cultured meat item to the Baby Jacks BBQ menu.