Patents in the wake of cultured meat development
Alec Griffiths from Patent Seekers takes a look at the patent activity in the nascent cell-based meat industry to shed light on some of the key players
The concept of cultured meat has been around for decades. Perhaps the earliest patent referencing the concept was filed for in 1997 — EP1037966A1. The patent makes reference to “a meat product containing in vitro produced animal cells in a three-dimensional form and a method for producing the meat product”, and was spearheaded by Willem Frederik Van Eeelen, who is regularly referred to as the ‘Godfather of in vitro meat’ due to his efforts in the creation of the concept of cultured meat.
It has not been until this most recent decade that the concept begun to be adopted by mainstream consumers, with cultured meat beginning to be offered at restaurants worldwide — Singapore approved Eat Just’s cultured chicken products last November.
The pursuit has been driven by an effort to develop a greener and cleaner method of meat production, as well as by animal welfare activists such as US-based animal rights organisation PETA, short for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
This new facet of the food industry has found its niche by occupying the space where the food industry meets traditionally medical, surgical and biochemistry practices, such as cell culturing and bioscaffold technology.
Although the concept may be decades old, it is only recently that the wider food industry has begun to adopt the notion. To some extent, the industry has acknowledged that this movement is the beginning of a real change in meat production and consumer habits, with said acknowledgement being paramount for those seeking to capitalise on the opportunities it will provide.
The cultured meat market size is currently valued at $1.64 million with growth expectations poised to reach $2.8 million by 2030, having a compound annual growth rate of 95.8% from 2022 to 2030, according to research firm Valuates Report.
Due to its relative infancy, the patents surrounding the industry leaders, start-ups and key innovators will likely hold valuable insights into how this industry seeks to move forward and bring to market this next wave of food innovation.
Figure 1. showcases the top 20 Cooperative Patent Classifications (CPCs) that the top 10 patent assignees are involved in. The chart doesn’t include Nanjing Agricultural University, which is in fact the most active assignee, and University of Jiangnan because Chinese patents do not utilise the CPC system.
Still, Figure 1 allows us to apply a more in-depth look at what technology these companies are specifically seeking to protect and offer some insights to their inner workings. It is interesting to witness how each of these companies are seeking to establish themselves in this newfound industry.
Memphis Meats appears to be currently dominating in the culture media (C12N) space, with most of its activity within those classifications and having particular emphasis on the cultivation or maintenance of skeletal muscle cells (C12N5/0658).
This heat map truly exemplifies the nature of the cultured meat revolution – the amalgamation of the food and biotech industries. The cooperative patent classifications show an array of coverage, including A23 (Foods or Foodstuffs; Treatment Thereof); C12 (Biochemistry; Beer; Spirits; Wine; Vinegar; Microbiology; Enzymology; Mutation or Genetic Engineering); and A61 (Medical or Veterinary Science; Hygiene).
There are two individuals present within the chart – Gabor Forgacs and Francoise Marga – who appear to be scientific founder and co-founder of Modern Meadows, respectively. What is curious is that the CPC codes attributed to those individuals relate largely to the scientific cell culturing technology (the C12 classes), whereas Modern Meadow is present exclusively within the food related classes (the A23 classes). This is a shining example of how the cultured meat industry is a prime opportunity for those moving from a more traditionally medical/biotechnological side of things, rather than moving from the food industry.
Company Spotlight — Memphis Meats
The assignees of the patents owned by Memphis Meats are shown in Figure 2. What becomes immediately apparent is that PETA, the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the University of Missouri are listed as assignees on one of Memphis Meats’ patents.
The founding of Memphis Meats appears to shed some light on the situation. Memphis Meats was co-founded by stem cell biologist at the University of Missouri, Dr Nicholas Genovese, whose hiring was funded by PETA to conduct research into cultured meat.
It is apparent that part of the deal that facilitated this funding most likely included assignment to any intellectual property that was born out of the research, a similar theory can be hypothesised as to why the NIH is also listed.
Other individuals listed also appear to work for or have worked for the University of Missouri, most likely as part of Dr Nicholas Genovese’s team. However, given that these additional assignees are listed only on one patent, which is, perhaps uncoincidentally Memphis Meats oldest patent, it is likely that any deals or funding were not carried over when Memphis Meats was established shortly thereafter, neither were any of the original team.
Company Spotlight — Eat Just
Figure 3 reveals the top assignees of the patents owned by Eat Just, or one of its former names (Hampton Creek and Beyond Eggs) that appear to relate to cultured meat.
In September 2017, then Hampton Creek managed to acquire Willem van Eelen’s patents for in vitro produced meat from Jon Vein, a Los Angeles based businessman. This would explain why those two names appear in Figure 3.
It could be theorised that the remaining individuals were part of Willem’s original team, as they are only present on one patent. Further to this, Jon Vein in 2017, seems to have become a new advisor to Hampton Creek as part of the deal to acquire Willem’s original patent, as reported by TechCrunch at the time.
The fact that Jon Vein appears on almost all of Eat Just’s patents relating to cultured meat could shine some light on the nature of the deal the two have. Veginvest Trust and Kea Capital are venture capital firms and have most likely contributed to financing Eat Just at some point. Interestingly, there is little information pertaining to Pure Bioengineering, except that it may be a company registered in the Cayman Islands.
It is exciting to witness the ‘true’ birth of the cultured meat concept hit the food industry. As we have seen, the most active companies and individuals appear to be adopting a path of protection that prioritises either the food side (A23 classes), or the biochemical side (C12 classes).
Memphis Meats, which except for Nanjing Agricultural University, is the most active player, appears to have a much more equal split of focus, with patenting activity spread across both A23 and C12 classes.
Could this approach to patents be a contributor to Memphis Meat’s success? It is difficult to predict where the cultured meat industry will go in the coming years, and how the patent landscape will change to reflect it. Will it have to face the same problems that the food and biotech industries face, given that it occupies both those spaces? Or will it find a suitable niche between the two industries and reap the advantages offered by each?
We’re witnessing the early days of this new industry, and I thoroughly look forward to monitoring the patents surrounding this space, as it takes its place as one of the key technologies of future health and fighting climate change.