Vegetarian hamburgers: A new healthy use for tobacco

This landmark botanical development could significantly reduce the cost of cultured meat and help rapidly advance its commercialization.

 BioBetter scientist pouring in growth factors.  (photo credit: ALEXANDER SELEZNYOV)
BioBetter scientist pouring in growth factors.
(photo credit: ALEXANDER SELEZNYOV)

Tobacco can be used for beneficial things and not just make people addicted to its toxins, giving them serious diseases and killing them. A food-tech start-up in Kiryat Shmona named Biobetter, Ltd. has harnessed the inherent advantages of tobacco plants as bioreactors for creating the growth factors necessary for the cellular development of cultivated meat.

This landmark botanical development could significantly reduce the cost of cultured meat and help rapidly advance its commercialization. Cultured meat could eventually replace beef cows which are a major factor in producing greenhouse gases and promoting hazardous global warming.

The Israeli start-up is on a mission to relieve one of the biggest bottlenecks in this emerging industry – the high costs and limited availability of growth factors that play a critical role in multiplying cultured meat cells.

“World population growth and dwindling natural resources are going to put incredible strain on meat supply and the already fragile environment in the coming decades. Cultivated meat offers a promising solution to these problems and can ensure a more resilient supply chain with better economic and environmental returns."

BioBetter CEO Amit Yaari

BioBetter’s unique protein manufacturing platform for producing growth factors uses tobacco plants (Nicotiana tabacum) as natural, self-sustaining, animal-free bioreactors. The field-grown tobacco plants offer a new, sustainable, efficient and flexible response to the market need for more competitively priced growth factors, specifically insulin, transferrin and FGF2. These compounds are necessary to make cultivated meat commercially viable.

 BoiBetter team: Prof. Oded Shoseyov, Michal Drayman, Amit Yaari, Erel Margalit, Dana Yarden and Ilan Ron (credit: ALEXANDER SELEZNYOV) BoiBetter team: Prof. Oded Shoseyov, Michal Drayman, Amit Yaari, Erel Margalit, Dana Yarden and Ilan Ron (credit: ALEXANDER SELEZNYOV)

BioBetter was founded by Hebrew University in Jerusalem Prof. Oded Shoseyov, biotech business expert Dr. Dana Yarden and Avi Tzur, an industrialist who sought to put tobacco plant to positive use and was the first investor in the technology.

“BioBetter has the key to scale up production of cultivated meat, make it accessible to consumers globally and protect our planet,” declares Erel Margalit, founder and executive chairman of Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP) Margalit Startup City Galilee. BioBetter has secured $10 million in its A-round funding, which was led by JVP, with additional investment from Milk and Honey Ventures, and the Israel Innovation Authority (IIA). This significant injection of capital will be instrumental in accelerating cell-cultured meat closer to its ambitions for broad scale production.

“This is not only because of the sheer volumes of growth factors it can produce, but also by virtue of its ability to substantially reduce their cost,” said Margalit. “Growth factors form the key building blocks for cell-cultured proteins, but costs currently run anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 per gram of FGF2, for example. BioBetter’s technology has the potential to bring these costs down to just one dollar per gram,” he added. “Biobetter has the key to scale up production of cultivated meat, make it accessible to consumers globally and protect our planet.”

The future of BioBetter

BioBetter will expand to a larger pilot plant within the Tel Hai Industrial Park in the Upper Galilee. The establishment of the new site will substantially increase its capacity to process tobacco plants, enabling it to meet its current pool of commissions emanating from cell-based meat cultivators globally. The new funding also will be applied to broaden BioBetter’s product portfolio of growth factors. The startup currently is recruiting sufficient new talent to double its workforce.

“Biobetter has the potential to create global and regional impact,” added Nisan Zeevi, director of JVP and vice president of Margalit Startup City Galilee. “Closer to home, this venture will create a significant new source of income for local farmers. As cellular agricultural expands, we will dedicate some 2,000 dunams of land here in the Galilee of tobacco plantations to support the cultured meat industry. This also helps growers find new purpose in the burgeoning alternative protein scene following a reduction in smoking over the last decade that has left many tobacco fields idle and tobacco farmers suffering financial loss.”

“World population growth and dwindling natural resources are going to put incredible strain on meat supply and the already fragile environment in the coming decades,” said BioBetter CEO Amit Yaari. “Cultivated meat offers a promising solution to these problems and can ensure a more resilient supply chain with better economic and environmental returns.

“Thanks to the Biobetter platform, tobacco is set to make a pivotal comeback as a catalyst for bringing better food security,” added Yarden. “As a result of this funding round, we can scale up production in 2023 and expect to go commercial with our tobacco plant-derived, food-grade growth factor portfolio by 2024.