The Startup Bringing Home The $400B Bacon…Minus The Pig

Food & Drink

With 30 million dollars worth of series A funding, cultivated meat startup Uncommon plans to take pork to sustainable and healthy new heights.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Our insatiable appetite for meat is putting tremendous strain on the environment.

Water resources are rapidly drained. Rainforests are ravaged for grain. Rivers run thick with effluent. Antibiotics used on farm animals put our health at grave risk.

That’s why Benjamina Bollag, CEO of UK startup Uncommon—formerly Higher Steaks—is determined to get a 5% slice of the global pork market by 2035.

“Pork is one of the biggest uses of antibiotics. In the US, for example, there are pretty much as many medically important antibiotics used on pigs as there are on humans,” she tells me.

Antibiotic resistance is of the greatest threats to human health today, according to the WHO. The misuse of antibiotics on farms is a huge contributing factor.

Bollag and co-founder Ruth Faram started up Uncommon as “a biocreation company that uses the power of cells to tackle the most pressing challenges to our health, starting with cultivated pork.”

The pull of pork? It’s the consumer favorite amongst a meat market on track for a value of $427 billion by 2040.

A cultivated culinary treat

It looks delicious.

Compared to the loose imitation plant-based bacon, Uncommon’s streaky rashers are the real deal. Succulent pork belly, doused in thick teriyaki sauce, has me salivating.

Bollag smiles as she recounts a recent tasting event.

“Once we did a tasting, and someone came late and thought that we were the Chinese delivery.”

It’s an impressive feat, considering these meat products were generated from just a single animal cell.

It’s purposely done. Having been raised in a household that prized good food, Bollag is keen to provide a quality product that consumers will savor as much as traditional meat.

“It’s about making sure that it looks the same, tastes the same, and really feels the same for the consumer so that you minimize the friction for them.”

A creative new way to grow meat

Behind Uncommon’s $30 million series A, led by Balderton Capital and Lowercarbon, is a potentially game-changing approach to cultivated meat.

“As the only cultivated meat leveraging RNA technologies,” says Bollag, “we believe we have a competitive advantage that could help us become the largest protein company in the world.”

So how does it work?

Like Meatable, a startup I reported on recently that makes sausages and pork dumplings, they start with a pluripotent stem cell. A cell that can morph into any other.

But instead of using gene editing, which faces huge regulatory hurdles in Europe – the world’s second biggest pork market – Uncommon uses RNA.

RNA, DNA’s sibling, became famous thanks to the mRNA-based COVID vaccines. It’s nature’s cellular programming toolkit.

Tiny RNA molecules are constantly turning genes up and down in cells, like a dimmer switch. Many are responsible for fine-tuning how cells develop in a growing organism, regulating physiology, or even protecting against disease.

Uncommon uses RNA to trigger stem cells to become muscle or fat cells – and even to improve the flavor of the fat – in a fast and targeted way.

“We use different types of RNA to express the main muscle regulator,” explains Bollag. “We can do that in three days. If you look at the traditional ways of moving from stem cell to muscle, you’re looking at 30 plus days, sometimes 50.”

Safer and more sustainable

That’s quick. But is it sustainable?

Recent reports have questioned the long-term viability of cultivated meat. A widely reported preprint worked out a typical life cycle assessment based on contemporary technologies that suggested a future industry more polluting than beef.

Naysayers abound. Critics point to the energy-intensive production of potentially toxic ingredients.

But then Babbage’s first computer received criticism aplenty. Who amongst us could imagine a life without one now?

The cultivated meat industry is a nascent one, and founders like Bollag own their pioneering role.

“Done badly, cultivated meat could be unsafe and unsustainable,” Bollag reflects. “But done well, it can be – and I believe it will be – the best and the biggest health impact that this world has. I think it’s about doing things right.

“It’s about making things always safe, making sure things are sustainable, getting the energy from the right source.”

Doing things right

The UK Government agrees, having provided Uncommon with a $1.2 million Innovate UK grant.

That’s because startups such as Uncommon are doing things, well… uncommonly.

One of Uncommon’s key tenets is conscious resilience – and a creative approach that they believe will help overcome the issues around scaling up.

Just because it doesn’t exist now doesn’t mean it never will.

For a start, RNA does away with growth factors and the toxic small molecules cited in recent criticisms of cultivated meat.

“The RNA approach is really interesting because if you compare it to growth factors, we need a lot less so that inherently becomes more sustainable,” says Bollag.

“There is a lot of hype in our industry, but I feel confident that our team’s work on RNA is a masterstroke.”

A $30 million scale-up

The recent Series A investment aims to help realize that potential.

Uncommon’s first step to scaling up is a 15000 square foot pilot facility in Cambridge, England.

After that, the startup is seeking regulatory approval and is setting its sights big – a whole 5% slice of the global pork market by 2035.

“The cultivated meat industry faces significant challenges, from the cost of materials to regulation and scaling,” says Daniel Waterhouse, partner at Balderton Capital.

“We’re convinced that Uncommon has the formula to become a global leader that will transform how we eat and enjoy meat.”

Bollag is under no illusions that it’ll be easy.

“The use of RNA technology is complex, and the scientific backbone we’re building is not for the faint-hearted,” Bollag explains in an informative blog post.

“We haven’t proven everything, or we’d be in supermarkets already, right? There are challenges ahead of us.

“We have plenty of reasons to believe that the use of RNA technology is the right way to scale cultivated meat production without the hassle, cost, and risk of the options that exist today.

“And if we’re right about this, we’re really, really right.”

Thank you to Peter Bickerton for additional research and reporting on this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies I write about, including Meatable, are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference. For more content, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter.

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