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Bigger Than Us

#199 Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, CEO of Future Meat Technologies

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman is the CEO of Future Meat Technologies, bringing more than 25 years of experience across the agriculture, food manufacturing, food services, and meat production industries.

Prior to joining Future Meat, Nicole was the Managing Director of Further Processed Foods for OSI Europe, based in Gersthofen, Germany. She led OSI’s European processed foods division across Europe and served as Chief Sustainability Officer and Senior Vice President. OSI is one of the world’s largest privately held food manufacturers and is the brand behind leading food service and retail brands. OSI has been in business for 111 years and operates 57 facilities across 18 countries.

Previously, Nicole spent 19 years at Cargill Incorporated, practicing law as in-house counsel, and worked in various leadership roles from financial services to beef plant operations in the US and Asia. From 2010 to 2013, Nicole was the General Manager of Cargill’s Fort Morgan, Colorado beef processing plant, one of the largest beef primary processing plants in the United States. During that time, she worked to increase the industry’s transparency with consumers, including making an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011.

Nicole was the founding Chairperson of the US Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and was elected to two terms as the President of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef. She also serves on corporate boards as an independent non-executive director. She is a passionate advocate for continuous improvement in the food industry’s ability to feed the world sustainably.

Nicole holds a JD from the University of Minnesota Law School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a BA in International Relations from St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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Bigger Than Us #199

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Host Raj Daniels 00:46

Nicole, how are you doing today?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 01:28

Thanks, Raj. I’m really pleased to be with you today.

Host Raj Daniels 01:31

Nicole, where are you currently located?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 01:34

I’m speaking to you today from Munich, Germany, which is where I live. I’ve lived here for a little over a year. And I’m in the process of moving back to the US to my home state of Minnesota.

Host Raj Daniels 01:45

How long have you been in Munich?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 01:47

I’ve lived here for about a year and a half now. I think I moved over in January of I guess 2021. And so it’s been an interesting experience to spend half the pandemic here in this country?

Host Raj Daniels 02:01

Well, I’m guessing interesting might be an understatement, considering everything going on in Europe right now.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 02:06

It helps me to understand the the experiences of Europeans during World War II, to be honest, because because the conflicts that are happening in Ukraine are quite close by and we have Ukrainian people here in Munich every day. So it’s really interesting to experience this close up,

Host Raj Daniels 02:30

Speaking of Ukraine, and Munich, and different cultures, I was doing some research, and I came across a very interesting interview that took place back in 2013, when you were the general manager of a beef processing plant for Cargill, I believe. And you were very eloquent regarding some of the ways that you and Cargill, were working with different people from different cultures. Where does that come from?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 03:00

I have a really strong appreciation for diversity and for the value that comes from bringing diverse people together. And from the wisdom of teams. And so that’s something that Cargill fostered. Of course, that was something that Cargill also believed in. And we worked really hard to make sure that our places of work were places where everyone could contribute equally, and where everyone could succeed. This is something that I feel really strongly about. I’ve been fortunate to work in a lot of diverse environments in my career.

Host Raj Daniels 03:34

So I know we might go up on several tangents here. But how do you think people are handling, you mentioned the pandemic. What’s a good way to foster culture and relationships now with remote work, for example?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 03:47

I think the moment that we’re in today is one that requires quite a lot of grace for our fellow man. And many of us are coming out of the last two years with a lot of trauma, and a lot of concerns and, and they’re different for each person.

And they’re coming out in strange ways — in our behavior, in the changes in our beliefs, and the changes in our values. And we need to extend a lot of grace to each other, as we all grapple with the changes in our lives and the changes in ourselves that have happened as a result of the pandemic.

And when we do that, beautiful things can happen. We can learn from each other, we can have empathy for people whose experiences were really different than our own, or who came through, went through similar experiences and came out with different ideas than we came up with. But only through really attempting to understand each other and empathize with each other can we learn those lessons and can we find the beauty in what we’ve been through, collectively.

Host Raj Daniels 05:02

I love the idea of grace for our fellow man and learning to learn about each other. One of the questions I have here in my notes is, specifically, when it comes back to your time with Cargill, and this topic came up quite a bit during the pandemic. And so I now have the opportunity to ask, what does the general public not know about beef processing plants that perhaps you can share with us?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 05:26

I think people don’t understand the motivations of the people who are working in beef processing plants, and in the people who are operating those plants. And I think there are a lot of incorrect assumptions about what people who work in animal agriculture and in beef production and meat production in general, believed and care about. It’s important for people to know that the folks who are working in those facilities are, for the most part, passionately engaged in the work they’re doing.

