Slone Partners’ quarterly Leadership Series continues with an exclusive interview with David Welch, Ph.D., Director of Science and Technology of The Good Food Institute. The organization works with innovating scientists, forward-thinking investors and food-marketing entrepreneurs to make groundbreaking plant-based and clean meat “good” food a reality. By focusing on 4 key areas, The Good Food Institute provides strategic support to companies; fosters the next generation of innovators; educates institutions & policymakers; and promotes plant-based products. As plant-based lifestyle adoption sweeps America, and the science behind food product development rapidly advances, Slone Partners is delighted to have spoken with Dr. Welch about the future of food.
Slone Partners: With Impossible Foods’ plant-based burgers now at Burger King and Beyond Meat becoming a publicly-traded company, the public awareness around plant-based foods has never been higher. Strategically, how does the industry capitalize on this awareness boost? Is this a watershed moment? Where’s this going?
David Welch: Currently, many of the leading plant-based meat companies are more concerned with meeting demand, as opposed to capitalizing on increasing public awareness. Many of the restaurants that carried the Impossible Burger prior to this year were not able to get enough supply. Burger King’s test of the Impossible Whopper in the St. Louis area was such a success that it took less than a month to announce it would be rolled out nationwide. The roll out will not be immediate however. Impossible Foods needs to scale up production before they can generate enough supply for all 7,000+ locations in the United States. Their recent Series E funding round was a result of this increased demand. As David Lee, Impossible’s CFO, told Business Insider, “The principle use of this $300 million is to increase our ability to serve this unprecedented demand we’re seeing.”
Even before the Burger King announcement, it was clear that we had seen an inflection point in the past few months with product introductions at Carl’s Jr., White Castle, Del Taco, and others.
What is even more exciting is that these products are going to get better and better over time. Both Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods introduced version 2.0 of their burgers this year and are already working on the next version. I don’t see anything that will slow the growth of these products in the marketplace. Plant-based meat is set to follow the same trajectory as plant-based milk, which is already 13% of retail sales and still growing.
Slone Partners: As opposed to plant-based meat, what is clean meat?
David Welch: Plant-based meat is a food product, where the constituent parts – amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, water – are all derived from plants and other non-animal sources.
Clean meat, which is also known as cultured or cell-based meat, is grown from animal cells in a clean facility rather than in an animal’s body.
There are over two dozen clean meat companies around the world, and they are taste testing ground beef, chicken, duck, sausage, foie gras, and several types of fish and other seafood. However, the earliest significant commercial availability is still years away.
Slone Partners: You hold a biology degree from University of California at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in plant developmental cell biology from Utrecht University. From a pure qualified talent point of view, how are companies in clean meat and plant-based foods dealing with talent acquisition? Are there enough workers and executive leaders to manage this industry growth?
David Welch: I would say talent may be more of a limiting factor than money. I have yet to see a clean meat company unable to fill a funding round. It is one of GFI’s main goals – to get more people to go into these fields. There are many talented tissue engineers and plant scientists around the world and we need more of them applying their skills to help in the rapid growth of this new industry. We don’t just need cellular biologists, but everyone from marketing specialists to systems engineers to finance specialists. I was really excited to hear that Slone Partners is taking an active role in recruiting talent to this industry.
Globally, meat is approximately a $1.5 trillion industry, and it is growing. There are many questions that need to be answered for companies to optimize plant-based and clean meat in terms of taste and price, as well as ability to produce at a scale that can meet global demand. Impossible Foods just raised another $300 million and Beyond Meat’s capitalization was $3.8 in May 2019. These companies are scouring the world for talent.
Additionally, the research done by these companies is proprietary. For those wanting to start a company in the plant-based or clean meat fields, the wheel has to be reinvented. For this reason, GFI is funding millions of dollars of open-access plant-based and cell-based research at universities around the world. Governments should be doing more to advance these fields. The governments of Japan, Singapore, The Netherlands, India and Israel have all recognized the importance of funding research into producing meat in better ways, but much more needs to be done.
Slone Partners: Global population is now approaching a staggering 8 billion people. Infrastructurally, is this a crisis? Are we able to feed everyone with animals, or must we pivot to plantlife for human survival?
David Welch: Not only is the population just about to hit 8 billion, it will hit 10 billion in a few more decades. The vast majority of people in the world currently eat significantly less meat than we do in the United States, but they want to eat more. The increase in population and rising demand for meat could spell disaster.
The way we produce meat today is very inefficient. According to the World Resource Institute, it takes nine calories of corn, soy, and wheat to get just one calorie of chicken flesh. That is 800% food waste. Ignoring all the harms caused by current levels of meat production, there is not enough land on earth to sufficiently produce feed crops or provide space for grazing to feed 10 billion people.
Of course, we can’t ignore the consequences of producing meat as we do now. United Nations’ scientists state that raising and killing animals for food is “one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.”
Luckily, plant-based and clean meat products are much more efficient than breeding, feeding, and slaughtering animals for meat. The University of Michigan’s life cycle assessment of the Beyond Burger shows that, relative to the beef burger it replaces, it requires 99% less water and 93% less land while producing 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. These are massive improvements. By producing meat in better ways, we can accommodate demand without using animals or degrading the environment.
