Silicon Valley’s next disruption: The beef industry

SILICON VALLEY — Happy cows supposedly come from California. Maybe it’s because they see into the future of food and agriculture technology in Silicon Valley.
Dairy cows at their feed bunk at UC Davis, where testing for Elm Innovations’ seaweed additive is underway.
(Courtesy of Elm Innovations)
Miles from a picturesque scene of cattle grazing over rolling hills, the new center of food and agriculture technology has emerged in Silicon Valley. In the last several decades, starry-eyed entrepreneurs have increasingly flocked to the region known for its agreeable climate, fast-paced work ethic and proximity to cutting-edge technology. And while many hope to develop a revolutionary algorithm or create a new social network, a growing contingent has circled back to an issue that is over 2 million years old: the meat on our plate. This cohort of mission-driven entrepreneurs has its sights on the ultimate outcome of transforming the beef industry, one burger at a time.

The focus on this beef problem is not a reaction to the exploding popularity of the Paleolithic fad diet, but instead a nascent movement to combat one of the largest sustainability challenges on the planet. Beef production and its partnering industries are contributors to a swath of the most pressing environmental issues we face today, such as land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Currently, animal agriculture occupies a jaw-dropping 30 percent of land mass and uses 25 percent of accessible fresh water worldwide. Globalization and rising income levels have also driven the demand for beef and dairy products to skyrocket over the last thirty years, encouraging producers to generate a matching supply on tight economics. In the pursuit of profit, animal safetyhuman health and environmental protection have fallen by the wayside.

As the global population is expected to balloon to 9.8 billion people by 2050 within an increasingly strained natural world, nations will be pressed to feed more mouths with fewer resources. Given the magnitude of this system, any action taken to dismantle it, even in part, rests upon a colossal tipping point.

Non-Meat for Meat Lovers

Impossible Foods, an Oakland-based startup founded by Stanford biochemistry professor and geneticist Dr. Patrick Brown, was one of the first organizations to tackle this challenge. Impossible Foods entered the public market in 2011 with its signature product, the Impossible Burger, an entirely plant-based alternative to a traditional hamburger that looks, smells and tastes like meat. The Impossible Burger is not marketed as a veggie burger, as one would expect, but instead as a ground beef substitute for an uncompromising meat-eater.

Impossible Foods’ leverage in this area is its application of food science to its carefully crafted (and patented) formula. After extensive research on beef, scientists identified a molecule, heme, as what gives meat its distinctive ”meatiness.” High quantities of heme are present in plants like soy and legumes. By genetically engineering a yeast strain to grow a large quantity of lehemoglobin (the soy version of heme that is chemically identical to myoglobin, the version found in beef), the heme can be isolated. Once it is added to a “beef” patty made up of other plant products like potato and wheat, the end result bears a striking resemblance to traditional meat. It even appears to bleed.

The mission of Impossible Foods is to completely remove the use of animals from the food system and to revolutionize how we eat plants by meeting growing demand for meat, fish and dairy foods through food technology. Already, the production of an Impossible Burger costs less and uses less water and land than the conventional alternative. The environmental implications are huge.

It is nearly impossible to discuss the company without noting the unabashed love of science and its potential that guides the company’s strategy. In a TedMed talk, Brown emphasized his modern take on the cattle industry: “In today’s food system, animals are just an ancient, extremely inefficient, unsustainable technology that we use to transform plants into meat.”

“Clean” Meat

Further down the Peninsula, another food company opened a lab in the East Bay containing a solution so far beyond ancient technology it borders on science fiction. Memphis Meats is cleaning up the food system by removing the cow, but keeping the beef.

Memphis Meats (which, despite the name, launched in San Francisco in 2015) has become the public face of cultured meat. “Clean meat,” as its also known, is real animal tissue grown in a lab from cells advertised as a healthier, humane, and environmentally friendly alternative to what exists in the market today.

The process involves removing choice meat cells from a happy, healthy cow and creating the conditions for self-regeneration. At scale, large vats containing meat cultures will line the walls of large warehouses, resembling a brewery.

Uma Valeti, an Indian-born cardiologist and former professor at the University of Minnesota, co-founded Memphis Meats with Nicholas Genovese and Will Clem, a biologist and engineer-turned-restaurateur, respectively. Valeti had previously been involved in regenerative stem cell research and saw the potential for outsize impact when used as food technology.

“If I continued as a cardiologist, maybe I would save 2,000 or 3,000 lives over the next 30 years. But if I focus on this, I have the potential to save billions of human lives and trillions of animal lives,” he said in an interview with Inc. Magazine.

