Panel discussion on cultured meat serves up substance and flavor

SOSV IndieBio and The Redford Center bring together great minds to discuss the next agricultural revolution

Dec 9, 2021 · 37 min read

SOSV IndieBio and The Redford Center recently hosted a fascinating panel discussion with Meat the Future filmmaker Liz Marshall and Dr. Uma Valeti, the founder and CEO of Upside Foods (formerly known as Memphis Meats) and the subject of Marshall’s documentary. Joining the conversation was Po Bronson, Managing Director of SOSV’s IndieBio, the startup development program where Dr. Valeti started his quest. Journalist Amanda Little, author of “The Fate of Food,” moderated the panel and also appears in the film.

During the one-hour discussion, the group covered practical and logistical topics related to cultured meat — such as cost, regulatory approvals, and plans to scale using Upside’s new production facility in Emeryville, California. They also explored the deeper value in telling this important story well, which will help foster a new consciousness about the importance of our planet and the treatment of all living things.


AMANDA LITTLE: Welcome to this conversation about the documentary film Meat the Future. We’re going to take you behind the scenes of the next agricultural revolution. My name is Amanda Little. I am a Bloomberg columnist focusing on agriculture and food and innovation, and I am here with Liz Marshall, filmmaker; Dr. Uma Valeti, entrepreneur and innovator; and Po Bronson, investor and storyteller extraordinaire. I want to tell you a little bit about these folks and then bring them in to share their work.

My role is not just as a columnist. I also teach journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University, and I wrote the book The Fate of Food — What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, where I got to go behind the scenes with Liz and Uma and learn about this fascinating work.

Liz Marshall is an award-winning Canadian filmmaker. She’s written and directed, produced, and filmed multiple impactful documentaries around the globe since the 1990s. Her most recent film, Meat the Future, chronicles the birth of the cultivated meat industry through the eyes of pioneer Dr. Uma Valeti. She’s won many awards, and her acclaimed and influential 2013 documentary, The Ghosts in Our Machine, opened our eyes to the inhumanity and environmental impact of animals exploited for food, fashion, entertainment, and research. Her film Water on the Table is about the human right to water amidst a global water crisis.

Dr. Uma Valeti is the chief executive officer and founder of UPSIDE Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats. UPSIDE was the first company that focused on commercial viability of growing real meat directly from animal cells, and he’s led the industry ever since. Uma is a Mayo Clinic-trained cardiologist and an adjunct professor in cardiovascular medicine at Stanford University. UPSIDE Foods has raised more than $200 million from a diverse coalition of investors, including Richard Branson, John Mackey, Bill Gates, SoftBank, Threshold, Northwest, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Whole Foods, and SOSV. Uma participated in SOSV’s IndieBio, a San Francisco startup program in 2015, to make the world’s first cultured meatball.

And Po Bronson: Coach Po is managing director of IndieBio and general partner at SOSV. His background is economics, finance, consulting, and branding. Po is also a finance and tech journalist covering Silicon Valley for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, and an op-ed contributor for The Wall Street Journal. His science journalism has been honored with nine national awards, and he is the author of seven best-selling books that are available in 28 languages worldwide. Most recently, Po co-authored Decoding the World — A Roadmap for the Questioner.

If we can pack all these insights into one hour, it will be miraculous. I would like to ask all of you to just share some opening comments about why you’re here and why you’re excited about this conversation, starting with Liz.

LIZ MARSHALL: First, thank you Amanda and SOSV, IndieBio, and the Redford Center for co-hosting and doing this wonderful event. We’re here globally, for everyone. We wanted this to be an accessible discussion to talk about a startup story that blew my mind back in 2016.

UMA VALETI: Thank you, Amanda and Liz and Po. I am super excited to be here, especially because I’m looking at Po, who is currently sitting at the desk that we used to sit in when we started Memphis in 2015. It’s really humbling and exciting to see how far we’ve come in just five years. This field didn’t exist, and there were so many insurmountable hurdles ahead of us then. Just to say that we’ve made a dent in it and we’re sharing that story with the world as they’re building it — I think it’s so unusual to have those experiences. I’m really proud of our team for being willing to be at the front and be vulnerable and having a filmmaker follow us. And of course, this is a cause that’s very dear to many of us and our kids and, I think, grandkids. So I’m just grateful for the opportunity to tell the story.

PO BRONSON: I’m very excited to have Amanda and Liz here, who have done incredible reporting in this field. And remember that it’s an art form on top of being a work of nonfiction. And Uma’s creation here is an incredible, true story. But I’m always thinking, What do we talk about when we talk about cultured meat? We need to have a larger conversation than we’ve been having, and having two great artists here helps us extend the discussion past just “What is it going to cost, Uma?” and “When can I eat it?” That’s what I’m excited about today.

