Katie Kam hasn’t eaten brisket since 1996. Or was it 1997? She was working a high school job at the now-shuttered BB’s Smokehouse, in Northwest Austin, prior to that, but Kam has been a vegan for so long that the exact date of her last smoked meat meal is hard to pinpoint. She’s hoping to get her next bite about three years from now. That’s when Kam expects BioBQ, the company she started with cofounder Janet Zoldan in late 2018, will harvest its first lab-grown brisket. Kam and Zoldan want the world’s first lab-grown barbecue to be produced or, as they describe it, “cultivated,” in Austin.
Kam is an Austin native who holds degrees in chemistry and biology as well as a doctoral degree in civil engineering. A few years ago, she was seeking a new design challenge, and several articles about meat grown from animal cells piqued her interest. She reached out to the biomedical engineering department at the University of Texas seeking yet another degree, this one based on the study of cell-based meat production. Zoldan, an associate professor in cellular and biomolecular engineering, brought her in for a meeting and persuaded her to pursue a business rather than another PhD. Zoldan was already working with cardiovascular tissue engineering using human stem cells. She had designed a thermo-sensitive scaffolding system, a sort of framework, for the cells to grow upon, and thought it would translate well into growing bovine cells. “The end application is a little bit different, but the route to it is very similar,” Zoldan tells me.
The framework was only the beginning. They’ll need to design each component of a brisket separately, like the lean muscle, the fat, and the collagen. Kam has been reading meat science studies about the brisket structure they’re trying to replicate. The components will need to be grown alongside one another and intertwine to mimic the structure of a brisket. That’s a challenge, Kam says, that most lab-grown meat projects won’t encounter because they focus on ground meat like burgers and chicken nuggets—food that has “no texture and orientation,” unlike brisket, adds Zoldan.
Then there’s the flavor. From a functional perspective, the fat they design for the brisket will need to provide moisture and a pleasing texture, but it also has to contain the proper beefy flavor. They’ll seek help from food scientists to create the flavor, but as a vegan, Kam won’t be able test it against a standard brisket from a steer. When I ask her about this, Zoldan chimes in. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’m a carnivore.”
And that demonstrates the odd duality of a product like BioBQ. It is not to be confused with the Impossible Burger or other plant-based meats. This will be meat-based meat, which is grown from bovine cells harvested via biopsy. The fact that they’ll produce real meat is the whole point. Kam’s mission isn’t to persuade omnivores to adapt to her vegan diet, but rather to provide them a beef option that doesn’t require animal slaughter. “No animal had to die for this,” she explains, which is why she feels that eating BioBQ won’t compromise her vegan principles.
One other problem with the ethics of lab-grown meat is that current technology relies on fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is harvested from cow fetuses in the slaughterhouse. A vegan product it most certainly is not, but it has no peer when it comes to cell growth promotion in a lab environment. Kam said there is research being done on FBS replacements, which they plan to use. “We are committed to testing and using alternatives to FBS,” Kam says, even if those alternatives are not as efficient as FBS by the time they’re ready to begin cultivation. She adds, “In addition to the animal welfare issues associated with FBS, FBS is not a sustainable resource and is not affordable.”
Putting aside Kam’s ethical issues with meat consumption, she argues that the real downside of traditionally raised beef is that “it’s an inefficient way to get protein.” Vast amounts of acreage are set aside for growing plants to feed the cattle, and the animals require lots of water during their lifetimes. Combining the gestation period and the average lifespan of a market steer, it takes at least 27 months to make two briskets. Zoldan estimates that they’ll be able to cultivate a complete brisket from just a few cells in three weeks once the process gets rolling.
There’s still much work ahead for the pair before BioBQ becomes a reality, which they hope is by 2023. What they lack now is the capital to move forward. “We need funding,” Kam says. “We know exactly what we need to do in the lab.” Hitching their marketing strategy to brisket and barbecue wasn’t a bad idea. After all, it got me writing about lab-grown meat for the first time. But there is something about the idea of lab-grown brisket that keeps bothering me, and it has nothing to do with science fiction. If you could design any cut of beef from scratch, why choose one that’s so difficult to make delicious? Why not a whole steer’s worth of ribeyes?
“I’m from Austin, and I know that brisket’s kind of a big deal here,” Kam jokes. Brisket also raises the bar. “It seemed like a great, challenging meat to demonstrate this technology working,” she continues, and if they could successfully design a brisket, it would demonstrate their ability to design pretty much any other cut of beef from scratch. “A futuristic vision is customizing each specific meat,” Zoldan says. In addition to brisket, they also plan to offer BioBQ jerky as one of their initial products. Both women are clear that they don’t envision BioBQ completely replacing traditionally grown beef. “I don’t think cell-based meats will take over the market, but I think there’s a place for it on the market,” Zoldan emphasizes.
As they drum up funding, Kam and Zoldan are also working to define the language around BioBQ. Focus groups have shown a disdain for the phrase “lab-grown meat.” The Impossible Burger has a brand name that’s better than just “plant-based burger.” Maybe the name BioBQ will catch on just as organically. “The thing I like about BioBQ is that it sort of forces a Southern accent when you say it,” Kam says. She’s also working with a graphic designer on labeling and packaging solutions.
Kam and Zoldan are still years away from that first taste of BioBQ, and scaling up from there for public consumption will take even longer, but I wonder if they’d imagined that first bite. Would it come with any trepidation? Like that first person to eat a raw oyster, would the first bite of BioBQ require a certain level of bravery? Kam’s answer was immediate. She sees no reason why she would hesitate. In this age of consumers’ curiosity about where their meat comes from, Kam says that question about BioBQ will be easy to answer. “We’ll know exactly how it’s made.”