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Profile: “Electrifying” the Beef Industry

Patricia Bubner aims to simultaneously fight climate change and feed diners’ appetite for beef with her startup’s premium cell-cultured beef products.

Patricia Bubner

Photo courtesy of Orbillion Bio.

Global demand for beef is on the rise. Yet traditional beef production is a significant contributor to climate change, due to its inefficient land and water use and the methane-filled burps of billions of cows. 

Working to address this problem is Patricia Bubner, cofounder of Orbillion Bio, a California startup striving to sustainably scale up the production of premium, cell-cultured beef. The process takes a biopsy of muscle, and fat cells from a live animal, then grows the cells in a nutrient-rich medium in bioreactors to form the final meat product—all without antibiotics and with fewer contamination risks than conventional meat production creates. Orbillion seeks to get a product approved by the FDA and USDA for sale in the next year and aims to eventually make four million pounds of ground beef a year. 

“Food and food systems have been my deepest passion since childhood,” says Bubner. While a postdoctoral scholar at the Energy & Biosciences Institute (EBI) from 2013 to 2016, Bubner worked with Chris Somerville, who was then a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB) and director of the EBI. “Chris gladly shared his immense scientific knowledge and wisdom with his students and encouraged us to do bigger things,” Bubner says.   

During her postdoc, Bubner and her roommate, Amrita Hazra, launched The Millet Project. The Millet Project aimed to diversify American agriculture and diets through the cultivation and consumption of lesser-known grains, such as millets. Bubner and Hazra worked closely on the project with Peggy Lemaux, a professor of Cooperative Extension in PMB. "Peggy taught me how traditional farming and science can go together, how to think about it, and how to talk to different stakeholders about the benefits of this connection," she says.

With a $25,000 grant from the Berkeley Food Institute, they purchased different varietals of millet, rallied a team of around 20 volunteers to plant their experimental plot, developed several millet food products, and hosted events to introduce others to the benefits of the crop. “The Millet Project was my first startup,” Bubner says. “It was when I realized I am good at putting teams together, and when I learned how to achieve a lot with limited resources.”

While working on The Millet Project, Bubner noticed several alternative-protein companies popping up in the Bay Area. “It seemed cell-cultured meat was the next frontier,” she says. For 18 months, Bubner—who has master’s degree in technical chemistry and PhD in Biotechnology from Graz University of Technology in her native Austria—worked in Fremont as a process scientist for Boehringer Ingelheim, a German biopharmaceutical company, to learn how to work with mammalian cells on a large scale. “It was an invaluable experience in terms of networking and the technology to build on for Orbillion,” she says.   

A close up on a bao

Photo courtesy of Orbillion Bio.

Orbillion launched in October 2019 as a premium brand, drawing its stem cells from the most delicious breeds for meat, such as Wagyu cattle. It has since been working on scaling up production to eventually reach price parity with traditional beef products. The company has partnered with bioprocessing specialist Solar Biotech to increase production to 20,000-liter bioreactors in facilities that are water neutral and fully powered by solar energy. Orbillion claims its process emits 92 percent fewer greenhouse gases and requires 75 percent less water and 95 percent less land than conventional beef production. “The need to do things sustainably is reflected in everything we do,” Bubner says.

The USDA and FDA have now approved the first cell-cultured chicken products for sale in the U.S., and Bubner sees this milestone as a sign of a promising future for the industry. Orbillion has already planned ahead by partnering with Luiten Foods, a Dutch meat distributor, to distribute its products, once approved, to more than 35 countries in Europe. “It shows we’re working with traditional meat companies, not against them,” she says. “They see how climate change is affecting farmers, and they want a steady supply of high-quality meat that they can count on for the future.”