Ziliang Yang of CellX: Transforming the Future of Proteins
This episode is part of the Transforming the Future of Proteins series, where we explore the work of XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion, a global incentivized competition that challenges innovators to reinvent alternative proteins.
Ziliang is the Founder and CEO at CellX, a leading cultivated meat startup in China. Over the past 3 years, he has built a team of 40 and raised ~$20 million to bring cultivated meat products to consumers in China and around the world. He was recognized as Forbes Asia and Forbes China 30 under 30 in 2022, and top 50 entrepreneurs by innovation China.
He has been a flexitarian for six years and cares deeply about the negative impact of factory farming on the environment, humans, and animals. As an impact entrepreneur, he is working to create large-scale social impact through a sustainable business model.
Learn more about CellX at https://www.cellx.cn/
Alex Shirazi (00:03):
Thanks for joining us on the Future Food Show. This episode is part of the transforming the Future of Proteins series, where we explore the work of xprize Feed the Next Billion, a global incentivized competition that challenges innovators to reinvent alternative proteins. On this episode, we’re excited to host Zi Yang. Zi Yang is the founder and c e o of cell X, a leading cultivated meat startup in China. Over the past three years, he has built a team of 40 and raised about $20 million to bring cultivated meat products to consumers in China and around the world. He was recognized as Forbes, Asia and Forbes China, 30 under 30 in 2022, and a top 50 entrepreneurs by innovation China. He has been a flexitarian for six years and cares deeply about the negative impact of factory farming on the environment, humans and animals. As an impact entrepreneur, he’s working to create large scale social impact through a sustainable business model. Ziliang, I’d like to welcome you to the Future Food Show.
Ziliang Yang (01:07):
Alex Shirazi (01:09):
Ziliang, tell us a little bit about your background.
Ziliang Yang (01:12):
Yes, I grew up in China Beijing, and actually moved to the US around 11 years ago. Actually, you know, my background wasn’t in cell culture, meat, meat, not even in food science or you know, or biotech. I was a medical consultant at B C G before starting direct. And, you know, you’ll probably ask me why, why do you, you know, why are you doing this? It’s really a personal story. I have been a flexitarian for the past, almost 80 years now, and I think what really first moved me was the connection with animals. And when I first saw that how animals were raised and how is meat being produced, I was really shocked and really, you know, refused to eat meat anymore. So I think that that’s, that’s the backstory. At the same time, I also realized that meat is, is is very personal and it’s also very emotional for lots of people, and it’s very important for our society and for our culture. And that’s why I always say to people that I am a flexitarian that loves to eat meat <laugh>, but, but, but try to minimize my consumption of meat whenever possible. You know, you know, that’s why I started this company here to recreate meat, the same texture, taste, nutrition, but just through a different production method. Yes, I think that’s, that’s, that’s where, you know, where it all began.
Alex Shirazi (02:32):
Cool. And, and so you’re based in Shanghai now, is that correct?
Ziliang Yang (02:36):
Yes, yes. So I came back to China about three and a half years ago and started Cell X mid 2020. How
Alex Shirazi (02:44):
Is the Flexitarian diet, or even, I guess this new concept of, of cultured meat or cultivated meat, how is that actually perceived in a city like Shanghai?
Ziliang Yang (02:56):
I think it, it depends, really depends on who you talk to to, but I think the overall, the overall message that I get is people get super excited. They wonder, you know, why are you doing, why are you doing this? What is this? They’re very keen to try it out. So I think they’re super excited about this new production method. However, I do think there’s a long way to go for consumer education and you know, especially around what can be improved with the traditional method and what, what is it that we are doing. So I think there’s a lot of education to be done, but you know, the overall sentiment, whenever I talk to folks, they are, they’re quite excited. They, they want to learn more. They, they ask me when I try it and they actually, you know, want to try it. I think there’s a lot of curiosity.
Alex Shirazi (03:37):
That’s cool. And so to dig a little bit deeper, tell us about what cellex is and how your approach is, is different and maybe what kind of meats or products you are targeting.
