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Product | People | Potential – our chat with Roslin Technologies

We caught up with Ernst van Orsouw, CEO of Roslin Technologies as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Founded in 2017 as a joint venture between the University of Edinburgh and two impact-focused investment partners, Roslin Technologies specialises in producing cells for cultivated meat production. Their mission is to allow everyone access to affordable, nutritious, and sustainable protein. Rosin Technologies is able to achieve this through their unique offering of pluripotent stem cells that grow quickly, efficiently, differentiate into muscle and fat, and can regenerate forever.

The purpose of article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk, while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Hi Ernst, nice to meet you. Can you please introduce yourself, what Roslin Technologies does, the stage you are currently at, and what makes Roslin Technologies unique?

Ernst: Hi Imogen, nice to meet you. I joined Roslin Tech 8 months ago as CEO. Before that, I worked for Genus which is the global leader for livestock genetics for pork, beef, and dairy. I was based in the US where the swine division was centred. I was responsible for strategy and marketing on a global basis and that included bringing to market their gene editing technology. Genus had developed pigs that were resistant to one of the biggest swine diseases in the world using gene editing. This is good for animal welfare, and is very interesting from a sustainability perspective, but quite difficult to bring to market from the technology, regulatory, and consumer acceptance angles. What I found incredibly interesting was taking novel biotech and putting that in the food system to make it more sustainable. This is what I have found in Roslin Tech; we make a similar end product of really high-quality meat but by a very different means that can have the potential to be much more sustainable.

Before Genus, I worked for 10 years at Boston Consulting Group in New York, San Francisco, and Amsterdam. I was born and raised in the Netherlands and my background is Electrical Engineering. I have ended up in Biotech so, for candidates, you don’t have to be worried about having a background that exactly matches as you can still end up in the industry!

Roslin Tech works in cultivated meat, which is meat grown directly from cells without the need to slaughter an animal. In terms of the industry, we have a unique technology. There has been £2 billion poured into the cultivated meat sector to date and all the big protein producers such as Tyson, JBS, BRF, Cargill, CP Foods Global, and more, are stepping in. The problem is, to make cultivated meat viable, it needs to be safe, affordable, and nutritious. Affordability can be a major issue because the cost of production is more than 100 times too high at the moment and you need a lot of capital to make it work. What you need to be successful as a cultivated meat producer is incredibly good starter cells to grow your meat from.

This is where Roslin Tech comes in. Our unique capability is to make induced pluripotent stem cells. We can take primary cells from an animal, reprogramme them to become pluripotent stem cells and they can then self-renew forever and differentiate into any tissue. This is incredibly unique, as most of the cells that are being used in the industry have a finite lifespan while our cells have been doubling for over 400 times. There are virtually no limits on how much meat you can make out of this. And that is where our self-replicating cell lines differentiate from cell lines that are being used by most cultivated meat producers, such as primary cells or mesenchymal stem cells, that have a finite life.  

To illustrate that: theoretically, out of 1 biopsy of primary cells with a finite life, you can make 15,000 pounds of meat. That may sound like a lot, but it isn’t really. It is only 0.1% of a daily production run for a large meat production company like Tyson! Therefore, if Tyson wanted to be a cultivated meat producer using primary cells, they would have to go back to an animal 1000x a day to take a biopsy, isolate the cells, put them in culture, grow them up and put them in a sterile system. This creates tremendous risk from a food safety and contamination perspective and reduces production efficiency as a result of the variation in each biopsy. Also, when using cell lines with a finite life, you can’t continuously improve your cells because you have to start over multiple times every day. Our cell lines replicate forever and have been alive for 2 years with over 400 doublings; this is our unique offering.  We do use other cell types as well, but our lead proposition is pluripotent stem cells.

For our business model, we have chosen to make our cells available to everybody in the market, rather than build our own consumer-facing brand, for two simple reasons. We believe we need to focus on what we are good at, and we are really good at stem cell technology and not so good in large-scale manufacturing. We are the first ones to do this in the industry and our intent is to be the world leader in cell line technology. We make our cells available to all producers across the globe and we have customers in the UK, Europe, North America, and Asia. From our laboratory in Scotland, we ship out a 1.5ml vial of cells and impact meat production across the world. To do this, we have to continuously innovate, and we innovate in three areas. 

Our first innovation focus is to expand across multiple species. We currently have pig cells available today, but we are innovating for multiple species and are looking good on lamb and beef. We also have a chicken line with a slightly different cell type. The second innovation area is related to the growing up of the cell, such as media, bioprocessing, differentiation, and food technology. This is not because we want to become a cultivated meat producer, but we need to be able to give our customers the right protocols and support to make the cells work for them as they ultimately grow them in bioreactors and make meat. Our last focus of innovation is on the next generation of cells. We have incredibly good cells today and we are continuously looking to develop our cell lines to make them grow faster, more efficiently, and ensure they stay robust and genetically stable. For that we need the best stem cell scientists and geneticists in the world.

Imogen @ ADLIB: That is so interesting! Could you tell me why pork is the focus for many cultivated meat companies?

