February 27, 2024

The “exceptionally promising” future of cellular agriculture: Q&A with Bettina Hamelin


  • Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO, Ontario Genomics

Read commentary from Torys for the latest legal and industry trends in our article “Navigating change: advancements in ag-innovation and regulation”. And for more industry insights, read our in-depth Q&A featuring Hamid Noori, CEO, The Cultivated B.


Cellular agriculture is heralded as enabling food security and bringing more innovative products to consumers; however, there are still barriers to its adoption. What changes need to happen to lessen these barriers in Canada?

Cellular agriculture holds the key to food security and innovative and sustainable food production. However, technical and social barriers must be addressed to capitalize on this opportunity and enable economies of scale with the promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Cellular agriculture includes both fermented products (through precision fermentation; for example, proteins and flavours) and cultivated products (through cell cultivation; for example, meat, fish, seafood, etc.). There are fewer barriers to the commercialization of precision fermentation products, and many are already on the market. This includes rennet in cheese making, heme in the Impossible Burger, and the cow-free dairy protein, produced by precision fermentation company, Remilk, which was recently approved by Health Canada.

To pave the way, Canada needs a national vision and strategy, a transparent regulatory framework, and robust support for research and commercial development. Health Canada has recently published guidelines on the regulation of cellular agriculture products, which is an essential step towards faster approvals of products in Canada so that consumers can experience and benefit from these.

Companies making these products need to be able to scale production—and this is the major barrier in Canada and abroad. As outlined in our 2021 national Cellular Agriculture Report, investment into infrastructure, public-private and industry partnerships, and consumer education are vital steps towards a potential $7.5B industry that could create 86,000 jobs by 2030.

Recent years have witnessed substantial venture capital investment globally (tens of billions of dollars), with governments worldwide now actively supporting the industry.

As an organization centered around collaboration, how do you think researchers, governments, not-for-profits, and companies can work together to best advance the ecosystem?

Collaboration is essential for the growth of a thriving cellular agriculture ecosystem in Canada. As an example, Ontario Genomics has partnered with German company The Cultivated B to enable Canadian companies to access laboratory space, equipment including bioreactors (that Ontario Genomics has invested in), and mentorship for startups to move their innovations toward made-in-Canada IP and commercialization. The industry is evolving with initiatives like the TCB-OG Innovation Hub, emphasizing the importance of collaboration across organizations and borders. The TCB-OG Innovation Hub is a great example of an international company seeing the opportunity in Canada, where they partnered with Ontario Genomics, as a not-for-profit.

Canada’s first and largest cultivated meat consortium, which was announced last year, includes collaborators from academia, industry (from startups to established companies), the federal government (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada) and not-for-profits (Genome Canada, Ontario Genomics, New Harvest). By involving stakeholders from across the ecosystem nationally and internationally, the project will achieve its overarching aim to drive impacts across this burgeoning sector and benefit all.

How have you seen the industry change in recent years?

Recent years have witnessed substantial venture capital investment globally (tens of billions of dollars), with governments worldwide now actively supporting the industry. While early startups were end-to-end, newer companies focus on B2B solutions, with other players stepping in for the scale-up and distribution channels. Major food companies are entering the space, and more products are gaining regulatory approval. Policies worldwide are evolving, with some nations heavily investing and others imposing bans (Italy), reflecting the industry’s dynamic nature and novelty.

Early cellular agriculture startups were initially end-to-end players, but newer companies, particularly in Canada (with over half located in Ontario), are now primarily B2B entities targeting specific value chain segments.

Major players in the food industry, such as Maple Leaf Foods, Griffith Foods, Nestle, and various dairy companies, are increasingly forming partnerships with cellular agriculture companies, indicating growing industry involvement and the recognition that sustainability of the food sector is critical.

Regulatory approvals for cell-ag products are expanding globally, with cultured meat gaining approvals in the United States and Israel, following Singapore in 2020. Canada is also making progress with regulatory approval for precision fermentation milk proteins.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry?

Challenges in the industry include high pre-revenue investments, infrastructure deficits, and securing talent to achieve cost parity with conventional food producers and scale production to satisfy the growing appetite for protein around the world. Canada continues to lose talent to other jurisdictions. Our organization is partnering with others, including colleges, to help fill the training and upskilling gap for biomanufacturing jobs in Canada.

Consumer acceptance is growing, but conventional agriculture groups have some apprehensions. The key lies in patience, determination, resilience, and supporting R&D across the ecosystem to foster shared knowledge and success.

