Lab to table: Israeli startups tout future of animal-free food – The Times of Israel

The “robot chef” was whirring away when a group of reporters and photographers filed into the kitchen at the Rehovot offices of Israeli food tech startup SavorEat. The company had prepared a burger stand manned by a chef who would assemble the meal once the machine signaled that SavorEat’s plant-based burger patties were ready. The chef would take each patty and place it on the bottom half on a fresh bun, add a slice of cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and purple onion topped with mayo and ketchup and serve it. It was 9 a.m.

As the group members waited for their burger breakfast, SavorEat co-founder and CEO Racheli Vizman explained that the company was looking to deliver an eating “experience, not just food,” pointing to the large washing-machine-sized “robot chef,” as she calls it. The machine combines additive manufacturing technology, plant-based ingredients in cartridges, and a unique, plant-based cellulose fiber that binds the ingredients together, creating a meat-like texture.

The result is a kosher, vegan, gluten-free, allergen-free (including soy) burger patty made of pea and other plant-based proteins with sunflower and coconut fats that looks and smells like a beef burger.

And it tastes very close to the real thing.

A changing consumer base

For a growing share of consumers who consider themselves vegan, vegetarian, or “flexitarian” — people who eat a mostly plant-based diet with animal products occasionally thrown in — animal-free products that taste, look, and feel like meat can prove an attractive option for a meal. A recent poll in the US suggests that more than half of young Americans in their 20s consider themselves flexitarians. And the number of vegans in the US has increased by about 600% since 2014.

These consumers turn to plant-based diets for a variety of reasons, among them allergies or sensitivities to dairy, environmental concerns, animal welfare, and human rights.

The meat production industry is responsible for about 23 percent of all global warming gases, while ammonia from urine feeds acid rain. Around 1,000 gallons (3,785 liters) of water are needed to produce 1 pound (0.4 kilograms) of beef. Cattle ranching accounts for 70% to 80% of Amazon rainforest destruction.

Dairy cows at Moshav Be’erotayim, central Israel (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Worldwide, about 70 billion land animals are killed for food every year. Many consumers are concerned with the way large numbers of these animals are treated in modern agriculture and are appalled by the practices of factory farming. Israeli best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari once called modern animal farming, especially the dairy industry, “probably one of the worst crimes in history.”

On the human rights side, many workers in slaughtering and processing plants belong to some of the most vulnerable communities and are exposed to shockingly dangerous working conditions, especially in the US.

Such issues are driving ethical consumerism worldwide. The global vegan food market is expected to grow from $15.77 billion in 2021 to $22.27 billion in 2025, and the plant-based meat industry is expected to be worth $9.43 billion by 2026.

Meat and dairy consumption may also pose major health concerns. Studies have shown that high intakes of red meat, especially processed meat, can lead to cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, type II diabetes, and premature death.

A selection of cheese at a delicatessen shop. Illustrative. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

Research on the health effects of dairy products is more mixed. Dairy products like cow milk, cheese, and yogurt are good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and protein, but are high in fat and hormones. While some studies have shown that animal-derived dairy is neither good nor bad for human health or that the benefits outweigh the risks, others have suggested links to serious diseases and other physiological effects.

Personalized nutrition

Vizman co-founded SavorEat in 2018 after suffering a “severe medical episode” that forced her to adopt a restrictive diet and rethink her approach to food and nutrition.

“Personalized food and medicine is the next big thing and I wanted to create better solutions,” she told The Times of Israel in a previous interview.

Vizman partnered with Prof. Oded Shoseyov and Prof. Ido Braslevsky, both researchers at the Yissum Research Development Company, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The professors developed the binding cellulose for SavorEat’s patties.

SavorEat co-founders from left to right: Prof. Ido Braslevsky, Racheli Vizman, and Prof. Oded Shoseyev. (Sharon Byron)

Three years later, SavorEat is a public company on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, having raised NIS 42.6 million (some $13 million) from Israeli institutional investors in the share sale last November. The company has plans to launch its products in Israeli burger restaurant chain BBB and recently finalized a partnership with Sodexo Operations, the American subsidiary of Paris-based food services and facilities management conglomerate Sodexo, to launch a pilot project in the US with colleges and universities.