They care very much about the contribution they’re making to society. They do that work because they believe it is important. They do it with care and empathy for the animals and for the impact on society. That being said, there are, of course, a lot of issues associated with that industry. And we’re all engaged in different ways in working through those issues. But I think people misunderstand what’s going on in the hearts and minds of people who work in animal agriculture.

Host Raj Daniels 06:39

I really appreciate you shedding some light on that. And we’re going to make what might seem like a 180, but it’s not a total 180. You’re now with Future Meat. Can you give the audience an overview of Future Meat and your role at the organization?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 06:52

Future Meat is a cultivated meat company. We’ve been in existence for about five years, in one incarnation or another. We are in a mid-stage startup phase, which means that we’ve got some amazing technical achievements already under our belt, we have some big challenges still ahead of us as we continue on our mission to bring cultivated meat to consumers around the world, and to change the way food is produced for people around the world. I joined the company in February of 2022. And so I’ve been with them now for about three months. And it has been a fantastic experience, to join this organization of people who are so passionate about what they do, who believe in this mission, but who also have their feet firmly on the ground. So it’s thrilling, and it’s really cool. And I feel honored to be part of it.

Host Raj Daniels 07:54

Now, how does Future Meat differ from let’s say, the Beyond Meats and the Impossible Meats of the world?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 08:02

Future Meat is a cultivated meat company. Our mission is to grow real meat, to grow meat cells, without animals. So we are not producing meat substitutes, we are actually producing meat. We’re producing meat in in large fermentation tanks, where we produce the cells, where they grow. And then we combine those cells with plant proteins or other structure to give the finished product the taste and the structure and the texture that people are looking for in meat. But that’s our differentiator. When you cook future meat, chicken, for example, it smells like chicken, it tastes like chicken. When you eat it, you feel like you’ve eaten chicken. And you have that satiation that comes from eating meat.

Host Raj Daniels 08:57

So your business model is also different. I believe you’re not a DTC — a direct to consumer company — are you?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 09:03

We will be producing food for consumers. So we will be going to consumers with our products. We will likely first launch through food service because that’s a great way for us to bring products to people more quickly. And then eventually we will be available at retail.

Host Raj Daniels 09:20

And your journey from being in the traditional beef industry to now future meat. Lab grown meat, cell grown meat. What some of the — I know you’ve only been there for months. But what’s some of the aha moments you’ve had?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 09:34

I think of food production as a sort of a fluid system. We’re not any of us going to lift ourselves out of the food system. What we can do is play a role in improving the food system. And cultivated meat is a way to improve the food system. It’s to take foods that are already existing and to turn them into food that we can feed to the cells, grow the cells directly, and then bring sales to consumers. So when you start to see the food system as a system that you need to work in and also work on, at the same time, that’s when you begin to have that magical moment where it all begins to make sense.

Host Raj Daniels 10:20

So it sounds like you’ve taken a holistic view of the food system and not siloed or segregated it.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 10:26

For me, it’s important to remember that every decision you make in bringing food to people has consequences. And the important thing is to try to anticipate as many of those consequences of your decisions as possible and to make them intentionally — of course, you’ll always be surprised. One of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve worked with the sustainability space is that there will always be impacts that you haven’t thought of in your supply chains, in your products, to communities. And you have to be open to learning continuously about what your impacts are, and then addressing them as they come up. But it’s only when you really embrace the idea that you’re part of the system, that you can’t replace the system, and you can’t really break the system, that you can really make real change.

Host Raj Daniels 11:19

Now, there’s been some concern. Regarding the other brands that I’ve mentioned, people have questions around genetically modified plants and meat. How do you alleviate some of those questions?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 11:32

Yeah, everyone has different needs. I think ultimately, people should be given the opportunity to make choices that align to their values, that align to their particular health concerns, and that align to their lifestyle and their budget. And our job is to bring these options to people around the world and allow people to make the choices that makes sense for them. Some people certainly have concerns about GMO foods. And it’s important that for those people, they have an opportunity to choose foods that meet that meet their needs. Oour products will be and are GMO-free. So we are not a GMO product. And we’re happy about that, because we believe that that will meet the needs of a lot of consumers around the world. But, you know, I think it’s important to understand that people need to be able to make their own choices. We don’t want to be colonialist in the foods that we produce and bring to consumers around the world. We want to allow people to make their own choices.

