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Tnuva beefs up food tech operations with new cultured meat venture

Israeli food company partners with biotech firm Pluristem Therapeutics to launch lab-grown meat, aiming at a quick trip to market, followed by animal-free dairy, fish

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Startups and Business editor and reporter.

Illustrative: A scientist holds a petri dish in a laboratory with a sample of cultured meat. (Liudmila Chernetska/istock via Getty Images)
Illustrative: A scientist holds a petri dish in a laboratory with a sample of cultured meat. (Liudmila Chernetska/istock via Getty Images)

Israeli food giant Tnuva is setting its sights on the growing cultured meat market with its own startup that will develop lab-grown beef in partnership with biotech firm Pluristem Therapeutics, a Haifa-based cell therapy company traded on the Nasdaq.

Tnuva and Pluristem announced the venture, through which they will develop, market, and commercialize lab-grown meat by 2023, on Monday. Their joint startup, with the working title NewCo, will receive licensing rights to use Pluristem’s proprietary technology, intellectual property, and know-how for cultured meat.

Pluristem will operate the company’s R&D activities while Tnuva will invest an initial $7.5 million, according to the announcement, and will receive first rights to any developed products in Israel.

Jacob Heen, deputy CEO of Tnuva, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview Monday that the food company’s move into the cultured meat sector, where Israel is currently a leading player, was part of a “strategy that is in line with consumer demands for food.”

Heen said Tnuva, one of the oldest food companies in Israel, with about 15% of the food market share and about half of the dairy market share, has focused more on food tech initiatives with dairy alternatives in recent years, launching a wide range of plant-based drinks, yogurts, cheeses, and other dairy-like products. Tnuva also has a line of frozen vegetables, Sunfrost, as well as a fresh and frozen meat line, Adom Adom. In 2014, Tnuva became a subsidiary of food multinational Bright Foods after the Chinese conglomerate bought a majority of its shares.

Plant-based products are “currently a small part of the business comparatively, but if we look at total growth, it’s very significant,” Heen said. “We are strong in alternative substitutes for milk and dairy but not at all meat.”

A Tnuva factory in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

As a leading food company, Tnuva wanted its entry into the cultured meat sector to be as efficient as possible. “You have two companies, one from the food industry and the other from biotechnology, [this] can be a very good start to shorten the time to market. You can have great ideas and great entrepreneurs, but the time [you need] to build laboratories, and develop technology, is long,” Heen explained.

Tnuva’s R&D expertise in food together with Pluristem’s cell-based therapeutics presents new opportunities and “we are sure this is the future for us,” said Heen.

Tnuva was recently tapped to lead a cultivated meat consortium set up by the Israel Innovation Authority.

Israel’s cultured meat sector

Israel is home to a number of prominent food tech startups in the cultured meat sector globally, most notably Future Meat, a biotechnology firm that creates chicken, lamb, and beef products from animal cells and recently raised $347 million to launch a production facility in the US, and Aleph Farms, a food tech startup that was the first to unveil a cultivated steak in 2018 and a cultivated ribeye cut in 2021. Aleph Farms raised a $105 million investment last year that included funding by US actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio. Both companies have multinational food companies as backers.

A cultivated beef kebab by Israeli cultured meat company Future Meat. (Future Meat)

The technologies behind Aleph Farms and Future Meat are based on bioengineering research developed by their respective co-founders, Prof. Shulamit Levenberg of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Prof. Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Both are prominent academics in the tissue engineering field.

The Israeli cultured meat sector also includes MeaTech 3D, a maker of lab-grown meat products that started research into the production of cultivated pork meat and recently unveiled what it called the largest bio-printed cultivated steak to date, at 3.67 ounces (104 grams), and SuperMeat, which grows beef and poultry cells.

These companies are part of a thriving local food tech sector and the fastest-growing technology field in Israel, according to Nir Goldstein, managing director of the Good Food Institute Israel. Goldstein recently told The Times of Israel that the country will need to develop a national strategy to maintain a key role in the industry.

According to the Barclays Group’s forecast, by 2030 the global market value of meat substitutes alone is expected to reach $140 billion and make up 10% of the total meat market.

Tnuva’s front-row seat

Heen said Tnuva cannot allow itself to be on the sidelines of the industry, as an investor in existing startups for example. “We know how to do it; we feel that it’ll be easy for us. We don’t just want to wait for others,” he said, noting that cultivated meat startups have great ideas but estimated that it may take a very long time to reach the market.

“We strongly believe in collaborations,” Heen added, as the joint venture hopes to present a proof of concept later this year and possibly launch its first cultured meat product in 2023.

Yaky Yanay, president and CEO of Pluristem Therapeutics, told The Times of Israel that the company brings nearly two decades of experience in cell-based therapies to this new venture.

Pluristem workers process placenta for the company’s cell-based therapy products (Courtesy)

“We have a key competitive advantage in developing very advanced products and manufacturing them at scale,” said Yanay. Pluristem’s placenta-based cell therapy, PLX, has been used in a range of therapeutic proteins designed to trigger the body’s regeneration mechanism in response to conditions such as high levels of inflammation, muscle trauma, hematological deficiencies, and radiation damage.

Yanay said Pluristem’s technology has generated interest in different fields, including food tech. The new collaboration with Tnuva was a “landmark partnership because it is going to direct the way we continue to expand our business,” he said.

“While Pluristem brings the technology, the know-how, the IP… we have a partner that understands the customers, their needs, product development, and they are one of best in the field, in the alternative proteins sector,” said Yanay.

Yaky Yanay, CEO and President of Pluristem Therapeutics. (David Garb)

“The advantage here is that we are not starting from scratch. We are relying on the massive infrastructure that both companies have. It’s a partnership between two proven pioneers,” Yanay said, pointing to previous Pluristem partnerships with organizations like NASA, the US Department of Defense and the European Investsment Bank, among others.

The mission, Yanay said, “is very clear — we want to take a technology leadership position in 2022 and a product launch in 2023. We can shorten the time to market because our companies are already established and it will allow us to move quickly.”

The joint Tnuva-Pluristem company will work on cultivated beef as a primary product, Yanay said. “We take a biopsy and we bring it to the lab… and give the cells the conditions [in a bioreactor] that will allow them to proliferate and double themselves and we’ll get significant biomass very quickly. And then it is harvested to get a final product.”

Jacob Heen, deputy CEO of Tnuva. (Courtesy)

The same technology can be applied to chicken, lamb, turkey, and other products.

Heen said the joint company will “work in parallel to develop products starting with beef — both hamburgers and meat cuts.”

Tnuva and Pluristem will also explore opportunities to develop cultured dairy and cultured fish products by establishing separate, new ventures, they said.

Tnuva has invested in Israeli cultivated dairy startup Remilk, a developer of animal-free milk and dairy products that raised $120 million in a funding round last week. Founded in 2019, Remilk produces milk proteins via a fermentation process that renders them “chemically identical” to those present in cow-produced milk and dairy products.

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