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Here’s Y Combinator’s answer to cultivated meat’s scaling problem

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The positive impact alternative meat products – like plant-based meat or cultivated meat – can have on the environment is striking. In optimistic scenarios where we transition to from meat-laden to plant-based diets over the next 15 years, between 6168 percent of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions can be avoided.

Except for the fact that alternative meat has a big scaling problem.

The Good Food Institute (GFI) estimates that alternative meat producers will need to create 800 production facilities, and spend about $27 billion within the decade to meet global demand. 

To do this, cultured and plant-based meat companies need to solve scientific problems ranging from bioreactor size and efficiency to the high costs of growth factors used in cell-cultured meat. Some startups see these scaling problems as a foothold in the alternative meat space. Rather than launching brands, these are B2B alternative protein companies developing scalable industrial production platforms. There are two companies in this year’s Y Combinator cohort embracing this model.

Mooji Meats: Speedy 3D Printing Whole Cuts

Mooji Meats was incorporated just 6 months ago and is in the midst of raising its first $2.5 million seed round. The company has developed a 3D printer capable of producing whole cuts of meat using plant protein or cultured meat cells. They’re developing a 3D printed cut of Wagyu beef, and expect a prototype to be viable for taste tests within 6 months, co-founder Insa Mohr told TechCrunch.

“There’s always this tradeoff between scale and texture,” Mohr told TechCrunch. “3D printing always creates great textures without being scalable. Then there’s other technologies being scalable but not creating good textures. Especially not for steaks. And we overcome this trade off.”

Mooji Meats founders Insa Mohr and Jochen Mueller.

Mohr claims that Mooji can print out these cuts of meat by layering fat, connective tissue, and muscle cells in a marbling pattern, but she didn’t provide many details on how that happens. Mooji’s key advantage, she says, is speed. Mohr said that one printing head is “250 times faster” than existing 3D printers.

At this early stage, it’s not a crime to be secretive. But proof of this enhanced operating speed needs to be visible soon. Mohr claims that the $2.5 million Mooji is currently raising should be enough runway to get the company to their first customer, and, one would hope, proof of concept in the real world.

Micro Meat: Scaffolds for Cultured Meat Companies

If you think plant-based meats will have issues meeting demand, that’s nothing compared to the cost challenges cultivated meats face.

Some companies at least claim to break that cost barrier. In December 2021 Future Meat, an Israeli cultured meat company recently raised a $347 million Series B round led by ADM Ventures (an astronomical jump from its $14 million Series A), and claimed to be capable of churning out a pound of chicken for $7.70, less than half of the $18 it cost 6 months prior. But that’s still higher than the roughly $3 cost per pound of regular chicken.

Anne-Sophie Mertgen, the founder of startup Micro Meat, told TechCrunch that most new cultured meat companies still struggle to get their businesses up and running at scale.

Early Micro meat experiments showing cultured meat in dishes.

“No other industry exists where the big players are completely vertical,” she told TechCrunch. So we really believe that to build this industry at the large scale that is needed to feed the world. we need more b2b players.”

Micro Meat was founded in 2021, while Mertgen’s postdoc work at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico was paused due to the pandemic. Micro Meat’s focus is creating cell tissue scaffolds. Scaffolds are structures that facilitate the flow of nutrients and give cells the cues they need to form mature muscle tissues. Unstructured ground products don’t need hugely complex scaffolds, but cuts like steaks do.

“We can cultivate them [tissue scaffolds] using similar processes that the cultivated meat industry is using, like biopharma reactors, for example,” she said. “We can scale this indefinitely, like right now we can produce, easily, with our first prototype, 100 grams in a minute.”

The tech is currently in a prototype phase, but Micro Meat has successfully created a cultured pork product, she said. The company has raised $375,000 to date in pre-seed funding, and are in the process of raising a $2 million seed round.

That round should provide up to two years of runway needed to establish an R&D line, perfect more devices and consumable products, and reel in some co-development contracts, said Mertgen.

The Micro Meat team. Cofounders Ann-Sophie Mertgen and Vincent Pribble are third and fourth from the left.

More B2B holes to fill

Both Micro Meat and Mooji Meats share a larger thesis: there’s untapped opportunity for B2B players in the alternative meat space.

“The first B2B players entered the market in 2017, while the first cultivated meat companies were established in 2013-14,” Mertgen said. So this is generally a super young industry, but I think it’s really going to be needed.”

Mohr says that she’s seeing some of these companies emerge now: ““There’s more and more platform solutions evolving, which basically shows us that the industry as a whole is evolving,” she said.

