Meet the North East scientist leading the clean meat revolution
HLN caught up with Dr Martina Miotto, former Newcastle University PhD student and local entrepreneur, who has developed a trailblazing new solution that promises to revolutionise the ethical food debate – and save the lives of countless animals
By Becky Hardy
What is cultured meat? And why is it so important?
Cultured meat is grown in a lab and developed using cell-based technology, rather than animals. It removes animal exploitation from the meat production process and reduces the environmental impact of CO2 emissions.
With the demand for vegan food options increasing year on year, alternatives to a purely plant-based diet are increasingly being explored and commercialised. Cultured meat has clear advantages over traditional meat production and is set to be the next big innovation in our eating habits, providing an ethical and environmentally friendly alternative to a purely plant-based diet.
Tell us about your research – what exactly have you developed? And what does your work mean for the future of the cultured meat industry?
Our company, CellulaREvolution, has developed a continuous cell culture solution that means cultured meat can be produced more quickly, efficiently and in greater quantities. Our innovative processes eliminate the animal-derived serum from the process. This allows the production of a truly ‘clean’ ethical product.
CellulaREvolution’s bioreactor technology decouples cell production from the surface area available by releasing cells continuously. By moving to continuous cell production, the area required to grow cells can be drastically reduced. This increases yield and lowers production costs.
Does cultured meat offer exactly the same nutritional value as ordinary meat?
The ultimate aim is that cultured meat products would be biologically identical to conventional meat. So, in other words, having very similar if not identical nutritional values. However, this is still a long way from being achieved. The interim products are likely to be a composite of plant-based and cultured meat. In addition, cultured meat gives the opportunity to tailor some ad hoc products that can contribute to improved nutrition, health, and wellbeing.
What attracted you to working in this field?
For as long as I can remember, I have always had a passion for STEM. Biology, maths and physics were my favourite subjects at school. I had some great teachers and mentors who helped guide me through my early academic career. Thanks to them, I ended up attending the University of Ferrara where I studied biotechnology.
After completing my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at the University of Ferrara, I moved to Newcastle University to complete my PhD, where I graduated in 2018. My supervisor was Professor Che Connon – who would eventually become my future business partner.
Where did the idea for CellulaREvolution come from?
As my PhD supervisor, Che supported and encouraged me to pursue my research ideas’ commercial potential. Che was already a serial entrepreneur at that point, having founded two other successful spin-out businesses: Atelerix in 2017, and 3D BioTissues in 2019.
My PhD focused on tissue engineering and its real-world application, so in many ways looking at commercialisation opportunities from this research was a natural extension of my existing work. Che’s offer to help turn our research into a spin-out business was too good to refuse.
In 2019, Che, Leo Groenewegen and I cofounded CellulaREvolution where I now work alongside them as Chief Scientific Officer. We were put in touch with Leo, now our CEO, by Northern Accelerator’s Executives into the Business programme.
Why the focus on clean meat?
The cultured meat industry is a high-growth market with exciting prospects. Our work helps provide a more ethical and environmentally-friendly alternative to meat production.
We were originally a Newcastle University spin-out – supported through the commercialisation process with the help of Northern Accelerator – to address major production challenges in the sector and change our future meat consumption habits by providing a genuinely ethical product.
What do you think the role of CellulaREvolution will be in the future of cultured meat production?
We’re establishing ourselves as a B2B company, supplying enabling technologies (hence, our new bioreactor) to cultured meat companies. Although some members of our team have skills and background in tissue engineering, we aren’t developing cultured meat products at CellulaREvolution. We are rather establishing ourselves as a ‘picks and shovel’ company, vital for the creation of a healthy ecosystem surrounding the cultured meat industry
Singapore became the first country in the world to approve and commercially sell lab-grown meat at the end of 2020. What do you think are the biggest barriers to the UK giving cultured meat the commercial go-ahead?
It has to be recognised that the UK has always been at the forefront of approving and implementing new innovations. In this particular case, there are certainly some barriers to overcome before receiving full approval. Public awareness, acceptance, and education are all playing a role, without forgetting the regulatory pathway.
The number of women working in STEM industry roles is growing but hasn’t yet equalled the number of men. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you face as a woman working in the industry?
I think many of the challenges are structural and systemic. More needs to be done to encourage women to study sciences at schools and university, tackling the perception that its still a ‘man’s game’. There are an increasing number of female scientists who are ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ in a traditionally male-dominated industry, but it’s still far from a level playing field.
And what do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy the challenge of working in a field that has a real-world impact. I’ve had a passion for science from a very young age and combining business with academia has been a great experience for me.
In just a year after completing my PhD, I became Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder of CellulaREvolution. Its something I’ve found very rewarding and has never looked back since making the decision to start my own company with the help of Northern Accelerator.
What advice would you give any women in the North East looking to pursue a career in science?
I’ve always had a good experience as a woman working in health and life sciences and have never found it a problem. In recent years, I have noticed an increase in female participation, so the gender balance in the sector is starting to improve, which is great to see.
The Royal Society in Edinburgh is also looking at strategies to increase the number of female applicants and funding awards, which is testament to the female trailblazers starting to make a place for themselves in the industry. So, if you’re a female academic with a great idea, do not be afraid to pursue commercialisation opportunities!
What’s next for you and CellulaREvolution?
CellulaREvolution has expanded quickly since 2019, from its three initial co-founders to a seven-strong team, including a research and development department. We are also in the process of moving from our current location in the Centre for Life to new offices in Newcastle’s Biosphere, where we will set up lab facilities
With our technology, we may be seeing cultured meat featured on restaurant menus, alongside vegetarian and vegan options in the foreseeable future.
To find out more about CellulaREvolution and Martina’s research, visit their website