Cultivated Meat Pioneer Omeat Cuts Workforce Amid Strife

In a dramatic turn of events, Omeat, a California-based startup that burst onto the cultivated meat scene with a promise to revolutionize the industry, is now operating with a drastically reduced workforce. The company, which had nearly 50 employees at its height, has been reduced to a skeleton crew of fewer than 10, following a series of layoffs and voluntary departures.

The shake-up comes after a tumultuous period marked by internal strife and the stepping down of the company’s founder, Dr. Ali Khademhosseini, from his CEO position amid allegations of creating a hostile work environment. A former employee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed to AgFunderNews that the company is “mostly down to a core science team.”

Omeat’s innovative approach to cultivated meat involves harvesting nutrients from the plasma of living cows to create cell culture media, a method designed to be more humane and cost-effective than traditional methods that rely on fetal bovine serum (FBS). Last summer, Dr. Khademhosseini expressed confidence in this method, suggesting that it could enable a 95% reduction in cattle production and achieve price parity with conventional meat if operated at scale.

However, the company’s journey has been anything but smooth. Despite securing large-scale bioreactors and opening a pilot plant in Thousand Oaks, California, Omeat has struggled to demonstrate its process at a scalable level. The pressure to scale up operations is a common challenge in the alternative protein sector, particularly as venture capital funding becomes more scarce.

Omeat’s internal issues came to a head following a business trip last October when Dr. Khademhosseini was caught on camera berating his staff, calling them “idiots” and questioning their competence. This incident led to multiple written complaints from employees and an investigation by a third-party law firm, which ultimately found no evidence of legal wrongdoing.

In response to these challenges, CTO Jim Miller has taken over as CEO, with Dr. Khademhosseini transitioning to a role as a board member and scientific adviser. The company has since been forced to make difficult decisions, including reducing its staff size, as it believes it can achieve commercial viability milestones with a smaller team.

Despite the cutbacks and the controversy surrounding Dr. Khademhosseini’s leadership, the company maintains that its core technology has been validated at the 200-L scale. However, some former employees have voiced skepticism, citing issues with contamination and a lack of success in scaling up the process. They argue that Omeat has prematurely shifted focus to its pilot plant operations before perfecting the necessary procedures at the lab scale.

As the dust settles, the future of Omeat hangs in the balance. The company is reportedly back in R&D mode, with its larger bioreactors sitting unused as it grapples with the challenges of scaling up its science. Yet, Dr. Khademhosseini remains optimistic, hinting at a “positive announcement” on funding expected soon.

The situation at Omeat serves as a cautionary tale for the burgeoning cultivated meat industry, highlighting the delicate balance between innovation, scaling, and maintaining a healthy work environment. As the industry continues to evolve, the lessons learned from Omeat’s experience will undoubtedly inform the strategies of other companies seeking to make their mark in the world of alternative proteins.

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