Slone Partners: How do you respond to critics who say that while new meatless foods may be good ethically for animals, and better for the environment, that the “better for health” claims are questionable because many of these products are highly processed, and maybe high in salt, fat and cholesterol content?
Editor’s note: like all entirely plant-based foods, plant-based meat has no cholesterol at all.
David Welch: For decades, everyone from public health organizations to environmental advocates have been trying to get people to eat more plant-based whole-foods; yet per-capita meat consumption has never been higher in the United States (or in the world) and is expected to increase.
In general, people don’t make decisions based on what is optimal. They make decisions based on what is relatively better but still convenient, tasty, and cost-competitive. This was the insight that won Herb Simon the Nobel Prize in Economics years ago.
For those looking for the healthiest, most sustainable foods out there, there are whole-food plant-based diet options. Those consumers aren’t the people eating at White Castle, Carl’s Jr., and Burger King. The vast majority of consumers are looking for something better that doesn’t sacrifice taste, price, and convenience. They are the target audience for Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. These companies are providing products that are vastly better for the environment, as well as for animals. These plant-based meats also don’t have fecal contaminants, and their production doesn’t drive the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. For those two reasons alone, plant-based meats are a huge win for public health.
Slone Partners: The powerful dairy industry is seeing disruption with nut milks, and the powerful beef/chicken/livestock industry is seeing changes in sentiment towards meat. Both industries are filing lawsuits across the country to try to block the usage of the words “milk” and “meat” on plant-based consumer packaged goods. How does your industry combat these legacy forces regarding legalities and public policy?
David Welch: When GFI was founded, there was question as to whether the current meat industry would see the coming transformation as an opportunity or a threat. Basic thermodynamics and economics make the transformation inevitable, but given the resources available to the incumbents, they could significantly delay the shift away from industrial animal agriculture. Alternatively, they could embrace the future and accelerate the shift to these new production methods.
As you mention, there are some incumbents who have been working to stifle innovation and keep plant-based and clean meat companies from competing on a level playing field. Luckily, GFI has a great Policy Team that is working to defend the free market and these companies’ First Amendment rights, including working with other organizations and writing opinion pieces for the public.
What has been surprising is just how much the current meat industry is embracing these better ways of producing meat. This isn’t just Burger King adding a plant-based option, but actions of the companies that make up the backbone of the current system.
For example, JBS, the largest meat producer in the world, is introducing its own plant-based meat in Brazil. Cargill, the third-largest meat producer in the United States, has invested in several clean meat startups. Maple Leaf Foods, the largest meat producer in Canada, purchased the plant-based meat companies Lightlife and Field Roast. PHW Group, the largest producer of poultry in Germany, has invested in a clean meat company. Bell Food Group, Switzerland’s biggest meat producer, has also invested in a clean meat startup.
Tyson Foods – the largest meat producer in the United States, and the second-largest in the world – is perhaps the most interesting case. They have invested in two different clean meat companies. They invested in Beyond Meat twice, then subsequently announced they were going to produce their own plant-based meat products.
While some meat and milk producers are fighting against the transformation of meat production, the industry as a whole is embracing the future.
Slone Partners: GFI produces an annual event – this year in September in San Francisco – called Good Food Conference, that exciting new cell-based food science companies like Memphis Meats attend. What happens during those three days? What is accomplished?
David Welch: The annual Good Food Conference is the only conference in the world that brings together all the global movers and shakers from both the plant-based and clean meat fields. No other conference has attendees from medical doctors who started clean meat companies to representatives from the world’s current biggest meat producers. As you can see in the video series from last year, attendees will hear from everyone from cutting-edge scientists to entrepreneurs to venture capitalists.
Perhaps as exciting, if not more so than the presentations, are all the connections that go on during networking time and receptions. Being a fly on the wall during the various conversations can be an education in and of itself.
Oh, and the food is amazing!
Slone Partners: What makes you personally happy?
David Welch: The chance to be part of the intersection of biomedicine, food technology, and plant science over the past two years at GFI has been extremely rewarding. From both an impact and a scientific perspective, I don’t think there is a more exciting industry to be involved in right now. In these last two years, I’ve seen the plant-based and clean meat industry explode but I think the next few years will be even more exciting!
The thing that makes me happiest in life is hanging out with my family. I have an incredible wife and three amazing young sons, along with two dogs and a cat. When I’m not with them, you will find me running either around the neighborhood with my dog or out in the mountains. Last weekend, I completed my seventh 100-mile race, finishing the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run in Virginia in 21 hours and 51 minutes. The ability to explore beautiful roads, trails, forests, and mountains by foot whilst challenging my comfort zone makes me very happy! I also coach a group of runners training for everything from half marathons to 100-mile races. The opportunity to help these athletes train and reach their goals gives me great joy and seeing them grow and develop is inspiring.
About Slone Partners
Slone Partners delivers the leaders who build amazing organizations – People Are Our Science™. Since 2000, Slone Partners specializes in delivering world-class C-suite leadership, executive, and upper management talent to the most promising and established life sciences, research, diagnostics, precision medicine and laboratory services companies. With coast-to-coast presence in the most active healthcare industry hubs of Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Research Triangle Park NC, and Washington DC, Slone Partners uniquely and precisely provides an array of executive search and advisory services to exceptional clients. Our full suite of services includes identifying, negotiating with, onboarding, and relocating talent, in addition to post-placement mentoring, success monitoring, and culture fit services.
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