Host Raj Daniels 12:39

Now, what’s the price point for your finished product? I understand back in 2015, 16, there was a big to do about the first burgers that were created being $250,000. But how does your price point compare to traditional meat?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 12:54

It varies depending on the protein. Today, our chicken is around on par with the same price for conventionally raised chicken. And that’s through accomplishments in the media, which is the food that we give to the cells, the end efficiencies that we’ve been able to achieve in our pilot factory in Israel, and other cost reductions that we’ve been able to achieve. And we’re not there yet with some of the other proteins. Of course, these are continuous improvement projects. So we’re constantly working to bring down the price to make sure that what we bring to consumers is not just food for the few, but is a real choice that can be available to everyone.

Host Raj Daniels 13:40

Now, you mentioned the plant in Israel. What are the plans to bring plants to the US?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 13:45

We’re in the process of selecting a site for our first factory in the US. We expect that we will be able to break ground on that at the end of 2022 or beginning of 2023. So we’re really excited about that opportunity. That’s going to be our first large-scale facility. So the factory that we have in Israel is a pilot plant. It’s a place where we’re producing the cells and we’re producing the finished product, which is great for us in terms of R&D and innovation. And then we’ll be scaling that up for the factory in the US.

Host Raj Daniels 14:17

And you said production by the end of 2023. Is that correct? Breaking ground.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 14:22

Breaking ground by the end of 2022, the beginning of 2023. And we hope to be able to to cut the ribbon on the factory and commission the factory within about 12 months of that.

Host Raj Daniels 14:35

So 2024, is that correct ish?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 14:37

Around there. Yeah, I mean, of course with the supply chain disruptions that are going on in the world today, every prediction that we make is probably a little off at the time we make it and a lot off five minutes later, but that’s the current thinking.

Host Raj Daniels 14:52

I’ve heard a lot about that. And I’m assuming that even with the current price of beef and chicken, your product might eventually be even more competitive.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 15:02

We believe that cultivated meat is a great solution to the fragile supply chains that we’ve developed over time in a lot of our food products. Cultivated meat can be produced right next to the populations that need it. These factories are small, they have a pretty easy footprint, you can fit them into almost anywhere, they basically are like a brewery. So there are no negative outcomes for the community, and they also produce great jobs. The jobs in these factories will range from hourly workers at an entry level to PhD scientists. So these are great jobs for communities and great ways to produce food close to home.

Host Raj Daniels 15:49

I was reading an article in TechCrunch. It’s the one that came out in 2019 October. And it says here, the company wants to be a supplier of the hardware and cell lines that anyone would need to become a manufacturer of lab grown meat. Is that business model still in play?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 16:08

That business model has been adjusted to include bringing finished product to consumers directly. So we will be focusing on bringing food to people as opposed to being an ingredient supplier. I’m not saying that we would never be an ingredient supplier. But at the moment, that’s not our current business plan.

Host Raj Daniels 16:28

I was wondering if there’s a franchise opportunity for me.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 16:32

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting. It’s an interesting idea. We talk a lot about distributed manufacturing and making this process easy enough to do that you could own a franchise of Future Meat in your town in the same way that you might own quick service food restaurant,

Host Raj Daniels 16:50

I was actually thinking along the lines of — I’ve interviewed several vertical farm companies. And they have, at least one, 80 Acre Farms, I believe, Mike Zelkind out of Pennsylvania, part of his business model is co-locating next to, let’s say for this example, a Kroger where the plants are grown fresh, and then you’ve cut out logistics. So you’ve lowered the carbon footprint, and it will continue to supply year round. And when I was reading the article, I was imagining a future meat location, close to a quick service restaurant, a grocery store, and being able to provide fresh beef on a regular basis.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 17:30

We like that idea very much. We like the idea of being like your local brew pub where you go in and you know, you might have a drink and then you bring home a growler. I think that’s a pretty cool idea. I think that’s a way that people would like to be able to buy meat. And I think it’s a vision for the future. That’s pretty optimistic. So that’s one of the concepts that we’re working on.