Vizman said the company’s mission was to provide personalized nutrition in a plant-based patty.

SavorEat’s ‘robot chef’ combines plant-based ingredients and cooks the patties. (Times of Israel staff)

The “robot chef” is capable of customizing the product according to specifications with varying amounts of protein, fat, cellulose, water, and flavors and colorings. Customers can select according to size too. The products can then be cooked or grilled, emitting the same sounds and smells as meat does.

The machine can make three patties at a time, producing a fully cooked burger in about seven minutes.

A long beep signaled that the next batch was ready. And this time, it was plant-based pork breakfast sausage, served in another fresh bun topped with cheddar cheese and an over-easy egg.

This too was delicious (if a little rich for anyone accustomed to a Mediterranean diet). Offers to wash down this decadence with a bottle of Coke were declined with soft groans by many (over-30s) in the group.

SavorEat’s plant-based beef burger (right) and a pork breakfast sausage patty (left), served at the company’s office kitchen in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

SavorEat also makes plant-based turkey patties and is working on a chicken product. The company recently launched a plant-based venture called Egg’n’up as an alternative to eggs.

Food tech in Israel

SavorEat is one of about 400 food tech startups and companies in Israel today, according to Anya Eldan, who manages ecosystem development activities in areas such as bio-convergent healthcare, alternative proteins, and climate-tech at the Israel Innovation Authority.

Food tech covers a very broad area that includes nutrition, packaging, food safety, processing systems, novel ingredients, and alternative proteins. The latter comprises plant-based substitutes for meat, dairy, and egg, cultured dairy, meat and seafood, insect proteins, and fermentation products and processes.

In the past seven years or so, “Israel has become the second-largest ecosystem for alternative proteins,” Eldan told the group of reporters, as the share of vegan, flexitarian, and kosher consumers grow.

According to the Good Food Institute Israel, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote research and innovation in the field, Israel plays a “substantial role” in the alternative proteins global market, with Israeli startups raising a record amount of money from investors in 2020 — $114 million, up 154% from $45 million in 2019, and eightfold from $14 million in 2010.

In the plant-based category, Israeli startup Redefine Meat is a leading player with over $35 million in funding so far. Founded in 2018, the company makes 3D-printed, animal-free lamb and beef cuts, burgers, sausages, lamb kebabs, and ground beef. The products are sold in more than 150 Israeli restaurants and establishments, and the company announced last week that its products will launch at select high-end restaurants in Europe.

Israeli company Redefine Meat developed plant-based products as an alternative to meat. (Redefine Meat)

(Our environmental reporter Sue Surkes recently attended the launch event for Redefine Meat’s first series of plant-based products.)

In the cultivated meat subsector, Aleph Farms is a standout. The startup was founded in 2017 by Dr. Didier Toubia and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s Prof. Shulamit Levenberg.

Aleph Farms’ leadership team from left: Technion Professor Shulamit Levenberg, co-founder and chief scientific adviser; Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO; Dr. Neta Lavon, chief technology officer and VP of Research and Development. (Rami Shalosh)

To produce its meat, Aleph leverages the ability of animals to grow tissue muscle constantly and isolates the cells responsible. It then reproduces the optimal conditions for these cells to grow into tissue, basically growing meat outside the animal. The tissue is grown in tanks that act as fermenters, similar to those in a brewery. There, the cells are nurtured and shaped into a 3D structure that makes the meat.

Aleph Farms rolled out the first cultivated steak in 2018 and a cultivated ribeye cut earlier this year. The company raised more than $110 million to date with investors such as L Catterton, an American-French consumer-focused private equity firm with over $30 billion in equity capital, DisruptAD, the venture capital arm of the Abu Dhabi holding company ADQ, as well as a consortium of global food and meat companies including Thai Union, BRF, and CJ CheilJedang. US actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio was also recently revealed to be among Aleph Farms’ investors.

A cultured meat steak developed by Aleph Farms (Courtesy)

Like SavorEat, the company is based in Rehovot, which appears to be a major center for food tech companies. Cultured dairy company BioMilk, animal-free dairy startup Remilk, and sugar alternative startup Amai Proteins, are also based in the central city.

