This Startup Wants to Create the "Tesla of Lab-Grown Cheese" (Exclusive)

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Jan. 19 2022, Published 5:07 p.m. ET

Lab-Grown Cheese
Source: Real Deal Milk

Real Deal Milk CEO, Zoltan Toth-Czifra (left) and Chief Researcher, Gabriel Mora, in the lab.

“I could never give up cheese.” That is one of the most common excuses people give for not wanting to go vegan — and for that reason, entrepreneur Zoltan Toth-Czifra founded Real Deal Milk in April 2021. The Barcelona, Spain-based startup plans to produce a plethora of cell-based dairy products, starting with lab-grown cheese.

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Even though Real Deal Milk’s team has yet to create a prototype, Toth-Czifra already aspires to replace dairy products across all categories with lab-grown ones in the future.

“The point is to create alternatives for people who will never, never be vegans [or] make compromises in terms of their lifestyle or what they eat, for environmental reasons or anything else,” Toth-Czifra, who is an “on-and-off” vegan, tells Green Matters in a recent Zoom interview.

Lab-Grown Cheese
Source: Real Deal Milk
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How is lab-grown dairy made? Here’s how Real Deal Milk is making cell-based cheese.

To make lab-grown dairy, Real Deal Milk starts by taking casein and whey DNA from a database. No cows are used in the process, and Real Deal Milk plans to classify its products as vegan. The DNA is then inserted into host yeast cells.

Then, the yeast cells are fed and cultivated in fermentation tanks, and begin making proteins. The proteins are then separated from the host cells and purified, leaving you with milk proteins (casein and whey).

The process is similar to that of other products grown in labs, including beer, nutritional yeast, pharmaceutical products, and even some dairy-based cheeses.

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Once Real Deal Milk perfects this process, the company will curdle and separate the proteins to make cheese — and later, they’ll use these proteins to make many other dairy products. Real Deal Milk is still in the research phase, but Toth-Czifra tells Green Matters that the Real Deal Milk team expects to produce prototypes sometime this year, and to have products on the market in “a couple of years.”

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Lab-grown dairy vs. plant-based dairy

With so many plant-based dairy products on store shelves these days, do we really need lab-grown milk? Toth-Czifra thinks so, and for two reasons.

For one thing, he believes that vegan dairy alternatives “in some product categories just haven't been able to match the experience of what they're trying to replace.” While many vegans and dairy-free consumers love the taste of vegan cheese, Toth-Czifra — along with many cheese-loving consumers — feels that cheese made from plants “can never really reach” the exact taste and experience of dairy cheese. And until it does, numerous people won’t entertain the idea of going vegan.

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The second issue is actually getting non-vegan consumers to buy vegan dairy products in a timely fashion. “It's one thing to measure the experience. It's another thing to just get people to consume it,” Toth-Czifra says.

And with animal agriculture polluting the planet, directly contributing to climate change, and abusing animals — topics that Real Deal Milk discusses in detail on its website — we don’t have time to waste. “There is certainly an increase in the popularity of conscious eating, and that's great. But we are in a hurry here, so we have to get people to eat sustainably,” he says.

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Toth-Czifra believes that lab-grown cheese has a better chance of precisely replicating dairy cheese than plants do. Therefore, he thinks cultivated cheese could eventually become the product to convince skeptics to stop consuming dairy from cows.

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He compares his goal of disrupting the dairy industry to the way Tesla disrupted the electric car industry by simply being “cool.” He wants to make Real Deal Milk an option that consumers choose simply because it tastes better than its competitors, combined with being a better product for the planet and animals.

Toth-Czifra, who has a background in engineering, understands that to be a success, his products will have to be “nearly or entirely compromise-free for everyone, yet better for the environment,” even though that process will take years.

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Lab-grown ice cream is already on the market.

While lab-grown meat tends to dominate the lab-grown animal-product conversation, the lab-grown milk category is stealthily growing even faster than that of cultured meat. In fact, U.S. consumers can already buy some products featuring lab-grown dairy in grocery stores, such as Brave Robot ice cream, made with Perfect Day’s lab-grown whey.

There are also a few other startups in the lab-grown cheese space, such as German company Formo and Israeli startup Remilk.

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