Dealflow | June 10, 2024

Prolific Machines snags $55 million to improve biomanufacturing of cultivated meats and medicines

Lynnley Browning
Guest Author

Lynnley Browning

In the barely four years it’s been around, Prolific Machines has wagered that a burgeoning field involving the precision use of light can make cultivated fish, poultry and beef affordable, mass-market products. Now the synthetic biotech startup has a lot more money to try to make that happen.

The Emeryville, Calif.-based company has raised $55 million from investors to grow and commercialize its photo molecular biology platform, which it claims can significantly reduce the costs of producing cultivated meats, nutritional and therapeutic proteins, and pharmaceuticals. 

“Breakthrough innovations like Prolific Machines’ biomanufacturing platform don’t come along often — particularly innovations that have the potential to unlock profound impact in both human and environmental health across multiple industries,” said Komal Mistry-Mehta of Ki Tua Fund, the venture arm of New Zealand-based publicly-traded dairy cooperative Fonterra Co-operative Group in a release. 

That includes whole cuts of cultured meat, antibodies to treat diseases, and other bio-manufactured solutions. 

The Series B round was led by Ki Tua and included Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Footprint Coalition Ventures, Mayfield, SOSV, Shorewind Capital, In-Q-Tel and family office Darco Capital, among others. The round included convertible notes (details weren’t provided, and the company didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment). In 2021, the startup raised $42 million in a first round led by investor Arvind Gupta and Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Lighting the way to precision bio-manufacturing

Prolific Machines’ technology is a twist on the experimental field of optogenetics, which involves using light to control the activity of living cells. That field is primarily the domain of neuroscientists seeking to harness insights for the treatment of autism, drug abuse and depression. Prolific Machines’ proprietary platform including optogenetics tools, light-emitting hardware and artificial intelligence can shape and influence “virtually any cell function in any cell type,” the company says.

Companies in the cultivated meat space increasingly see value in licensing their technology, rather than in developing the actual consumer products that use it. In that vein, Prolific Machines said it would “soon” announce partnerships with companies that will use first applications of its technology to “more efficiently biomanufacture high-value bioproducts.”

The company, led by stem cell biologist Deniz Kent, joins a crowded space. The cultivated meat industry comprises more than 170 startups and early-stage companies, according to the nonprofit Good Food Institute, or GFI.

Big Food is taking notice. Last year, ADM partnered with Israel-based Believer Meats to refine and expand the cultivated meat production process. Tyson first invested in cultivated meat manufacturer Upside Foods in 2018, and joined Cargill and others in a $400 million third round in 2022 – at the time the largest bet on the industry.

Last year was the first that cultivated meat was approved for sale in the US; it’s also available in Singapore and Israel.

In addition to cultivated meat, Prolific Machines’ technology has the potential to “dramatically lower” the costs of producing biologics such as protein therapeutics, vaccines, and engineered antibodies, In-Q-Tel’s Eugene Chiu said in a release announcing the funding. “Scalable biomanufacturing is vital to the continuous supply of medicines and medical countermeasures that can be crucial for health and biosecurity for the nation and the world,” he said. 

IQT was founded in 1999 with Congressional approval as an independent not-for-profit strategic investor for the Central Intelligence Agency and broader intelligence community.

Where’s the beef?

Global meat consumption is projected to surge along with a rising global middle class – a bad scenario given that animal agriculture accounts for between 11% and 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to GFI.

A 2022 joint study from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, found that if the world phased out animal agriculture and switched to a plant-based diet, the shift would halt the increase of atmospheric greenhouse gasses for 30 years and give much-needed time to end the reliance on fossil fuels.

Despite the immense need and opportunity, funding for global cultivated meat and seafood companies fell in 2023 to $226 million, from $922 million in 2022, according to GFI. Since 2013, the industry has raised to just over $3 billion, a fraction of the dollars that have flowed into other sustainable technologies, like renewable energy.