But there are yet more holes in the alternative industry that need to be plugged, industry analysts have noted. Two that stick out right now are: more diverse protein sourcing options for plant-based meat, and cheaper growth factor sources for cultured meat products.

The good news is that there’s money for companies looking to dig into these problems. The amount of private funding into the alternative protein space has heated up since 2020. That year $3.1 billion was poured into alternative proteins, a 3x increase in funding from the previous year. And in 2022, we’ve continued to see big funding rounds close.

That’s a nice setup for an industrial alternative meat platform company with the ability to scale this nascent science. Each supply chain problem is a big enough scientific challenge to make or break a company, if not a career.

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Amazon-owned MGM makes a viral video show with surveillance footage from Amazon-owned Ring

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MGM (which is owned by Amazon) is making a viral video show based on footage from Ring security cameras (also owned by Amazon). The syndicated television show, “Ring Nation,” is poised to be a modern-day, surveillance-tinged spin on “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with Wanda Sykes as host.

According to a report in Deadline, the show will feature Ring footage of “neighbors saving neighbors, marriage proposals, military reunions and silly animals.” Ring is also known for activities like accidentally leaking people’s home addresses and handing over footage to the government without users’ permission.

Between January and July of this year, Amazon shared ring doorbell footage with U.S. authorities 11 times without the device owner’s consent. Ring has been critiqued for working unusually closely with at least 2,200 police departments around the United States, allowing police to request video doorbell camera footage from homeowners through Ring’s Neighbors app. Like Citizen and Nextdoor, the Neighbors app tracks local crime and allows users to comment anonymously — plus, Ring’s police partners can publicly request video footage on the app.

An Amazon-owned police surveillance network is bad enough, but Neighbors users have also faced repeated safety and security issues.

An executive at MGM, Barry Poznick, praised the new show: “From the incredible, to the hilarious and uplifting must-see viral moments from around the country every day, Ring Nation offers something for everyone watching at home.”

But perhaps what viewers at home really want is data privacy.

Ring only started disclosing its connections with law enforcement after fielding demands for transparency from the U.S. government. In a 2019 letter, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) said that the company’s relationship with police forces raise civil liberties concerns.

“The integration of Ring’s network of cameras with law enforcement offices could easily create a surveillance network that places dangerous burdens on people of color and feeds racial anxieties in local communities,” Sen. Markey wrote. “In light of evidence that existing facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifies African Americans and Latinos, a product like this has the potential to catalyze racial profiling and harm people of color.”

Amazon bought the smart video doorbell company in 2018 for $1 billion, then bought MGM for $8.5 billion earlier this year. Now, these two investments — which seemingly have nothing to do with each other — are merging to create a late-capitalist dystopian spectacular that we couldn’t have imagined in our worst nightmares. Amazon also just spent $1.7 billion on iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum, but we will not dare to imagine how that acquisition may one day inspire a horrifying TV show.

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Aramco’s Prosperity7 powers AI drug firm Insilico’s $95M round

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Hong Kong-based drug discovery and development company Insilico has secured fresh capital at a time that its CEO described as a “biotech winter.”

The firm has raised $35 million on the heels of its last tranche in June, bringing its total Series D investment to $95 million. The new round was “oversubscribed”, the firm’s founder and CEO Alex Zhavoronkov told TechCrunch, declining to disclose the company’s valuation.

Prosperity7, the venture capital arm of Saudi Arabia’s state oil company Aramco, led the new capital infusion. The fund has been actively scouring for opportunities in and around China that can scale globally and particularly in the Middle East.

Insilico, which operates R&D teams across Hong Kong, Shanghai, and New York, seems to be a good fit for Prosperity7.

“Prosperity7 inspired us to look into sustainable chemistry,” said Zhavoronkov. Insilico uses machine learning to identify potential drug targets and eventually create the drug. The same technology can also be applied to find novel and useful molecules for sustainable chemistry, an emerging area to which Aramco has devoted much effort, the founder explained.

Sustainable chemistry, as defined by OECD, is “a scientific concept that seeks to improve the efficiency with which natural resources are used to meet human needs for chemical products and services.” It “encompasses the design, manufacture, and use of efficient, effective, safe and more environmentally benign chemical products and processes.”

Other investors from the round include an unnamed “large, diversified asset management firm on the U.S. West Coast,” and an assortment of financial and strategic investors like BHR Partners, Warburg Pincus, B Capital Group, Qiming Venture Partners, Deerfield, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, BOLD Capital Partners, and Pavilion Capital.