Host Raj Daniels 17:54

So how big is the footprint needed for one of your facilities? Just ballpark.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 17:59

They’re not particularly large facilities, actually. The I think that you could fit one into something that would be the size of a small warehouse, to be honest. They’re not terribly large, and they’re not terribly complicated to build the factory itself. It’s the equipment that’s the interesting bit. These fermentation tanks are really complex machines and require a lot of specialized knowledge to operate.

Host Raj Daniels 18:24

I appreciate you sharing that. So like we’ve said, you’ve been with the company for months, I’m sure it’s been like drinking, as they say, water from a fire hose or a fire hydrant. What are some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned about yourself in a short time?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 18:40

I really enjoy working in the fast pace of a mid-stage startup. This team is working in fast motion, and that’s normal for them. We’re working in the Israeli startup culture, which, as you might already know, is a unique and special culture where people are extremely nimble and agile, They’re innovative. They’re constantly coming up with new solutions to problems and they never let an obstacle stop them. So I’m learning about myself that I really appreciate that culture, and I’m proud to be part of it.

Host Raj Daniels 19:22

You know, one of the things you said in your 2013 interview that stood out to me — to paraphrase, you said when you’re on the plant floor at the beef processing plants, people ask you if you’re an engineer, and you reply that you’re not formally an engineer, you’re an attorney, but you’re a people engineer. Tell me more about that.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 19:41

I think that in large scale manufacturing — and that particular factory that I was running at the time had 2500 employees, I believe. You really are moving people every day, moving people, emotionally moving them, intellectually moving them, physically, and you need to be able to understand what drives people, what they need to understand, what they don’t understand, where they are physically in the moment, and get them in the right places doing the right things. That’s large-scale manufacturing.

But small scale fit manufacturing, like we’re doing here, is an interesting experience. The people involved in our business are, many of them, PhD scientists, for example, and what drives them is innovation and scientific discovery, and creating an opportunity or a place where they have the ability to be creative, where they have the ability to fully express their abilities and their passions. That’s what we’re engineering at Future Meat.

Host Raj Daniels 20:48

So if someone would have told you, let’s say, 10 years ago, when you’re knee-deep in the beef industry, that one day, you’d be the CEO of a lab grown, cell-based meat company, what would you have said?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 21:00

I was a skeptic of cultivated meat. For years, people would talk about cultivated meat, and I thought it was something that was a good idea, something that was a an interesting concept, and something that I would never see in my lifetime. I was shocked to find out how much innovation has happened in the last five years. And when I met first with the Future Meat founder, Koby Nahmias, and learned what the team had achieved and how far along on this journey they were, I couldn’t believe it. He came to my apartment in Munich and cooked Future Meat chicken and Future Meat lamb for me in my apartment. And I was astounded.

So I certainly would never have guessed that I’d be involved in this business. But I will tell you that my motivations have never changed. What I care about is doing work that matters with people that I respect and like, and this gives me an opportunity to do both of those things. In a way that’s really satisfying. And I’m quite privileged to be part of it.

Host Raj Daniels 22:14

One of the challenges, I’ve read, with cultured meats is the regulatory authorities. How has Future Meat been able to handle that? I guess here in the US it would be the FDA, is that correct?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 22:28

The FDA will regulate a portion of the process and the USDA will regulate another portion of the process. So the two agencies are working together to come up with a regulatory framework to bring these products to consumers in a way that everyone can be assured meets all of the highest standards for safety. It’s actually been a really good partnership with FDA and USDA. They are working really hard to make sure that when consumers have the opportunity to try cultivated meat, they will be able to do it with total confidence that all of the Food Safety and Quality assurances are in place. So this is novel food. And we don’t need to rush this. We can wait until the regulators have had their questions answered and feel confident in their decisions.

Host Raj Daniels 23:25

And where are you in that process?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 23:28

We are in ongoing discussions with regulators in the US and in a couple other countries. And we’ve had really productive conversations. So they asked great questions. We’ve been able to give them really strong answers. And then there are times when they come back and say okay, now we need more detail about this particular issue. You know, please tell us the results of whatever tests you ran, or whatever documentation you have. And it’s been a good iterative process.

Host Raj Daniels 23:59

Now, I read a headline that says most of the meat we eat in 2040 will not come from animals. What are your thoughts about that?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 24:08

I think that the events of the last two years have taught me that assumptions I have made about the future were based on faulty grounds. I think a lot of us assumed that we would go on as we had begun. And clearly that’s not the case. Clearly, there are a number of factors that can completely change our lives, and drastically, in a really short period of time. We’re seeing not just the pandemic, but we’re seeing additional surprising global events that are changing all of our lives right now. So I think it is entirely possible that by 2040 the the meat that we eat will need to come from additional sources.

