Silicon Valley and the search for meatless meat
Meatmaking is a process that’s so inefficient it’s ripe for disruption. That’s a key driver behind the extensive drive by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and their venture capitalist backers to create the post-animal economy. This fascinating article, a long read, details all these players and their various methodologies.
IN AUGUST one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups closed a $17-million round of funding. The Series A had attracted some of the biggest names in tech.
“I got closed out because of Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” bemoaned Jody Rasch, the managing trustee of an angel fund that wasn’t able to buy in.
Venture capital firm DFJ — which has backed the likes of Tesla and SpaceX — led the round, with one of its then-partners calling the nascent company’s work an “enormous technological shift”.
The cutting-edge product the startup was trying to develop? Meat — the food whose more than $200-billion in US sales has come to be the defining element of the Western diet. But what made this company’s work so revolutionary was not what it was trying to make so much as how it was attempting to do it. Memphis Meats, the brainchild that had the startup-investor class salivating, was aiming to remove animals from the process of meat production altogether.
It’s the type of world-saving vision that has oft captured the imagination of Silicon Valley — the kind of entrenched problem that technologists believe only technology can solve: feeding a fast-growing, protein-hungry global population in a way that doesn’t blow up the planet.
Conjuring up meat without livestock — whose emissions are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases — is core to that effort.
Just listen to how the progenitor of Googleyness itself describes the prospect of animal-free meat: “It has the capability to transform how we view our world,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin has said. “I like to look at technology opportunities where the technology seems like it’s on the cusp of viability, and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative.”
Indeed, in the eyes of many Silicon Valley engineers, meatmaking is a process that’s so inefficient it’s ripe for disruption. Animals, it seems, are lousy tools for converting matter into muscle tissue.
Cows require a whopping 26 pounds of feed for every one pound of edible meat produced. In a culture obsessed with high performance, that is maddeningly wasteful.
So why not take them out of the equation? That’s precisely what Memphis Meats and a cohort of other startups are trying to do. Memphis represents one possible path called cellular agriculture, in which scientists are trying to grow what has become known as “cultured” or “clean” meat from animal cells.
Others are trying to make plants taste like meat. The goal here is not to create your vegan cousin’s Boca Burger of yore, but instead a veggie patty that a hard-core carnivore wouldn’t be ashamed to bring to a neighbourhood barbecue. (In principle, anyway.)
Companies in this camp include Beyond Meat and its rival Impossible Foods — which has raised an eye-popping $275-million from the likes of Gates and Khosla Ventures.
These more convincing plant burgers can already be found in the meat aisle of mainstream grocery stores like Kroger and are on the menus of restaurants ranging from famed chef David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi to TGI Fridays starting in January.
Both cellular ag and plant-based meat companies have the same goal — but their paths to get there couldn’t be more different.
The plant-burger boosters don’t believe cultured meat will ever be able to scale; Memphis Meats and its brethren counter that plants — no matter what you do to them — will always taste like plants.
But both groups share the same ultimate vision: to create the post-animal economy — a world free of consumer sacrifice, guilt, and compromise.
As a sign of the market’s potential, alternative meat producers point to the explosive growth plant-based milk has made in the dairy aisle, now capturing almost 10% of US retail sales by volume.
“I want to be able to say you don’t have to make a choice in what you’re eating,” Memphis CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti says, “but you can make a choice on the process of how it goes to the table.”
Hoping to make that choice easier, the new agripreneurs are tackling semantics first — redefining what “meat” means.
Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown says he’d like to get people to think about meat “in terms of its composition” rather than its origin. The reframing isn’t just an epistemological one, but also a scientific one, reducing meat to its molecules.
That won’t be an easy sell, and the movement has its detractors — some of whom seem miffed by the notion that anyone would try to mess with Mother Nature.
“They want to make up their own dictionary version of what meat is, and these are people who do not eat meat,” says Suzanne Strassburger, whose family has been in the meat business for more than 150 years. “The real question is, are they feeding people or are they feeding egos.”….