Rockefeller heir invests in firm taking growing animal tissue in a laboratory.

An heir of one of the world's richest families is banking on laboratory-grown meat as the next big industry of the future.

Justin Rockefeller, a great-great-grandson of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, is "a relatively small investor" in New York-based Modern Meadow, which has created a "steak chip" by growing animal tissues in a laboratory.

"I have eaten a steak chip," Mr Rockefeller said in Auckland, where he will speak at a Philanthropy NZ conference today. "It tasted like a salty steak chip. It was delicious."

The technology is still costly in its early stages. But Modern Meadow co-founder Andras Forgacs says the cost will come down dramatically when production ramps up in factories that he likens to micro-breweries, multiplying meat cells taken from a cow or a sheep in much the same way that brewers ferment a biological source such as barley to make beer.

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The time scale for factory-grown meat would be "in the order of decades", Mr Rockefeller said, although Mr Forgacs told the Herald that the company would be marketing factory-grown meat products "within less than a decade". Modern Meadow is starting with factory-grown leather on the theory that it will be easier to get people to buy car-seats or handbags made of factory-grown leather than to start eating factory-grown meat.

"Meat will probably come after that," Mr Rockefeller said.

"Every major idea seems crazy at first. Even mobile telephones used to look like giant bricks and cost $5000 each in the early 90s, but visionary people imagined a world in which every single person on the planet has one of these mobile devices and they fit in your pocket."

Mr Forgacs and his father, University of Missouri Professor Gabor Forgacs, have already founded another company, Organovo, which has multiplied human cells and then used 3D printing to create tissues of human kidneys and other organs, initially for testing new medicines. It is valued on the New York Stock Exchange at US$379 million ($507 million).

Modern Meadow is still privately owned but was valued last year at US$60 million ($80 million).

"I would put this in the category of high-risk, high-return, high-impact," Mr Rockefeller said.

He has co-founded a non-profit body called The Impact for investors who pledge to use their money to generate both a financial return and a social impact. He helped persuade the family-owned Rockefeller Brothers Fund to stop investing in fossil fuel industries last year - despite the fact that the family fortune comes from oil.

"We embrace the irony," he said.

Instead, he sees Modern Meadow as both a good financial bet and having a huge positive social impact if it can reduce global warming. Livestock account for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

However Otago University scientist Dr Tim Woodfield, who leads a team using 3D printing to develop human tissue implants, said the challenge would be multiplying living cells without using animal products, because most tissues are grown in media such as blood serum.

"Tissue engineering for medical applications has a high profile but it will be interesting to see how tissue engineered food advances over the next 20 years," he said. "However the research community remains somewhat sceptical because of the costs of engineering large edible tissues may be an expensive or niche product."

Beef and Lamb NZ chief executive Scott Champion said synthetic meat was still a long way from reality.

"Consumers are telling us naturalness of product is very important to them," he said.