Cultivating a Canadian cellular agriculture industry is a driving vision since 2019 for Bettina Hamelin, Ontario Genomics’ founder and CEO.
Her vision is becoming a reality with the launch of a brick-and-mortar manufacturing, production and innovation facility in Burlington.
“It’s happening. We’re creating an industry in Ontario that’s going to benefit Ontarians,” Hamelin told Farmtario. “It’s going to create jobs. It’s going to create new technologies. It addresses sustainability issues. It’s giving us new routes to food and materials that we can export to the world.”
Cellular agriculture is the production of animal proteins using microbes such as yeast and bacteria, and culturing the cells so they grow. The microbes contain a gene that codes for a specific animal protein, such as milk casein.
Why it matters: Financial investment into needed infrastructure could propel Canada’s cellular agriculture industry onto the global playing field.
The Cultivated B (TCB) is a German-based bioengineering company that is investing $50 million to refurbish a 130,000-square-foot building into a multi-level facility for cellular agriculture manufacturing, production and innovation. It is Canada’s first foothold on the cellular agriculture ladder.
“This facility in Canada is more than just a production site. Alongside the development and production of pioneering technology and bioreactors, we want to help other enterprises in the cellular agriculture and pharmaceutical industry flourish,” Hamid Noori, TCB co-founder and co-CEO, said in a release.
“Our innovation hub, in particular, will help shape the landscape for cellular agriculture in the country and fill a major gap that we saw.”
The first floor is the base to manufacture bioreactors with production capabilities between 0.5 litres to 25,000 litres, photobioreactors and high-precision devices for cellular agriculture and precision fermentation.
PreFer Industries, TCB’s precision fermentation production company for alternative plant-based protein sources, will occupy the facility’s balance.
“To scale up cellular agriculture and our technologies, we looked into different countries, and Canada is, in fact, a country that provides fertile ground for biotechnology and cellular agriculture in general,” Noori told Farmtario.
“We have a large level of acceptance of biotechnology and genetic engineering on the one side, but also, we have very nice access to highly qualified individuals that form the backbone of our company.”
TCB and Ontario Genomics signed a memorandum of understanding on Oct. 6 to develop a 20,000 sq. foot on-site Ontario Genomics’ innovation hub as a proving ground for biotechnology and bioengineering, like Guelph’s Food Innovation Centre for traditional products.
“This is a partnership where everyone has skin in the game,” said Hamelin.
She said TCB’s research and development facility in Germany is home to the top 50 cellular agriculture scientists, and their knowledge is now available for Canadian start-ups to access through mentorship.
“We have a network of mentors we bring to bear from across the province, but also the country,” she said. “So having (TCB) with their experience and know-how in terms of fermentation equipment and how to run it is going to be a huge benefit to our partnership and the companies it will support.”
While bio-fermentation isn’t new technology, the application formats open new production lines, said Hamelin.
Precision fermentation could provide the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries with sustainably produced components via biotechnology.
To that end, Hamelin said FedDev Ontario is contributing $5.6 million, which will be leveraged to $11 million by Ontario Genomics to build an ecosystem of engineering biology companies in southern Ontario. She said the network could use cellular
agriculture to develop fabrics, chemical components for bioplastics, and biofertilizers.
“We’re thrilled this announcement is coming at the same time practically as our partnership with Cultivated B,” Hamelin said. “So, we can actually support companies at the same time as they get access to infrastructure and equipment.”
Michael Van Massow, University of Guelph food economist, said market development is happening with or without Canada’s participation. The question was whether Canada would put its hat in the ring.
“If Canada wants to play in these high-tech areas, we need to show examples of companies succeeding,” Von Massow said. “It’s amazing that a company is investing in Canada, is committed to growing the industry and contributing cellular agriculture proteins as ingredients to other food manufacturers.”
The TCB announcement isn’t just a boon for cellular agriculture, predicted Von Massow. It will help food processors access alternative protein sources and ingredients.
Through precision fermentation, organisms can produce complex organic molecules for components such as proteins, enzymes, growth factors, flavouring agents, vitamins, natural pigments, complex sugars and fats.
“There is the appetite, pardon the pun, for these ingredients out there, and Ontario Genomics has helped facilitate an atmosphere (for this investment),” said Von Massow.
“(This will) become a cornerstone for building a bigger industry in Ontario, whether that happens starting in two weeks or whether that happens starting in a year. Either case, it’s exciting.”
The Burlington site has economic opportunities for TCB, placing it near Ontario’s highest concentration of food processing facilities where it can contribute to the industry and potentially provide export opportunities and job creation for Canada and Ontario, said von Massow.
“It’s exciting. It’s a huge launchpad to a bright future,” said Hamelin. “I’m just thrilled that Ontario Genomics had an opportunity to play a role in what I think is going to be a very successful industry for Canada.”