Ernst:  Pork is one of the most consumed animal proteins. Pork was one of the first lines we developed and where we patented our technology. Now, we are focusing on beef and lamb, replicating and optimising the technology for different species.   A secondary benefit for exploring pork first is that the sector has also been hit by terrible diseases, particularly in the last couple of years. This makes it an attractive species to explore alternatives for.

Imogen @ ADLIB: I never knew so many people ate pork!

Ernst: Yes, 50% of the world’s pork is eaten in China, at least before African Swine Fever, a devastating swine disease, hit the Chinese pig farming sector.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Could you share the origin story of Roslin Technologies?

Ernst: Roslin Technologies was founded as a joint venture between the University of Edinburgh and two private investment firms. The University put in the rights to unencumbered IP (Intellectual Property) from the Roslin Institute. The Roslin Institute is primarily famous for the invention of Dolly the Sheep who was the first cloned mammal that was grown from an adult cell 25 years ago. At that time, it was hailed as a breakthrough but there were also many ethical concerns. It is interesting to see how today, similar stem cell technologies can help solve some of the biggest environmental issues in the world.

We have rights to IP from the Roslin Institute who are the leading animal science institute in the world; we looked at many of the technologies that came out of the Institute, optimised, and worked on the stem cell platform and we identified that this is the unique platform that we would like to focus on going forward. Originally, we invented this platform for the purposes of gene editing and in vitro modelling of animal diseases, but we learnt through conversations with cultivated meat producers that we had a world-class offering for the cultivated meat sector.

Imogen @ ADLIB: That is fascinating! Could you share some barriers you have overcome or face in the future related to growing your team?

Ernst: I think it is all about growing a business with the right talent. We look at a few areas. One category is hardcore stem cell technology. We want to employ people who understand stem cells better than anyone else. Our team needs to understand the biology, the media, cell performance etc. The second category is people who can translate that cell biology into a really good product because in the end, our customers need to be able to make cultivated meat from our cells. Therefore, we need people that are practical, and customer focused. The third category is people that can update those products and work with our customers to ensure that our cells work in their system, because every cultivated meat producer is different. If we ship cells in a vial, we need to make sure our clients understand the protocols to grow and scale the cells up and improve them over time. We are shifting from a product development operation to a customer-orientated organisation. Roslin Tech is built on technology and science, but we have an incredibly clear focus on ensuring our customers are successful; this is where we are expanding our team into. Given the fact we came out of academia, we are well on track to translating it into something that works for cultivated meat producers across the globe.

Imogen @ ADLIB: One of the things that really stood out to me about Roslin Technologies, apart from your cultivated meat work, is your work in insect engineering to ultimately produce an alternative to fishmeal.

Ernst: Yes, we had looked at many opportunities of IP that came out of the Roslin Institute. In the last year we have focused on two activities that are primarily driving the business today. One is the cells for cultivated meat, which is 90% of our business. The other 10% is insects. We have a breeding program for black soldier fly to make more productive insects for protein producers. To make insect protein, insect farmers can take low-quality food waste and put insect larvae on it. The larvae eat through the waste and produce a high-quality protein that you can use for pet food or as an alternative to fish meal for aquaculture, which is a highly unsustainable and finite resource.

Imogen @ ADLIB: More people need to know how unsustainable fishmeal is. It is great that you are engineering a solution to such a large-scale problem. Moving to product, how have you approached product market fit or sales cycles?

Ernst: We use a technical sales approach. We have to first understand the challenges of our customers. This requires a lot of in-depth conversations comparing our cells to our customer’s cells to find out what they do and don’t have. If they are convinced that we have something unique, the first step is to let them evaluate and test our cells. We ship them the cells and give them the basic ingredients, comparable to a ’do it yourself’ kit, and a lot of technical support so that they can see if our cells grow well, grow quickly, and meet their expectations. If they like what they see, they can enter into a long-term collaborative agreement with us. It is a life cycle that has a lot of technical conversations up front and then a 4–6-month evaluation period followed by a long-term multi-year agreement.

Imogen @ ADLIB: Could you share some barriers that you overcame when creating your product?

Ernst: Yes; biology is never a straight line! Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. I am sceptical about anyone who would claim that they fully understand how cell biology works. Biology is incredibly complex in all organisms. We have a very targeted, hypothesis-based approach to finding ways that we can optimise our cells but there is a lot of experimentation. When we made our first iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells, we used a technique invented by Shinya Yamanaka in Japan. Yamanaka invented the technique for mice and humans in 2006, and he won the 2012 Medicine and Physiology Nobel Prize for his discovery in transforming adult cells into embryonic stem cells. We are the first ones to use this technology successfully in food animals. The fact we are the first ones to use this technology which is 16 years old proves that it is not very easy. We have used numerous techniques and methods to get the exact methodology to make high-quality cells.

Imogen @ ADLIB: That definitely proves that this is a very difficult technology to use! Investment can often be a challenge for start-ups and scale-ups; do you have any advice for companies seeking investment?

Ernst: I think “being focused” is step number 1. If you try to do too many things at once, you might not be successful. You need to have a clear focus from a technology and business perspective, and you need a differentiating proposition that you can communicate concisely. It is also important to make sure all your colleagues are aligned with the vision that you are pursuing.  

Thank you for your time, Ernst!