The method used to self-regenerate meat so was already invented, he realized, but there was no one else close to bringing a product to market. In 2015, he connected with Genovese and the two scientists lay the groundwork for what would become Memphis Meats during a residency at IndieBio, a life sciences startup accelerator.

But simply breaking free from academia does not guarantee easy access to grocery store shelves. The company unveiled its first “no-death” meatball to an intrigued, though ambivalent, public last year, but and predicts launching consumer-ready products in 2021. Barriers that remain are significant costs of production and precedent-setting regulatory hurdles.

But the delay may be a benefit to the company if people are slow to take to the idea of cultured meat. While the sterility of the production has clear benefits for human health, which is often at risk because of cross-contamination common in slaughterhouses, it can also spur an instinctive revulsion.

“If you look at the whole picture of how they’re making it, it just doesn’t seem right,” said Kathy Webster, who serves as the Food Advocacy Director at TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation and as a board member of the American Grassfed Association.

She describes “petri dish meat” as an inappropriate response to skewed studies and misconceptions about sustainable animal agriculture. “Eat real food. Unprocessed food. Something your grandmother, or great-grandmother would recognize.”

That is not to say that Webster and the farming communities with which she works are opposed to adaptive solutions in the food system. The TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation upholds the scientific method as a key tenet of its outreach. But, for now, there is a limit to how far from the farm an innovation can stray before it becomes too difficult to swallow.

The Cows Go Green

An early-stage nonprofit may bridge the gap by mitigating the atmospheric effects of animal agriculture through a single alteration to the cows’ diet, a strategy that may prove more palatable in its simplicity.

In 2016, Joan Salwen, the founder of Elm Innovations, uncovered research during a yearlong fellowship in Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute that demonstrated a particular type of red seaweed reduced the methane production of live sheep by 75 to 100 percent when fed to them in small amounts. Sheep and cattle have multi-chambered stomachs, rumens, that create methane during digestion that is then burped into the atmosphere with damaging effects. Though the gas doesn’t last as long as carbon dioxide, it traps almost 100 times the amount of heat.

Given that 22 percent of the United States’ methane emissions stem from cow belching, Salwen wanted to discover whether a dietary supplement of this seaweed used in U.S. pastures and feedlots could be one of the easiest ways to slow the consequences of climate change. Because the project was born while she was already living in the heart of Silicon Valley, she didn’t have to travel far off of Stanford’s 8,000-acre campus to investigate and eventually pursue her venture. Her Palo Alto base also opened the gates to a host of world-renowned scholars and science-oriented philanthropic foundations at her fingertips.

[Memphis Meats and Impossible Foods] have done several years of product development to get to where they are. We aren’t quite there,” says Salwen. Yet, she is trying to set the seaweed innovation up as well for a swift entrance in the market when the time comes. If current testing with dairy cows confirms the strategy is viable, she plans to change to a for-profit, mission-driven structure and raise private capital. “I’ve appreciated having a little bit of time to be thoughtful about how to communicate this to the funding community and to California regulators. If it were full speed, we’d get drowned.” Her ultimate vision is to make methane-free beef and dairy products as ubiquitous and desirable as cage-free eggs. “It’s likely to generate a lot of interest.”

Of course, Salwen’s strategy takes only small bite out of this problem and works with the established system instead of against it. Focusing on methane emissions doesn’t address any of the other environmental issues relating to beef production, like land use. Even supporters of regenerative grazing, people like Kathy Webster, worry that a “quick fix” solution like Salwen’s will distract the public from more extensive efforts to shift the food system away from cheap beef.

But Salwen strongly believes her narrow approach is an advantage. “Because so many things relating to protecting the planet are hard, we should work together on these hard things. But, first, can we take some of the pressure off? If we pluck the low-hanging fruit, it will make the rest easier.”

Why Silicon Valley?

It is no coincidence that these three meat ventures emerged in the Bay Area, within a 30-mile radius of Apple, Google, and Facebook, tech giants that rerouted the course of human history. Human and financial capital are so heavily concentrated in this region that it is the natural place to start for an outsized impact.

Northern California hosts several leading academic institutions in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM), like UC Berkeley, UC Davis and Stanford University, that churn out highly qualified workers. Equally as important, many of them are passionate about making a difference in the world, says David Kay, the manager of Communications and Sustainability for Memphis Meats. He joined the company after graduating from Stanford in 2016.

Founders like Brown and Valeti intentionally broke away from academia and toward consumer products in order to impact the food system on a global scale as quickly as possible. Ample funding from venture capital firms plays a major role in expediting that process.