What advice do you have for innovators that are building these products?

Innovators should identify B2B opportunities, tap into Canada’s food industry and international markets, and seek collaboration within the startup community. Engaging with regulators early, fostering support networks, and exhibiting determination and resilience are crucial for success. In Ontario, we have the third-largest food and beverage industry in North America, presenting an immense opportunity for partnerships with these companies. We also have free trade agreements with over 50 countries, and thus a fantastic potential for exports. Ontario Genomics has several partnership opportunities, including programs and mentorship, that can support and accelerate early company success.

What recent advancements in cellular agriculture are you most excited about?

We are thrilled about our partnerships with The Cultivated B and the McMaster-led Cell Ag consortium, positioning us at the forefront of the fermented products and cultivated meat revolution in Canada, right here in Ontario. Our strong collaborations with FedDev and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada further empower us to nurture the ecosystem, which includes fostering the growth of early-stage startups in the sector, with a remarkable eight cell ag companies already funded and more in the pipeline.

Adding to our excitement, Health Canada has recently released guidance for cell ag companies, marking a significant milestone, along with their approval or pending approval of novel products for the Canadian market. This propels us to push the boundaries of cellular agriculture even further as we actively engage in partnerships and collaborations across the entire ecosystem. The future of cell ag looks exceptionally promising, and we are eager to contribute to its continuous evolution.

A favourable regulatory landscape is crucial for industry leaders. Canada’s high safety standards, exemplified by Health Canada's guidelines, are commendable. However, streamlining the approval process and offering flexibility will attract international companies, making Canada a hub for growth and exports.

What emerging use cases do you think are poised to take off in the near future?

Fermented products are poised for success, enhancing existing products like plant-based foods, and creating new opportunities for Canada’s abundant feedstock. This presents added opportunity for producers, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions from its current disposal methods.

Health Canada’s approval of Remilk dairy protein is just the beginning, signaling a wave of diverse and innovative products entering the market. We can also diversify what we produce and make things we never did before—things like vanilla, coffee, honey, and so much more.

We are also poised to see more hybrid products that take advantage of both nutritious plant and cultivated meat protein.

What are your thoughts on the regulatory and legislative landscape in this sector? Are there ways to better position Canada to support innovators?

A favourable regulatory landscape is crucial for industry leaders. Canada’s high safety standards, exemplified by Health Canada’s guidelines, are commendable. However, streamlining the approval process (currently up to 410 days) and offering flexibility will attract international companies, making Canada a hub for growth and exports.

The countries that are emerging as leaders have both good investment and good regulatory landscapes. Companies need to get products on the market as quickly as possible—while maintaining safety and quality standards—so jurisdictions with time-consuming and expensive regulatory processes with an uncertain outcome are not viewed favourably.

What is your 10-year forecast for the industry?

In a decade, cellular agriculture will be a much more common method of food production, with increased product availability and price parity. Canada has the potential to lead in diversifying food production and exporting various cell ag products, contributing to national food security and economic growth. However, current investment levels in biotechnology and cellular agriculture in Canada pose a great risk for Canada to fall further behind. The future holds promise, provided the necessary investments are made to secure Canada’s leadership position in the industry—and most importantly, to make sure consumers are on board.

Bettina Hamelin, PharmD, EMBA is the President and CEO of Ontario Genomics, an Ontario-based not-for-profit organization dedicated to catalyzing and supporting the development and commercialization of genomics- and engineering biology-based solutions across key sectors of the economy to drive economic growth, improved quality of life and global leadership for Ontario. Dr. Hamelin has over 30 years of experience in academia, industry, and not-for-profit organizations. She has held positions of increasing responsibility in the biotech and pharma industries including leadership positions at BioChem Pharma (Associate Director, DMPK) and Pfizer (Head, Strategic Research Partnerships, Western Canada; Director Vaccines, Pfizer Canada; Medical Director, Pfizer Germany; Global Scout, Pfizer Inc.). Dr. Hamelin also has 10 years of academic research expertise as a tenured professor at Université Laval. Prior to her current role, she served as VP of NSERC’s Research Partnerships Directorate, where she was responsible for stimulating increased public/private sector collaboration and technology transfer by connecting the Canadian research enterprise to Canadian and global innovation partners.

To discuss these issues, please contact the author(s).

This publication is a general discussion of certain legal and related developments and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you require legal advice, we would be pleased to discuss the issues in this publication with you, in the context of your particular circumstances.

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