Ziliang Yang (03:49):
Yeah, so I would, I would describe us as a platform technology company. So we don’t focus on one specific type. We’re developing technologies that can be utilized across different species. So essentially what that means is we have multiple pipelines, multiple platforms by platform, you know, I mean cell line, media, bio process, product developments, all of these platforms by pipeline I mean, you know, different species. So far we have a cell bank of around 20 different cell lines for multiple different species. All of these are most are multiply cell lines. And we have been able to adapt, you know, adapt multiple of these in suspension, Turing, and has been able to scale up one of one of these to 2000 liter bio rectors as we speak. And this is the pipeline that we’re, that we’re pushing through right now. Our goal is to submit the market market approval this year, hopefully get, get approved by 2025 and we’ll be on the market then.
Alex Shirazi (04:55):
Is your first target market going to be China or somewhere else?
Ziliang Yang (04:59):
Unfortunately, I think China still takes a bit of time in terms of regulation. There has been a lot of discussion, lots of, you know, discussion and, and, and, and interest from the regulator. But I don’t think China is ready to to approve now. So that’s why we’re actually going overseas to international markets first. And then I think China will be ready with the next three to five years. We can always come back to to, to to China market.
Alex Shirazi (05:25):
I see. Okay. And then I guess when it comes to building a facility and kind of acquiring the necessary equipment, how is it to run a biotech company in Shanghai? And are there a lot of other biotech companies maybe nearby when it comes to like the startup scene?
Ziliang Yang (05:44):
Yeah, so I think Shanghai is actually a major biotech hub in China and there’s a lot of, you know, biotech companies either as, you know, medicine or, or, or even the upstream suppliers, media bioactives. There’s a lot of existing infrastructure and ecosystem in place and I think that’s one of the main advantages of cultivated meat company in, you know, in China or in Shanghai is there is that ecosystem where we are able to source or, or even co-developed low cost media for our industry as well as bio racks. I think these are really key, you know, upstream, you know, you know, upstream supply for us. So I think there’s a lot of that already in place. And also from a cost point of view, it’s also very attractive from a cost point of view. I think that’s partially the reason why we are able to produce at a significant lower cost and being able to scale up quickly here in China.
Alex Shirazi (06:46):
Absolutely. So let’s talk about XPRIZE and the feed, the next billion challenge. When did you first hear about the XPRIZE feed, the next billion challenge? And I also wanted to ask, how does it feel to be the only cell cultivated meat company <laugh> as part of the finalists?
Ziliang Yang (07:03):
It’s exciting. I wish there were more <laugh>, but you know, but I think, I think, I think, I think it’s very exciting when I first heard about this, you know, I think it is exactly the mission that we are on. So, so earlier I mentioned my personal story I think that’s the only part of it. So I have, I think, I think I like to describe myself have, you know, having both, both side of things. I mentioned some of the more emotional side of things, the connection with animals, but I think I also have a very logical and also rational side and, and I think I, I actually, that’s how I first got, you know, got interested into, into the industry is, is from a rational point of view, I see that humanity face a lot of challenges and the major ones that I see is climate as well as food security. And I think, you know, that that’s exactly the, the, the theme with the xprize, which is feed the next billion. And I think that’s actually the mission of the company. We exist to create new protein, a more sustainable protein, you know, protein for hu for future generations of humans.
Alex Shirazi (08:03):
Now the Xpr challenge calls for a whole cut piece of chicken or a whole cut piece of fish. Can you, or like, have you announced which kind of one you’re working on or can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Ziliang Yang (08:17):
Yeah, so earlier I mentioned that we have multiple pipelines. So actually with our pipeline we have both chicken and fish, but I think the one that we’re going with XPRIZE is chicken. This one is more developed from our side and we have more confidence, but we also have fish, fish to, you know, being developed in house as well.
Alex Shirazi (08:36):
How big is your team right now and what are some of the next big challenges that you’re working on? And it doesn’t have to be kind of focused or related to xprize.