LIZ MARSHALL: Yes to that. This is the story of ingenuity. And when I met Uma in 2016, introduced by Bruce Friedrich, the E.D. of the Good Food Institute, I knew that there was a story. Uma understood the approach that we needed to take as storytellers, as filmmakers, to be behind the scenes over time. This is a story that took time, and so everyone that got behind it took that risk with us.

AMANDA LITTLE: Yes. I actually want to talk about what makes this so interesting, which is the timing of this story. This story, for Uma, has been evolving longer than it has for any of us, but we’ve all been privy to this story and following it for years. For many, this is a very new story — in fact, one that may not feel real yet. Can you each make a comment on why this moment matters now for next revolution in agriculture?

LIZ MARSHALL: I can speak as a witness, as an artist, as a director who had the privilege to become a small E.D. expert in this topic and who was—and is and continues to be—motivated by the need for solutions and the need for films that are about solutions. But I really think that your question is designed for Uma.

UMA VALETI: Why now? I wish this “why now” happened decades ago or even a hundred years ago. But the reality is, the science and the technology and the trends that are really pushing it to the top were really not that apparent at that time.

The timing is now because things are coming together in a very big way, starting off from the very first principles that we want to have this—the choice of having this planet be healthy going forward for many generations. We’re facing a reality that they can be taken for granted. We also want to have the choice of eating the food that we love the most for thousands of years.

This just puts it both right next to each other as a problem that’s never been solved in humanity. There’s not going to be a single person on the planet who, if given a choice of eating what they love without hurting a life or environment or the opportunity for their kids in the future, will still insist on doing the same when there’s a choice.

Because we’re putting choices on the table and we’re saying we could have what we love and be able to start establishing a path in the decades to come in a transition, that we can bring many people along. And this is not something that is disruptive, an existential threat for what people are doing now, but it is something that we and the generations in the future can really adapt to and get behind.

So that kind of holistic solution just did not exist before. The timing is now because there are so many forces in the adjacent spaces — in energy, in transportation, in basically learning from data rapidly, being able to understand the DNA and the implications of what the DNA means for growing animals and growing cells. All of these are coming together in the form of a product that’s very relatable. What’s not to get excited about this?

There are, of course, challenges, but the solution we are going after will bring a lot of people along. And the timing is now. The last five years is a testament to that, taking the field from, literally, science fiction to a place where there is hundreds of companies in the world going after this. That shows the amount of pent-up interest and energy and willingness to go after really hard challenges that we just have not had a chance to prioritize. That’s really what’s happening.

AMANDA LITTLE: Uma, I’m remembering the quote from Winston Churchill from 1931 that you shared for me when we first spoke, that we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium. So spoken nearly a century ago by the British statesman, and here we are, 90 years later, having a conversation about how now about to be in the world and on the market. Po, do you want to make a quick comment about the timing of this conversation and why it matters?

PO BRONSON: We are on the verge of these products’ being in restaurants, possibly this year, maybe stadiums. We have a big VIP audience here, with the four of us. We’ve all been tracking this for five or six years, right? It’s important to remember that there are still people who haven’t heard about it and are going to hear about it for the first time.

And the film — Liz did a tremendously thoughtful job of working with this story in a way to work not just for insiders. It’s really for the whole world to properly appreciate this and be part of the movement to transform how this industry happens—that’s an important part. It’s important that we merge art and science when we’re talking to the rest of the world.

UMA VALETI: [In the clip from the movie] you see in the background, the empty hallways, the one little desk I’m sitting at. I think that was March or April 2016. I had completely no idea what the world is going to really think about this idea. And here we are, inviting Liz to capture the story. We were a team of four people at that time. And we just were bringing on a fifth team member.

I look at those days and think How did we get this chance? Why did people care about this? We obviously had an instinct that people would care about it. At the time you can say people will care about it, but I could only see some signs that they would.

If I would imagine five years hence that we’d be sitting in a facility that is 1,000 times larger than where I sat (and where Po is sitting now) with a tiny lab of 55-square-feet or so, I would have been jumping up. And my energy level on that little clip would probably have been 10X that. But that’s how it unfolded.

AMANDA LITTLE: So five years. Liz, can you give a sense of what those five years, 2016 to 2021, means for you as a storyteller? And then, Po, what have the past five years have meant for you as an investor and incubator in this space?

LIZ MARSHALL: That first scene was in April of 2016. I was not even financed to make this film yet. I was literally going on instinct only and on virtual connection with Uma via telephone and email, thinking, This is the story. This is what we want to focus on.

