Why the steaks are high for Vancouver-based biotech company Atelier Meats

Atelier will have its first prototype beef steak by March 2023.

Pexels_Leonardo Luz

Credit: Pexels/Leonardo Luz

Atelier will have its first prototype beef steak by March 2023

If you’ve seen pretty much any portrayal of cloning in popular culture, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s inherently evil. Here’s the thing, though—it doesn’t have to be.

With the kind of work Vancouver-based biotechnology company Atelier Meats is doing, it’s hard to not imagine a potential future for doppelgangers. In the business of growing “real meat” in labs, Atelier is veering away from plant-based alternatives (or “fake meat”) with its scaffolding technology, which, according to co-founder Rahim Rajwani, allows the company to make full-sized steaks from a sample of animal DNA.  

“We realized fairly quickly that many plant-based products out there have a lot of sodium and other fillers in there,” says Rajwani. “We wanted to pivot to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly ‘real meat’ scenario without harming any animals.” 

Atelier’s technology enables it to take a cow’s DNA (say, a sample the size of your little finger) and put it into a bioreactor where the cells continuously divide as if they were in a living cow. In 40 days, that sample would produce some 3,000 kg of meat without antibiotics, disease risks or animal slaughter. On the flipside, traditional farming would take around 28 months to produce the same amount of meat, as Rajwani puts it.  

After graduating from UBC with a degree in Economics and Political Science, Rajwani, who moved to Vancouver from East Africa in 1976, started working in the local food and beverage business with his uncle. In dealing with different meats, his interest was piqued at a young age. But after his uncle suffered a heart attack, Rajwani spent 25 years working at different brokerage firms in Vancouver, eventually starting his own advisory firm in 2011. There, his work with high-growth sectors reinvigorated his fascination with meat processing.

“Originally when I heard of [cultured meat], I was a little skeptical,” Rajwani admits. But before he launched the company two years ago, he asked a number of vegans and vegetarians whether they would consider cultured meat from a lab, where no animal is harmed and where the risk of antibiotics or food-borne illnesses could potentially be reduced to 0 percent. Many of them said yes. 

Atelier is collaborating with Rutgers University to do all the lab work. “It tastes exactly the same because it’s the cells and nutrients that come directly from the animal,” Rajwani maintains. “Atelier” means design house or designer in French, and in retaining that motif, the company is able to customize meat for different consumers. “So if a national wholesaler wanted a specific type of steak that had 40 percent protein and 60 percent fat, we could actually create that with our technology,” says the co-founder.  

Moving forward, Atelier wants to use 89 percent less water, 99 percent less land and lower greenhouse gases by 96 percent in its processes. It will have its first prototype beef steak by March 2023 and is working on its next set of products, which will include pork and chicken. It hopes to be in production within the next two years. 

“The dramatic effects of climate change have prompted countless industries to rethink how they manufacture their products. I think consumers are much more educated now,” Rajwani says of the stigma around lab meat. “It comes down to the technology, but also the way people think.”