Ziliang Yang (08:45):
Yeah, yeah, so our team is just a little bit shy of 50. We’re 40 something strong, 80% of the team is r and d. 40% actually has experience either living or working overseas. So I would say quite, quite, quite quite international team and the 30% PhD holders for the, for the team. And also we have been raising, we have raised for rounds of founding over the past three years, a little bit over 20 million in total and about to start series B the next year. So I think that’s where we are. In terms of challenges, I think the biggest one for our industry is really how do you scale up at a low cost, you know, especially the cost piece. I think this is a major thing that is currently, I wouldn’t say stopping, but I would say is, is, is is a bottleneck for our industry and I think we are for, to have developed multiple really good cell lines as was our own media formulations, so that we are actually have already been bringing the cost down to around 100 u s d per kilo.
Ziliang Yang (09:51):
But I think, you know, obviously that that is not the end. There is a long way to go and I think our goal is to this next five to 10 years, really, really bring that up, bring that cost down to, to, to to single digits. And that’s, that’s, that’s, that’s where we’re working towards. I think that’s from a cost point of view. Number two is getting up. Right now we have built China’s first pilot facility for cultivated meat and this one has multiple lines of thousand liter barrel reacts, but this is only a pilot. Our plan is to build a production facility by 2025 which is able to produce hundreds of tons of cultivated meats per year. So think that’s something that we’re working towards as well. That’s number two. Number three is from the product point of view, now we have more raw, raw material to play with. We we’re really, you know, putting lots of efforts on product development. And our philosophy here is really we think that, you know, we have the ability to create something new, so we don’t want to stick with the traditional meats anymore, but we actually want to create something that is similar, familiar, but different. So we’ll be releasing more on these, you know, in, in know in the next couple months. Yeah.
Alex Shirazi (11:05):
Wow, that’s cool. And you know, when, you know, I always get excited when we talk about new meats or what we sometimes call on the show designer meats, but I, I think you said something very important is that it has to be familiar, you know, but it still can, can still be, can still be different. So I’m excited to hear about what you have cooking in the
Ziliang Yang (11:24):
Future. Yes, yes, yes. Thanks.
Alex Shirazi (11:26):
Did you say your pilot plant has a multiple 1000 liter bioreactors, or is it 1000, you know, across the different lines?
Ziliang Yang (11:36):
So, so far the one that is currently operating is a 2000 liter bioreactor, but we have plans to bring in more in the facility.
Alex Shirazi (11:45):
Wow, okay. So that’s, that’s really exciting. And I think when you see that type of scale at the pilot stage, it really kind of goes to show, show that you are really poised to, to really go to, you know, large scale manufacturing a as as the industry does need it, right? I mean, we are, yeah, we we’re gonna need a lot of Biore capacity to, to even make a dent into the overall animal agriculture system. So that’s really exciting and inspiring to hear.
Ziliang Yang (12:15):
Yeah, thanks. I mean, for, for China alone, China consumes around 80 million tons of meat per year. And we have done calculations that if we put together all of the bioreactor capacity from the biotech industry, the biotech industry, not just our, you know ed meat, but the biotech industry, put all of those together and just to create, just to produce kind meat, we cannot satisfy China’s demand, you know, 1% of China’s demand. So I think, I think so I think that goes to show how much infrastructure needs to be built for our industry to become a reality. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there and I think, you know, leveraging China’s resources, I think we can, you know, really be, be, be a hub for bioproduction, you know, for the, for, for our industry.