Memphis Meats closed a $17 million Series A round in August 2017 with big-name investors like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Suzie and Jack Welch. In January, the company received an additional undisclosed investment from Tyson Foods, now a minority stakeholder in the business. Memphis Meats received a previous investment from Cargill, another multinational food producer. Together, they send the message that even industry giants are joining the cultured meat movement.

Impossible Foods has received over $250 million in funding over the last eight years, and shares Bill Gates as a notable investor (Gates also invests in a third venture, Beyond Meats, another plant-based alternative sold widely across the U.S.).

The high interest in animal agriculture projects extends to the nonprofit sector as well. There is more of a focus on the environment as an impact area in Silicon Valley foundations than in other regions of the country, observes Salwen, attributing the cause to technology. “I think that has everything to do with the billionaires who earned their money from it and created these foundations.”

As these ventures race to upend current food markets, they embrace the implicit Silicon Valley ethos: “Build it first. Ask for forgiveness later.” The snowballing damage to our ecosystems without solutions is a compelling reason to do so. But is this the correct way to scaffold lasting change?

When you are looking at meat tech, you are looking at a much shorter timeframe,” says Liz Carlisle, a lecturer in the Sustainability Science and Practice program at Stanford University, who works on sustainable food system solutions on both the production and dietary side. She focuses on shifting American diets to more plant-based protein. As a result, she follows this space with interest and trepidation.

“The concern that I often have about the way Silicon Valley sometimes looks at problems, startup culture in general, is that it’s not always looking at the root of the issue. It’s not always looking to the historical relationships, either among people or the natural world, to inform the complexity of the intervention,” Carlisle says.

Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, is famously quoted for saying, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.” This high-risk, high-reward attitude, largely embraced by tech entrepreneurs, is easy to endorse when the innovation introduces a networking platform for professionals. People either use it or they don’t, without much risk. A desire for quick, radical change can create a meaty problem when the target for disruption has evolved over millennia and is inextricably linked to biology and culture.

There is no way to ensure that these companies acknowledge the responsibility of this task moving forward. And there is no incentive structure to incorporate the co-benefits of solutions into a business strategy that only focuses on meeting demand.

“I think the notion that what we need to make things cheaper is ultimately a race to the bottom,” says Carlisle, “If people can’t afford to purchase good, healthy food that is the product of the true cost accounting, then those people are not being paid enough money.”

Another question remains about the efficacy of these initiatives manifested in the for-profit “social venture” model. These individual companies have varying ideologies but similar products, setting themselves up for eventual competition in the market.  A future should be considered where mission-driven roots give way to a more salient pursuit of profit margins. That reality seems likely, as the cacophony of voices already present in the space grows louder.

“This is absolutely the future of meat,” Uma Valeti says in an interview with UK’s The Mirror, referring to his lab-grown meatball, the world’s first. But citing barriers to scalability, Patrick Brown of Impossible Foods called the clean meat strategy “one of the stupidest ideas ever expressed” in an interview with Techcrunch.

Joan Salwen of Elm Innovations advocates a more inclusive approach, saying,” The world needs choice, and we should move forward on all fronts. We need as many paths forward to use our resources more wisely.”

Whether or not the hamburger of the future will begin with the cow, it will always end with the consumer. A critical arena where these companies may battle, if they so choose, is in the promotion of their respective solutions.

More empirical studies are being done to explore what people are willing to eat and why. Research conducted in the past year determined that participants greatly preferred a traditional beef hamburger to plant-based and cultured meat alternatives when hypothetically offered all three. But another 2017 study reported that either positive or negative information provided about cultured meat altered participants’ attitude on the subject in the same direction. And, the influence of the information provided was minimized in participants who were already familiar with the concept of cultured meat. This data suggests that consumer preferences are flexible and likely to change drastically over time. Particularly effective advertising campaigns could play a pivotal role in establishing a cultural norm for one meat substitute over its competitors. Ultimately, how people meet the new meat may be more important than what it is.

These companies understand that the determining success factor is taste. David Kay of Memphis Meats emphasized that even skeptics are easily converted once they realize the taste is the same as what they are accustomed to.

“The magic moment that comes from a lot of people is when they try clean meat for the first time,” he says.

Pat Brown, with the Impossible Burger, looks past the bounds of what beef can provide, regardless of its source.

“We are able to optimize our meats for deliciousness…[and] able to keep getting better and better,” he says.

He feels bullish about the future of non-conventional meat: “If we do our job right, the market will take care of the rest.”

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