We caught up with Cai Linton, CEO and a Co-Founder of Multus as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. Multus supply sustainable and ethically sourced growth media for the cultivated meat industry. Multus are ensuring cultivated meat is as responsible as possible, whilst also proving a low-cost solution for their customers. With no animals killed, and zero antibiotic inputs, Multus are producing the next generation of growth media. This novel technology is critical to support the expanding cultivated meat industry as it enters general markets.
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.
Cai: My name is Cai, and I have a background in bioengineering. I met my co-founders about 3 years ago at Imperial College London. Essentially, we got very excited about the opportunity of cultivated meat, which was this new technology that was allowing companies to produce real muscle, fat, and connective tissue without the need to kill an animal along the way. It is a far more efficient process and cuts away many of the downsides of industrial farming, such as you don’t need to kill animals, you don’t need to use antibiotics, and you are growing just the meat that you are going to consume which is more efficient. One of the big problems within cultivated meat was that it was very expensive. About 5 years prior to Multus being founded, the first cell-made burger cost about $300,000 to make. We were asking ourselves this technology sounds amazing but why is it so expensive and how can we help this industry to get to scale more affordably and comfortably. We were looking at the production process in quite a lot of detail and speaking to lots of people and what kept coming back again and again was that it was the cost of the growth medium. The feed that the cells need to grow was holding back the industry.
Traditionally within biomedical research or the pharmaceutical industry, there is growth media used to grow cells, but these are not designed for the food industry and often times use animal derived products such as animal blood serum, to feed the cells the right kinds of nutrients. However, this really goes against the ethical and sustainability aspirations of cultivated meat. We have been working on this problem of growth media, such as looking at the ingredients to make them safe for human consumption, make them scalable, make them cost-effective and affordable but also how we combine those into the right recipes for a cow fat cell, or a pig muscle cell, for example.
Cai: Yes, it is part of the input to cultivated meat, so it doesn’t get all the headlines, but it is such an important part to make it scalable, affordable, and sustainable.
Cai: Foetal blood serum is commonly used because it contains this cocktail of nutrients that tells the cells to grow quickly. A foetus from a cow is growing very quickly and within that blood are all the right signals to tell the cells how to grow quickly. We wanted to replicate this message for cultivated meat cells without animal components.
Cai: There are 2 parts to a growth medium. The first are the basic nutrients such as your sugars, fats, vitamins, and salts etc. Those are pretty common, and right now we are doing some work that is in progress that is looking at how we can derive those ingredients and micronutrients from existing sources in the food supply chain. We are particularly looking at waste products and how they can be processed to extract those nutrients for use in growth media.
Then the other part of growth media is growth factors. These are cell-to-cell signalling molecules that are not consumed by the cells, but they tell the cells how to use the nutrients round them and grow in the right way. We use precision fermentation technology to produce signalling molecules. This is a similar technology to what is used to make insulin, for example, that works by putting the gene that codes for the signalling molecule into the yeast, then growing the yeast in large metal vats. All the technologies we use are safe and have been used in the food industry for a long time.
Cai: At the time I met my co-founders, I was studying bioengineering. I was very interested in how engineering tools and biology tools could come together to create new solutions to some of the big challenges we are facing as a society, climate change arguably being one of the biggest. It was in the synthetic biology society where I met Kevin (Pan) and Reka (Tron), who are equally interested in engineering biology for the greater good and to create useful solutions. At that point, we started Multus really out of interest and wanted to tinker around with a little project on what work we could do with this grand challenge of growth media.
We quickly realised that, for us to have the impact that we were truly imagining and reach a solution that would make a difference to this industry, we had to build a bigger team around us and take on more funding and get into the right lab space. In 2020 we joined the IndieBio accelerator. This is the world’s largest life science start-up program, and this gave us our initial investment to really get going and get our first proof of concept developed. Since then, we have gone on to raise our seed round of funding and build our team to a team of 12.
