From Fruit Roll-Ups and slaughter-free meats to the world’s first ready-to-cook grouper fish fillet, an Israeli foodtech startup says its technology can 3D print structured food products on demand with the same texture and taste as the real thing.
Engineers at Steakholder Foods last week joined the viral Fruit Roll-Ups candy challenge on TikTok by posting on the social media app a video of wrapping ice cream in a fruit roll-up that was 3D printed on one of its machines.
“The idea for the post came from one of our engineers and of course it is a gimmick, but it also showcases the capabilities of our 3D printer technology,” Steakholder Foods CEO Arik Kaufman told The Times of Israel.
Last month, the Rehovot-based foodtech startup 3D printed the first-ever, ready-to-cook fish fillet using hybrid grouper cells cultivated and grown in a laboratory. Backed by a $1 million grant from the Singapore-Israel Industrial R&D Foundation, Steakholder Foods partnered with Singapore-based Unami Meats, which extracts fish cells, before growing them into muscle and fat.
As part of the partnership, Steakholder Foods customized its bioinks used in 3D bioprinting using Unami’s living grouper cells to print the cultivate fish product, which it says has the taste and texture of traditionally caught fish. The bioprinter lays down layers of cells, much like a traditional 3D printer lays down layers of plastic, until a fully formed piece of tissue is created.
Umami seeks to market its first products in 2024, starting in Singapore and then expanding to other countries, including the US and Japan, pending regulatory requirements.
Founded in 2019, Steakholder Foods started out as a developer of 3D bioprinting technology to produce whole cuts of meat and steak made from animal cells. In 2021, the maker of lab-grown meat products, bio-printed the largest cultivated steak to date, producing a 3.67 oz (104-gram) product made with real muscle and fat cells to mimic the taste of conventional meat.
In the development process, stem cells are drawn from animals by collecting tissue and are reproduced in bioreactors. Once the stem cells reach sufficient numbers and cellular mass, they are added to a bioink to print the desired meat.
Israel has, in recent years, become an important tech hub for cultured meat, a key sub-sector in the alternative protein market that comprises cell-based or plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy and eggs; cultured dairy, meat and seafood; insect proteins; and fermentation products and processes.
In 2022, the Israel Innovation Authority granted $18 million for what it dubbed the “world’s largest” consortium for cultivated meat development, made up of 14 companies, including leading Israeli food tech startups, and 10 universities and research institutions.
International consulting firm Mckinsey & Company has estimated that the global cultivated meat market could reach $25 billion by 2030.
“With an estimated size of $110 billion and projected growth of 3-4% annually in the near future, the seafood and fish market is a long-time part of our vision for introducing sustainable solutions that increase food security,” said Kaufman.
He noted that unlike cultivated meat products, which are subject to incubation and maturation after printing of about a month, the advantage of the bioprinter that printed the cultivated fish is that it prints ready-to-cook products that can go onto your plate within minutes and has the flaky texture of cooked fish.
“I was personally surprised by the level of the ready-to-cook 3D printed fish product if you compare it to real fish, the same has not been achieved with cultivated meat products,” Kaufman noted. “The technological challenge with cultivated fish products is lower than with cultivated meat because naturally meat or steak is much more dense, that is the density, is much higher than the density you can find in a fish filet.”
“Cultivated fish products will be a game changer once they will enter the market, as they will be much closer to real fish than the cultivated meat products will be to the real meat in the beginning,” he added.
However, as with any new technology, Kaufman says there are still challenges to overcome before 3D printed fish becomes widely available, such as the cost of 3D bioprinters, which is still quite high, and the process of cultivating fish at scale, which still needs to be perfected.
As with the production of cultivated meat, Kaufman sees costs coming down over time as more players join the race.
“We develop very advanced 3D platforms that can enable different companies to provide us with their proprietary cell lines and we know how to adapt our bioinks to their cell lines and print whatever they want us to print,” he said. “In the future, we can 3D print different additional species and everything you can imagine, but in the end it will depend on profit margins that can be achieved.”
In the coming year, Steakholder Foods hopes to ink income-generating deals for the commercialization of its bioprinters, either by selling a printer to an industry player or selling the knowhow.
“Our main goal is to collaborate and showcase our capabilities with a tier-1 meat or fish producer, or tier-1 cultivated meat or fish company,” Kaufman said. “We can collaborate with the Tysons of the world or with the JBSs of the world.”
Steakholder Foods, formerly known as Meatech, prides itself as being the first cultured meat company to go public on the Nasdaq in March 2021 when its shares started trading around $10 per share. Hit by the global financial meltdown, the stock has nosedived over the past year to trade under $1 today.
Over the past year, the startup raised $13 million in two rounds of public offerings, including $6.5 million in June 2022 and $6.5 million in January 2023, to fuel its business development plans and focus on the commercial sale of its 3D bio-printer as well as pursue business collaborations and partnerships.
“We went through a very challenging time on the Nasdaq and like a lot of smaller traded companies, our stock was tremendously affected,” Kaufman said. “Our main target for this year is to broaden our investor base and narrow the gap between our valuation and the higher valuations of the private companies that are in this race.”