Alex Shirazi (13:05):
As we begin to wrap up, I, I wanted to really ask you about advice that you have for others that might be maybe where you were when, you know, before you started the company, right? And you had experience, I think you said you were at B C G, is that right? Yes,
Ziliang Yang (13:22):
Alex Shirazi (13:22):
Right. You were at B C G and you kind of had this passion and this vision. What was that kind of push that got you to say, you know what, I want to start my own company,
Ziliang Yang (13:33):
<Laugh>. I mean, let me, you know, let me, let me be honest. I was happy at B C G, right? You know, like I really enjoyed that career. I think, you know, there’s, you know, there is a promising career path forward, but I think, you know, it’s just maybe not exactly for, you know, for me, I mean, if I look back at my, you know, if after I doing more soul searching, <laugh>, you know, in terms of where, where, where I want to be, I really want to, you know, start my own company for the sake of, I want, you know, I think a best way to put it is I want to inspire change and I want to create impact. And I think the, I think the best way for me to, to, to do that is to find an area which I truly believe in and that I, and I’m passionate about and, you know, make a dent on the world.
Ziliang Yang (14:22):
So think that’s really where the, the drive comes from. And also, and I think after switching to this, to this new industry, I just, you know, you know, I’ve been loving it. I mean, I mean, I mean, it is, is it’s difficult as busy, the work-life balance is worse. But, but I think at the same time, I really enjoy what I’m doing, so I would encourage anyone with, with the idea or with the passion, you know, just to go for it. I think the world needs more entrepreneurs who, you know, who want to make a change.
Alex Shirazi (14:53):
I like that. You know, I, I I want to track back ’cause I, I know that you mentioned that you are working on really building a technology platform, but does Cellex plan to sell products of its own in, for example, you know, restaurants and, and retail stores in the future? Or do you wanna just stay as like a B two B platform for, for others?
Ziliang Yang (15:17):
Yes, so we do see the need for both. Initially we would actually be going to restaurants just to show how it, you know, how, you know, just to, just to demonstrate what’s the best way to do it. But I think in our gene we’re actually very, very open and very happy and we are very willing and we want to work with big corporates where we can actually leverage our technology and either do joint venture or build factories together. I think this is the best way to scale up our, our technology. But, but I mean, at the same time, I do see the need of, you know, having a customer brand and that’s where we can actually do consumer education influence consumers. But I think from an impact point of view, we would love to work with big corporates to actually leverage our technology and be able to, to achieve more impact.
Alex Shirazi (16:06):
I see. Okay. And, and you mentioned that for xprize you’re gonna focus with the chicken. Is chicken gonna be your, your first product line or is that still up in the air?
Ziliang Yang (16:15):
We haven’t announced anything yet. But, but, but, but, but I can say more on our product strategy as we, for our first line, this line will probably be the, you know, be an avian species ’cause this is the easiest and quickest to commercialize. But at the same time, we have multiple high end premium species under development. So I think for the second or third pipeline, these will be these more premium species. And, and we do believe, you know, it is a cascade, meaning that we’ll start with the premium ones and then as we scale up, as we reduce cost, we’ll be able to launch more mass market products. So I think, so I think just to, you know, just to summarize, we’ll start with premium, but that’s not where, we’ll, where, where we’ll end. ’cause I think the mission of the company is create impact. So we want to end with mass market products at a co, you know, at a affordable price. But it’s just at the beginning, the more premium pro species will be, will be something that we sh you know, that we can do in the short term.
Alex Shirazi (17:17):
I see. Okay. And, and that makes sense and I think that’s a approach that also will get people talking, right? Yeah. Selling out at restaurants and, and that kind of thing. Yep. You could learn more about cell X at www dot cell x cn, Ziliang. Is there any last insights or announcements or anything like that you would like to share with the audience?
Ziliang Yang (17:39):
I mean, if you’re ever in China or in Shanghai, you know, just, you know, feel free to visit our facility. I think we designed our facility to be a transparent space where we welcome visitors, you know, you know, you are welcome to visit and even for, you know, for a taste of, of the future. And we believe personally, I believe humanity is on a journey to transition from the traditional factory farming method of animal protein to a more diverse source of protein in the future. And we’re on this journey to create different proteins. You know, we’d love to host you here in Shanghai. If you’re ever here in China,
Alex Shirazi (18:15):
That is an amazing invitation. And I wanna, I wanna thank you for being on the Future Food Show.
Ziliang Yang (18:20):
Thank you, Alex.
Alex Shirazi (18:21):
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on our next episode.