Cai: Within cultivated meat, it is a very new industry that really relies at the intersection between food and pharma. For us growing a team, we needed people who could bring their expertise but could also be agile in their thinking to find a solution that can work between those two industries. We know the scale and the price and the food safety elements of the food industry but ultimately growing cells has been done a lot in the pharmaceutical industry. For us to find people that can bridge those gaps, at least mentally, and be creative in the solutions that we are using to scale out production is really important.
The other thing, as it is with all start-ups who are hiring people all the time, is that the dynamics change a lot when you go from co-founders to your first hires to 50 people, and then to 200 people. Maintaining that culture and that sense of family and keeping that high-performing team when we all need to be working together on our mission. For us, there are technical skills that we definitely need so finding the right universities that are training people in that way or at least looking at the right industries. There are a lot more people thinking about the impact that their work has, so they may have a lot of skills from the pharmaceutical industry but might want to apply that somewhere else. We need to be aware that there are many people who are not actively looking for jobs but for the right opportunity, would be looking to make a move. We have to be quite proactive in finding the people who can bring in the right skills.
Cai: We really recently just launched our first product; Proliferum M. Proliferum M is our first growth medium, it is designed to grow cow and pig muscle, fat and connective tissue. For us, with it being quite a technical product, there is an onboarding process, at least with the agreements that we use.
We try and get the product in people’s hands quick as possible, from their initial interest to making an order and us getting the product in their hands ASAP, so we have streamlined this process. There are then one or two iterations of going through how they are using it, making small changes if we need, and from then on, we can be more of a long-term supplier.
I think it is important to have structure and a sales process and to make sure that we have the right advances and the right next steps so that we can keep moving people towards being a long-term partner. We are at the very early stages of all this, and I think we are exploring a couple of different business models that we think will be the most effective.
Cai: It is pretty global, to be honest. Especially for cultivated meat, the major territories are Europe, North America and South-East Asia. We now have our product for mammalian cells, though in South-East Asia the seafood cells are a bit more popular so there is slightly more demand in Europe and North America. Very quickly this is going to be a more global operation.
Cai: There is no start-up that doesn’t go through many ups and downs with things working and not working. For us, being patient is very important and having a view for working on technologies and processes that might reap rewards maybe 3-months down the line, maybe 3-years down the line and motivating people towards those goals. Our team are still only 12 but we have seen the importance of communication and aligning teams together. A lot of the work we do is between teams and so we need to make sure that resources and people’s time scheduling is all in place so that we don’t run experiments and then, at the crucial moment, there is nobody there to finish it and we would lose all of that data. That has been an important thing that we have been implementing as the team has grown. I think it is always important to check your assumptions to understand where you are in reality; as much as you can be optimistic and be working towards ticking off those major assumptions that you are holding in terms of product, in terms of the market and what needs to be done to actually build a valuable product.
Cai: Yes, we have to be feeding the cells every 2-3 days, maybe even 1-2 days for certain types of cells. We have to regularly feed the cells and we only recently put together an automated way of doing this so at least we can have people at the weekend not having to come in.
Cai: I would definitely say if you don’t need investment, don’t take it. If you can run a business through revenues, then that gives you the ultimate ownership over what you’re doing and decision-making abilities. Bringing in investors is very useful for accelerating progress but also having a bit of a wider network and support system, although advisors can definitely take that role. We had to take on investors because there is so much technological development required that we were not going to be generating sufficient revenue to be supporting our operations until a couple of years down the line.
For the investment process I would say, you really have to speak to a lot of people and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. If you have one investor who is interested, don’t shut off all the others and try and close that deal. Having as many people as possible within that funnel is very important and then as you go down the process, keeping everyone up to date and creating that sense of FOMO with closing the round, which is really important to get investors to make a decision. Investors love to defer their decision because the longer they can wait, the more you have developed and the closer you are to market, and they can have a view on that. Running that very tight process and setting deadlines as much as you can to help push investors and bring it all together. My biggest piece of advice would be speak to as many people as you can and trying to align people in terms of due diligence so that it all comes together at the same time.
Thank you for your time, Cai!