Aleph Farms has plans for a market launch in 2022 and is building a new 300-square-meter facility to produce its cultured meat at scale, said Neta Lavon, Aleph Farms’s CTO and VP R&D.

An encased thin-cut, cultivated steak made by Israeli food tech startup Aleph Farms seen at the company’s office in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

During a tour of the startup’s offices and lab, Lavon explained that Aleph Farms works with cow-derived blastocysts, a bank of cells from pre-embryonic stages from which it creates cultured cells combined with 3D-printed muscle and fat (for the ribeye) and then places them in a bioreactor to grow. The thin-cut steak, the company’s first product, doesn’t require any 3D-printing.

The process takes about four weeks, Lavon said, compared to the “industrial farming supply chain which follows a process of breeding, feed lots, transportation, slaughter, and processing and takes about 2-3 years.” The planet does not have limitless resources, she pointed out.

“There is no need to grow the whole cow, only the cuts that are needed. We usually only eat about 30 percent of the cow in any case,” she noted.

Aleph Farms’ vision is to work with food manufacturers that already have established supply chains and know their respective markets, to lead local production, she said.

Aleph is confident the market is ready. According to internal research, Lavon said Aleph Farms found that about 40 percent of the general population would try cultivated meat, and that number goes up to 49% of Generation Z consumers and 45% of millennials.

Neta Lavon, Aleph Farms’ CTO and VP R&D, at the cultivated meat startup’s office in Rehovot in November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

The company is now working with regulators worldwide, as well as with rabbinic authorities to determine whether its products would be considered pareve (containing neither dairy or meat, according to kosher dietary laws) or meat (the startup prefers the latter, as it sees itself as the future of meat).

There was no sampling of Aleph Farms’ cultivated meat products (an honor reserved for prime ministers) but we were promised a “next time.”

Israel – a growing hub for food tech

Aleph Farms is one of several cultivated meat companies operating in Israel in a field the government has eyed for investment and growth. Earlier this month, the Israel Innovation Authority earmarked NIS 220 million ($69 million) for four new consortiums to lead development and acceleration in a new of fields, among them cultivated meat.

The sector includes MeaTech 3D, a maker of lab-grown meat products that started research into the production of cultivated pork meat; SuperMeat, which grows beef and poultry cells; and Future Meat, a Jerusalem-based biotechnology firm that creates cultured meat from chicken cells and is working on cultured lamb kebabs and beef burgers.

Future Meat’s technology is based on the work of Prof. Yaakov Nahmias of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is licensed through Yissum. Nahmias serves as co-founder and chief scientific officer of the startup. The company recently launched what it called the world’s first industrial cultured meat production facility in Rehovot with the capacity to produce 500 kilograms (about half a ton) of cultured product per day.

Future Meat launched a new production facility in Rehovot, Israel in June 2021. (Future Meat)

Israel is also home to a whole food tech ecosystem made up of accelerators, hubs, and centers that foster and fund new startups. Millennium Food Tech, an R&D partnership traded on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, has invested in a number of Israeli food tech companies including SavorEat, Aleph Farms, and Yofix, a maker of soy-free, fermented, plant-based prebiotic and probiotic dairy alternatives.

Two months ago, Jerusalem Venture Partners inaugurated a new food tech innovation center in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona. The Technion also recently launched a food tech center on its Haifa campus.

The Israel Innovation Authority, together with major Israeli food manufacturer Tnuva, beverage company Tempo and leading Israeli VC company OurCrowd, set up a food tech incubator in 2019 in Kiryat Shmona called Fresh Start. The center works with seven Israeli startups including one that is developing cell-cultured fish and two that are working on sugar reduction technologies.

Attendees at the inauguration of a new food tech innovation center called Margalit Startup City Galil in Kiryat Shmona, on Thursday, September 2, 2021. (Courtesy)

Meanwhile, the Kitchen Hub, a food tech incubator formed in 2015 jointly with the Strauss Group and the Israeli Innovation Authority, was the first such program in the country (and where Aleph Farms got its start).