Zhavoronkov himself also invested in the Series D financing.

When asked why the company straddles China and the U.S., the founder compared the drug discovery space to the early semiconductor industry where research was done mostly in the U.S. while hardware production happened in China.

AI drug discovery relies on a massive amount of investment in so-called contract research organizations (CROs), which provide support to pharmaceutical or medical device companies in the form of outsourcing. China, exemplified by cities like Wuxi, has in recent years emerged as a popular CRO hub for international pharma companies.

The founder was also keen to speak about the company’s new dual-CEO structure. He recently promoted GSK veteran Dr. Feng Ren to be his co-CEO, who is now overseeing Insilico’s R&D and drug business, while Zhavoronkov focuses on the firm’s AI platform.

“Ren generates a lot of proprietary data for us to train AI to do better than humans. We can use this internally for drug discovery and then export this tech to the rest of the industry,” Zhavoronkov said.

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Egyptian startup Convertedin raises $3M, caters to e-commerce brands in MENA and Latin America

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Convertedin, an Egyptian startup that operates a marketing operating system for e-commerce brands, has raised $3 million in a seed round led by Saudi Arabia-headquartered Merak Capital.

Other participating investors include 500 Global and MSAS. The company, in a statement, said it plans to utilize the funds for strategic hiring and further development of its platform.

When brands shift to e-commerce sales, they operate with vast amounts of fragmented data that need to be unified to drive informed decisions and growth. As such, platforms like Convertedin become essential because it caters to brands and businesses with one, some, or all of these objectives: drive personalized and scalable campaigns, convert customers, achieve measurable results and grow revenue.

CEO Mohamed Fergany founded the company with Mohamed Atef and Mustafa Raslan in 2019 after working with several brands in companies such as Speakol Ads and Vodafone. His time as an employee opened his eyes to the opportunity of helping offline stores retarget and retain their customers online while finding new ones to shop at their stores offline.

“If you work into IKEA and they take your phone number down. After that, our engine works to find a similar product you might buy and we retarget you online. If you went back to IKEA for that product, we can calculate the cost of online conversion,” the chief executive said in the interview. “This was the main idea at this time as we saw a huge problem where there was no analytics platform for the offline store or a retargeting mechanism.”

As the pandemic hit and offline stores were forced to close their doors, many of these brands turned to e-commerce, and as a result, Convertedin took its business online too.

Fergany argues that though online brands use CRM software to gather data, they do not utilize most of it. So Convertedin offers a solution where they can use their data best. It plugs into more than 10 major e-commerce platforms and ad networks — and brands, once connected, can place customers into different segments such as high- and low-value and categories like those looking for specific products and use these insights to create personalized multi-channel marketing and drive various campaigns on social media, SMS, email, search and other channels while having the ability to track and attribute revenue conversion.

Convertedin says SMB e-commerce marketers that use its platform increase their return on ad spend (ROAS) by 2x and reduce customer acquisition costs (CAC) by 40%. So far, the company partners with media buying and advertising agencies and works with over 100 local and multinational brands across Africa, the Middle East and South America in the automotive, healthcare and technology industries. Convertedin’s revenues from these businesses have been growing in “double-digits” month-over-month, Fergany said.

The three-year-old Egypt-headquartered company also has offices in Saudi Arabia and Brazil; it just recently opened one in the latter. The South American market is enormous, with e-commerce revenues reaching $160 billion by 2025 from over 200 million users. As a result, Convertedin plans to make its services available in Portuguese — in addition to English and Arabic — for brands in Brazil and also Mexico, another South American market. Fergany also said Convertedin is eyeing South Africa and India too.

“We focus on emerging markets and if you look at it from healthy unit economics, we can sell easily in those countries because there is low competition there,” said the CEO on the expansion to five new markets, including Saudi Arabia. “And customer acquisition cost is low compared to the U.S. or Europe markets.” The new investment will help Convertedin with this expansion in addition to R&D and hiring.

In a statement, Ahmed Aljibreen, partner at lead investor Merak Capital, addressing his firm’s investment, said the ever-changing landscape of digital marketing platforms adds a new layer of challenges for e-commerce companies — and that Convertedin solves that. Hence, the reason why Merak Capital backed the firm. “We are excited to back Convertedin, a martech company that has built a state-of-the-art platform to simplify digital marketing, improve customer acquisition and drive growth for its clients. Convertedin is led by a world-class team in which we have tremendous confidence as the company embarks on its next stage of growth in MENA and Latin America.”

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