By David Bullock
Fresh food is something astronauts aboard the International Space Station need after long periods in space. But Earth’s supply ships only arrive for a few months and the food doesn’t stay fresh for very long. The problem will be even more acute for astronauts on long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars.
Aleph Farms is working to solve part of the problem by developing technology that would allow future space explorers to grow their own steaks from bovine cells. The Israeli company is sending an experiment to the International Space Station on Friday aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that will help scientists better understand how to grow cells.
“Studying the effect of the space environment on cell growth will help Aleph Farms better understand how its processes can evolve in extreme environments, enabling the development of an automated, closed-loop system that produces steaks for long-term space missions and in other harsh climates on earth,” the company said in a press release.
The experiment is being flown to the station on Axiom Space’s first private mission to the ISS. Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria commands the Ax-1 flight, which will take three paying customers and a load of experiments for an eight-day stay aboard the station.
“What we’re trying to demonstrate in this experiment are the two main building blocks of the meat-growing process,” said Zvika Tamari, space research manager at Aleph Farms. “When you grow meat, you take an initial supply of cells and multiply them, in a process called proliferation. Once you get a large number of cells, you then go on to differentiate the cells into different cell types… These are the two main building blocks of meat culture and they have never been demonstrated in space… Because cells grow and evolve differently in microgravity than on Earth, Tamari and Lavon are curious to see how the experiment unfolds.
Aleph sees a market opportunity as private space travel grows and NASA and its international partners send astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars.
“We hope we can be a meat supplier for new tourists leaving Earth and new colonies settling in space,” said Aleph CTO Neta Lavon.
“Cell farming continues to reach new heights through space research, and it’s also an integral solution for deeper deep space exploration,” Lavon said. “The Rakia mission represents a unique learning experience for our team at Aleph Farms, who are working tirelessly alongside our partners to adapt our cultured meat production processes to the constraints imposed by the space environment on this mission.”
Rakia is the name of the mission undertaken by one of the participants in the space flight of Ax-1, Eytan Stibbe. The second Israeli in space will perform a series of STEM experiments and activities on behalf of his country.
Aleph works with SpacePharma – which has offices in Switzerland, California and Israel – and Space Florida’s Space Life Sciences Laboratory in Cape Canaveral. SpacePharma provides its SPAd system, otherwise known as “Lab-on-a-Chip”, so that Aleph can grow its bovine cells in a micro-fluid device on the chip.
The experiment is the second ISS test for the Israeli agricultural technology company. The first experiment flew in September 2019.
Aleph is also no stranger to NASA, having participated in NASA’s Deep Space Food Challenge.
Before supplying steaks to space travelers, Aleph first plans to develop a market for the company’s low-cost beef here on Earth.
“We plan to launch this product by the end of this year,” Lavon said. “We need to get approval from the Ministry of Health to start selling. And once we have that, we plan to start selling to restaurants. And once we have that, [we can then] move into supermarkets, etc. Because our vision is to deliver meat anywhere, anytime to anyone, we have begun to view space as something we should be looking at carefully over the past few years.
The company started five years ago in an incubator in Israel. Since then, they have raised $120 million from contributing venture capital funds from around the world.
Aleph’s $12 million Series A was led by VisVires New Protein, with Cargill Protein and M-Industry as new investors. Existing investors included Strauss Group, Peregrine Ventures, CPT Capital, Jesselson Investments, New Crop Capital and Technion Investment Opportunity Fund.
Aleph also had a B round in May 2021 generating $105 million. Round B was led by L Catterton’s Growth Fund and DisruptAD, with participation from Skyviews Life Science, as well as a consortium of leading global food and meat companies including Thai Union, BRF and CJ CheilJedang. Existing investors including VisVires New Protein, Strauss Group, Cargill, Peregrine Ventures and CPT also participated.