Host Raj Daniels 25:05

Well, I know we’re talking about 2040. But let’s fast forward to 2030, let’s say Fast Company, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, were to write a headline or perhaps even a short paragraph regarding Future Meat. What would you like that headline or paragraph to read?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 25:23

I would like the story to be about the way Future Meat was able to bring cultivated meat to consumers at a price that matched their family budgets, and allowed them to use cultivated meat in exactly the same way that they use conventionally grown meat and enjoy it in their favorite recipes. For me, it’s not real until it’s real in the home. And I want to be able to say, in a really short period of time, that we have made this real in people’s homes.

Host Raj Daniels 25:55

You know, I’m looking forward to trying your product. I’ve tried the other products on the market. I’m a vegetarian myself, but I used to eat meat at one time. And I can tell you personally, again, that the other products that are out there haven’t quite hit the spot for me.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 26:12

We think that there is something in our brains as humans that is triggered by real meat. And we believe that it is hard for people who don’t want to eat real meat for one reason or another. Conventionally grown meat, it’s hard for them to trip that trigger. And so some people like yourselves learn to just turn that trigger off and ignore it. And other people keep trying to trip that trigger with substitute foods.

But we believe that cultivated meat will meet both of those needs. People will not need to be concerned about some of the ethical issues or the other reasons that they may choose not to eat conventionally grown meat. And they will be able to trip those triggers and and enjoy a great piece of chicken that I think the next day they’ll be thinking about and craving again.

Host Raj Daniels 27:07

What I’m looking forward to it. This may sound a strange segue, but I was doing some research on your website, and I loved the video on there. And that cowboy’s one line about how you can’t put a cowbell on a soybean is just a beautiful line.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 27:24

That’s pretty funny. I think there’s a lot of heritage and a lot of tradition associated with our food and with meat production and meat consumption. And what we’re trying to do in cultivated meat is take the very best of meat and bring that to consumers without any of those sacrifices or compromises that people maybe don’t feel good about.

Host Raj Daniels 27:53

Well, I appreciate that. Now, last question. And this could be professional, personal, and with your career arc, again, I love seeing how an attorney working for the beef industry, I think you’ve been around agriculture and meat about 23, 24 years. But if you can give some advice or words of wisdom, recommendations, professional or personal for the audience, what would it be?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 28:18

I like to remind people of that saying that the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. This is one of my favorite ideas, that the future is out there. We all think that in order to be innovators, we have to sit in our bed and come up with something that no one’s ever thought of before.

But I don’t think that’s really true. I think we need to find the future. It’s here, it’s lurking. It’s in universities, it’s in factories, it’s in a student’s classroom. It’s in the ideas and minds of our young people. We need to find the future where it already exists. And then we need to bring all of our powers to there to make it real. I am not a scientist, I’m not Koby Nahmias. But what I am as a person who can make ideas real, and who can make things happen, and I bring that gift to to this work. And I feel like that’s my contribution.

Host Raj Daniels 29:26

So I know I said last question, but since you said find the future, I’m going to ask you specifically, tactically, how does one go about finding the future? What are some tips?

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 29:37

I have worked with people in my career who always seemed to be awake, who who were learners and readers, and never stopped inquiring, and that’s how you find it. You listen carefully to our young people. You listen carefully to our elderly, you read everything that you can get your hands on. You find that these breakthrough ideas are lurking out there. And I find that actually, if you are still and quiet, these ideas come to you. So I tried to try to find opportunities to be still and quiet and listen carefully.

Host Raj Daniels 30:25

Nicole, I think that sit and listen is a great place to end. I really appreciate your time today and look forward to catching up with you again soon.

Nicole Johnson-Hoffman 30:33

Thanks very much, Raj. It was a pleasure talking to you.

Thank you for listening. If you like our show, please give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. And you can show your support by sharing our show with a friend or reach out to us on social media, where you’ll find us under our Nexus PMG handle. If there’s a subject or topic you’d like to hear about, send me an email at BTU@nexuspmg.com, or contact me via our website, nexuspmg.com. And while you’re there, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter where we share what we’re reading and thinking about in the cleantech, green tech sectors. Bigger Than Us is a Nexus PMG production.

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