The transition to animal-free and alternative meats is accelerating. But how will that affect the supply chain of valuable animal byproducts? Versatile, animal-derived proteins like collagen and gelatin are common-place in packaged foods, cosmetics, and even pharmaceuticals. If the plant-based revolution is to succeed beyond meats and dairy, entrepreneurs need to think broadly about reimagining the entire animal-agriculture economy.
This reimagining is what inspired the creation of Jellatech, the world’s first cell-based collagen and gelatin ingredient company. The company’s co-founders, Stephanie Michelsen and Kylie Hesp, see an unmet need to produce these indispensable industrial materials without the harmful environmental impacts or ethical issues of animal farming. Animal collagen is typically extracted by boiling animal carcasses leftover from slaughter. Jellatech’s platform avoids this messy process by culturing animal cells in a lab. Michelsen, who also serves as the company’s CEO, describes their platform as a cell farm rather than an animal one. “We don’t need to slaughter animals. [Our process] is much simpler and we can control it much better. We just harvest the collagen from the cells instead of the animals,” Michelsen says.
Collagen, and its derivative, gelatin, are extremely valuable proteins. Collagen is one of the most important biological building blocks in mammals. It’s a critical component in bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and of course, skin. But it’s also found in blood vessels, teeth, cartilage, and even the digestive tract. It’s so ubiquitous that collagen represents about a third of all proteins in the human body.
To perform its many functions, collagen has developed some remarkable characteristics. The protein is fibrous, heat-stable, and very stretchy. The protein’s triple-helix structure also makes collagen incredibly strong. Type 1 collagen is gram-for-gram stronger than steel. And, perhaps most importantly, all collagen types can interact with other biomolecules. Collagen’s properties are so innately unique that Jellatech isn’t wasting time trying to reinvent the wheel. Hesp, who also serves at the company’s Head of Science, says there’s little point in developing an alternative to collagen protein. “You can’t get the same effects from other sources. There’s no substitute for collagen and gelatin,” says Hesp.
Though Jellatech isn’t looking to create entirely new proteins, the founders believe they can improve on some of collagen’s existing properties. Different animals produce different collagen, from humans to pigs to jellyfish. The ability to control production at the cellular level means the company could potentially design novel collagen types or combinations. “We have a really nice solution where we can grow [collagen], design it, modify it, and clean it in a sustainable, ethical way,” says Michelsen.
The sustainability of their platform and their product’s importance across a range of industries are driving Jellatech’s founders to get their proteins to market quickly. This sense of urgency is also why Michelsen and Hesp have decided on a cell-based approach rather than expressing collagen proteins through microbes or cell-free technology. Collagen is a very complex protein and the founders don’t want to spend extra time engineering other systems to do what cells do naturally. “Instead of trying to make a car fly, we’re taking an airplane and making it fly better and higher. If we can optimize each step of [collagen development] we can create a [greater], more functional yield of higher quality collagen and gelatin,” says Michelsen.
Higher yields and better-quality aren’t the only benefits of circumventing traditional animal agriculture. Besides the years-long lead time from birth to slaughter, animals are also prone to disease. Ultimately, these diseases aren’t passed on through collagen products. But one has only to look at the destruction of the COVID-19 pandemic to see that reducing the prevalence of animal-borne illnesses would be globally beneficial.
In many ways, Jellatech’s founding is the epitome of entrepreneurship in 2020. A biotechnologist by training, Michelsen was on a mission to disrupt animal-farming collagen. She was searching for a co-founder when she read a paper co-authored by Hesp. Both describe their first meeting as a moment of serendipity. Hesp, also a biotechnologist, had just turned in her Ph.D. thesis the day before Michelsen finally tracked her down. That was July 30th, 2020. A mere three months later, their company is emerging from stealth mode with patents pending and their seed funding round complete. And, in another 2020 twist, the two founders have never met in person—their entire startup process has solely been through video chat.
The passion and confidence Michelsen and Hesp have for their technology are inspiring. They are driven to build a more sustainable, healthier future as fast as they can. That leaves no time to bother with the persistent sexism and misogyny that still infect the STEM fields. “We’re not really considering that. And anyone who does consider [our genders] to be something of importance, I don’t really care. That’s just dumb, in my opinion,” says Hesp. This is biotech entrepreneurship as it should be—focused on science and inspiring technology while paying no heed to severely outdated mentalities.
But there is one aspect of their gender identity that Hesp and Michelsen see as a potential bonus. “When I was in my undergrad, I was talking to girls who were very upset by the fact that there were not many women represented [in science],” says Michelsen. When one sees that kind of imbalance in the world, Michelsen and Hesp agree that there are two ways forward: bemoan it or do something about it. Clearly, the two have chosen the latter. “We’re motivated to do exciting things and build this technology. If we can inspire people, men, women, whoever they identify as, that’s great,” says Michelsen.
Now the founders are focusing on next steps—bringing in more investors and expanding their employee roster. But even with a bigger team, the founders estimate it will be another 18 months before their first commercial-grade product is ready. But once this milestone is achieved (an 18-month timeline is still fairly rapid in the startup world) the company can harvest collagen continuously, completely independent of conventional animal supply chains. “Our method is also easily scalable, so we can quickly increase the amount we produce whereas the meat industry cannot—and should not—expand much further,” says Hesp.
The founders envision a future where they can meet the increasing demand for collagen and gelatin without burdening our planet. Michelsen summed up their vision, saying, “Our goal is to get a product out there as soon as possible. We want to get as far as we can as fast as we can to really make a difference.”
I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Thank you to Fiona Rose Mischel for additional research and reporting in this article.