London-based Biotech VC Agronomics boasts an impressive portfolio of venture-stage companies, primarily in the field of cellular agriculture, most of which will be well known to vegconomist, such as Rebellyous Foods (plant-based chicken); Formo (animal-free dairy); Every (egg alternatives); BlueNalu (cultivated seafood); Mosa Meat (cultivated meat); and Liberation Labs (precision fermentation), amongst many more.
Co-founder Anthony Chow kindly took the time to chat with us about the current and future positioning of the cellular agriculture space, offering some unique and extremely valuable insights.
Please introduce Agronomics, what does the company stand for?
Agronomics is the leading listed company, listed on the London Stock Exchange, focused on the field of cellular agriculture and the production of agricultural products directly from cell cultures that have historically been derived from traditional farming methods. Our investment focus is on the production of cultivated meat, directly from cells, as opposed to slaughtering an animal, as well as precision fermentation (primarily for dairy and egg proteins) and enabling technologies to support these categories.
The food sector is known to be the largest contributor towards biodiversity loss; food production relies on agricultural means, which uses large amounts of water and land. Farming practices can be linked to deforestation and have negatively affected the environment and increased the impact of climate change and continuing environmental concerns. The production of alternative food products is an important method whereby food can be produced without further burdening the planet.
The demand for alternative and environmentally friendly food sources has grown in recent years, with more individuals being drawn to these products, however, many plant-based products do not meet consumers’ expectations with regard to price and taste, which has led us to invest in the field of cellular agriculture, where products can directly replicate the farmed alternatives consumers are accustomed to.
How do you describe the progress and significance of cellular agriculture in 2023?
In 2022, there were several groundbreaking changes, representing a transition in the sector as companies move from R&D validation towards commercialization. The landscape for regulatory approvals in the USA is gaining momentum, in November 2022, the FDA issued a ‘no questions’ letter to Upside Foods regarding their cultivated chicken product, followed by another in March 2023 for GOOD Meat’s cultivated chicken.
“Finding sustainable alternatives to agricultural commodities is fast becoming a key priority”
In the announcement related to Upside’s no-questions letter, the FDA said it was working closely with the USDA on final approvals, which would be the final step in commercialization in the US. This could potentially be the first of many cultivated meat companies to achieve approvals in the US, and further, there could be additional jurisdictions moving forward by establishing their own regulatory pathways for the approval of cultivated meats.
Finding sustainable alternatives to agricultural commodities is fast becoming a key priority for major jurisdictions as they work toward reaching ambitious 2030 climate targets, as shown by the EU’s agreement in December 2022 to implement new restrictions ensuring goods placed on the EU market are not contributing to deforestation and forest degradation in the EU and elsewhere in the world.
Cellular agriculture is one of the only technologies with the potential to decarbonize the world’s protein production system while meeting the protein needs of the growing global population, and its significance continues to grow as many companies look to move out of the R&D stage and into commercial production.
How many company holdings does Agronomics currently have?
Agronomics currently has over 20 portfolio companies within the cellular agriculture sector. We have an established portfolio of venture-stage companies, with a global mandate but invest predominantly in the US and European companies. The majority of the portfolio is currently at the Series A stage.
What are the requirements for Agronomics to invest in companies?
We invest in companies that operate in the field of cellular agriculture, which derives conventional agricultural products directly from cell culture and fermentation, without any animals being involved. Since 2022, we have placed particular emphasis on companies using precision fermentation technology or providing contract precision fermentation services.
We look to invest in companies that are developing the technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotic requirements, land use, water use, energy use, improving animal welfare, and mitigating climate change.
In your opinion, how will the alternative protein sector develop over the next few years?
The alternative protein sector is very broad, ranging from plant-based burgers to precision fermentation and cultivated meat. We anticipate that there will be a significant divergence between these markets with the approval and broader commercial launch of precision fermentation and cultivated meats in the US starting in 2023.
Plant-based proteins are unlikely to be able to regain the rapid sales growth and levels of adoption once projected, until their sensory profile is enhanced most likely by precision fermentation-produced proteins and cultivated meat, and their costs come down further.
“In the coming years, we will see a wave of additional product approvals in Singapore and the US”
Once the USDA provides the final sign-off for the first two companies (Upside Foods and Good Meat) which received their respective “no questions” letter from the FDA, consumers will be able to taste these long-awaited products first hand, as the Agronomics team already has, and realize that they are exactly like conventionally produced proteins.
In the coming years, we will see a wave of additional product approvals in Singapore and the US and then beyond that, a number of additional jurisdictions authorizing the sale of these proteins, with Japan and South Korea tipped to be fast followers after the US. Unfortunately, at this stage, it looks like Europe is going to be left behind in this revolution. It’s worth noting that precision fermentation proteins are now approved in the US, Singapore, Australia, and India.
“Unfortunately, at this stage, it looks like Europe is going to be left behind in this revolution”
With this increased certainty around end markets, the large-scale infrastructure to drive cell ag proteins down through economies of scale will be built and will create an investable asset class for infrastructure investors seeking more defensible revenues and cash-generative assets. This, we believe, will lead to a multi-decade, multi-trillion dollar flow of capital into the sector, which at first will simply help meet the global population’s growing demand for protein, but will in time (over decades) start to displace conventional production methods. Ultimately this will provide decreased food price volatility and increased food security while reducing the suffering of billions of intensively farmed animals.
What are the plans for 2023?
In 2023, there is potential for further investments in our existing businesses and we continue to always look for new investment opportunities. Agronomics currently has £29.8 million in cash on our balance sheet. Our current investment portfolio shows considerable promise for future growth, with near-term inflection points with regulatory approvals and scaling of technology. We are expecting significant developments in a number of our portfolio companies that should positively impact their valuation in the coming months and look forward to updating the market as and when is appropriate.