The Ashdod-based incubator works with about two dozen startups to help them develop and market their products. Among The Kitchen’s portfolio companies is Imagindairy, a startup that makes cow-free dairy using precision fermentation technology. The startup, which raised $13 million in seed funding last week, said its technology recreates nature-identical, animal-free versions of whey and casein proteins that can be used to produce dairy duplicates.

Cow-free milk made in Israel

In the same vein is Israeli startup Remilk, which was next on our tour. The startup, founded in 2019, produces milk proteins via a fermentation process that are “chemically identical” to those present in cow-produced milk and dairy products.

“The end result is 100% similar to ‘real’ milk,” but free of lactose, cholesterol, growth hormones, and antibiotics, said Aviv Wolff, who co-founded Remilk with his scientist partner Ori Cohavi.

Remilk’s cow-free cream cheese served alongside vegetables and baked goods at the company’s offices in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

But the product is still not suitable for people who have severe allergies to dairy, he cautioned.

Remilk recreates the milk proteins by taking the genes that encode them and inserting them into a single-cell microbe, which were manipulated genetically to express the protein “in an efficient and scalable way.” The product is then dried into a powder.

“We’re making dairy products that are identical to cow-milk products, with the same taste, texture, stretchiness, meltiness, with no cholesterol and no lactose,” Wolff told The Times of Israel previously. “We’ve basically ported the whole mechanism of producing milk into a single-cell microbe. We don’t need the ‘rest of the cow,’ and we surely don’t need to spend resources in the process of creating a 900-kilogram animal.”

Remilk co-founder Aviv Wolff at the startup’s Rehovot offices, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

This model of food production will be up to 100 times more land efficient than the existing dairy system, 25 times more feedstock efficient, 20 times more time efficient, and 10 times more water efficient, he said.

“Relying on animals to make our food is no longer sustainable,” Wolff said. “The implications of animal farming are devastating for our planet.”

When mixed with water, plant-based oils like coconut oil or sunflower oil, and plant-based sugar, the milk liquid and its derivatives can be produced with exactly the same properties, taste and structure, he said.

The dried protein can be sold to dairy companies and food manufacturers can add water and fat to create a range of cheeses, yogurts, and ice creams.

Remilk can also offer ready-made products like hard cheese, yogurt, and cream cheese that, as one reporter noted, tastes like a very creamy spread named after a major US city.

Remilk’s cow-free cream cheese served at the company’s offices in Rehovot, November 2021. (Times of Israel staff)

The startup’s investors include leading Israeli food manufacturer Tnuva, dairy company Tara, and beverage company Tempo.

Wolff said the startup set up production facilities in Europe and the US, where it is already working with leading food companies, and is now collaborating with regulators and rabbinic authorities to get its product cleared and certified.

‘Creating the next generation of food’

The last leg of the tour was at Tnuva’s Rehovot laboratory, where our group was greeted with a major spread of alternative protein products like dairy-free yogurt and protein drinks, and plant-based milk and cheeses, and a deep dive into Tnuva’s history.

The company, founded in 1926, has grown to become a prominent food company with about 15% of the food market share in Israel and some 50 percent of the dairy market share. The company also has a line of frozen vegetables, Sunfrost, as well as a fresh and frozen meat line, Adom Adom.

In 2014, Chinese food multinational Bright Food bought a majority of Tnuva’s shares, making it a subsidiary.

Tnuva said it has effectively been in the plant-based protein industry for the better part of two decades, growing its range of animal-free food items to “create the next generation of food.”

To do this, Tnuva said it has adopted a “disruption readiness model,” joining leading ventures to support startups developing food technologies and setting up an innovation tech lab with prominent academic institutions.

Tnuva was recently tapped to lead the cultivated meat consortium set up by the Israel Innovation Authority, as it makes further inroads into the alternative protein sector which is growing by about 20% a year, according to the company.

The most important aspect is taste and Tnuva works continuously to improve recipes and balance fat, sugar, and salt content in its products, the company said.

If a product doesn’t taste good, no one will buy it, no matter how great the technology behind it, it said.