I actually hired a local crew and flew down there from Toronto to get that moment, because they had just moved into their first R&D facility. What an amazing moment, visually, to be able to see the boxes unpacked and to be behind the scenes. That’s what documentary filmmaking truly is when you’re following something that is unfolding and that is through a character. It’s a character-driven, feature-length documentary told over time. I’m so grateful that we were in the room. Literally and so to speak, you have to be in the room to properly tell a story. It was great. It was fascinating. We were going on instinct. Uma and his team were going on instinct. So there’s a bit of a mirror there, I think, in terms of our journey.

UMA VALETI: And same thing with IndieBio. They were investing on us based on instinct, too, because that phone call I had — after we wrote about the idea to IndieBio and SOSV, I distinctly remember Arvind, Ron, and Ryan coming on the phone within an hour of the email and say, we want you to move to the Bay Area. And that was out of the blue.

I was practicing as a cardiologist, and I had a really strong innovation development lab and was the head of the program as well. Suddenly, they’re like, “We need you to move here.” So I moved on an instinct. I can’t thank everybody enough for believing in us so early; there wouldn’t be an Upside Foods without the early support, belief, and saying “We’ll take a chance on you.”

PO BRONSON: The success of Uma and others from the early days of IndieBio just allowed us to keep doing what we do. Arvind and Sean built a system where we take massive amounts of risk and we don’t think it’s our job to get rid of all that risk. We just think it’s our job to get one piece of that de-risked. And it’s usually the work in the lab right there.

And so taking a risk of this magnitude was actually a function of the design of the system that Arvind had. So all we’re doing today — we love to continue to support Uma and the other alumni teams, but we’re still here, finding the same check size, the people taking the same crazy amount of risk, season in, season out.

And that’s because our business model put us in a situation where we — I think of it, importantly, as an important part of populism. They built a system for scientists to do things that could be more creative and open their minds, and in walked a lot of things that Arvind and Ryan didn’t necessarily expect. Today, still putting ourselves in this position in the market, we’re always bumping into things we had no idea we could do or try to do—that’s what’s exciting about it.

AMANDA LITTLE: Uma, can you give voice to the topic of risk? Because in some ways, I would think that the risk feels so much more manageable now than it did in that clip. And yet, of course, it’s changed. You have many risks now that you didn’t have then. Can you speak to that?

UMA: I think risk is so relative. Learned very early on that once you did something, there is something right behind it. So every hill we climbed, there’s another hill behind it. And that’s really it, right? This is a sprint and a marathon at the same time, and we just need to know when to time it.

Five years ago, the whole thing — there was an existential risk five years ago. Literally, I could not get the attention of investors to stop by at our desk, because we were there at IndieBio for four months. The first three months, we just didn’t want to talk to anyone, because we just didn’t feel like we had anything to show. We had this idea on a paper, and knew it should conceptually work, but nothing to show.

And no one stopped by. They were like, “Good for you, but I don’t have time for you.” At that point it was an existential risk. And in month four, the last week of January, we did a tiny meatball, and right after we followed with the largest [cultured] meatball in the world, which was nothing more than 30 or 40 grams. That was the first 30 grams that we’ve ever produced.

We said we’re going to cook it in front of the world and that was a really important moment, because once people started coming and seeing it and tasting it and recognizing the sciences coming together, then we started getting believers in the early stage, right after IndieBio invested in us.

Since then, we’ve done a lot of de-risking, in terms of showing that it will work for multiple species, whether it’s meat from cows or meat from birds, and that really helped a lot. But I think the risk ahead is multidimensional. We moved the industry from science and technology, “Will it work?” to “Yes, it will work.” “Will it ever happen?” to “Yes, it’ll happen” to, now, “When will it happen?”

And the “when” is the next five years. That is scaling. The next biggest risk that this industry has, including us, is can you scale production from a small, medium scale to industrial scale? And that’s really what I’m sitting in now, since we opened the industrial production center last month. We’re going to start showing how meat can be produced at scale.

And as we do that and get it out into the market, there are going to be market forces. There are going to be things that we need to be able to address directly and say, “What’s the cost? Can we get it at an affordable price or not?” It’s still not easy to make because we don’t have a lot of scale yet. So I think those are the two things — scale, and “Can we get it at an affordable cost?” We have absolute conviction that can happen. The risk is having enough capital to get to scale and also making sure the regulatory approvals come at a pace that will let people stay interested in this.

Lastly, this is a very large market. Keep in mind we’re not competing with any other companies in our space. The market is large, and it is doubling, so keeping perspective on that is important. And when people get caught up in “there’s only this small amount of a pie. If we’re going to share it, if you get more, I get less.” We need to make sure that that doesn’t become a risk, going forward, and we communicate effectively around that.

AMANDA LITTLE: Now that you’ve mentioned it, I just have to get these two questions out of the way: cost and timeline. Let’s just address that.

UMA VALETI: The direct answer on cost is, when we came to IndieBio, it was clearly in the thousands of dollars per pound. That meatball we put out there was about $1,000. That was about 30 grams. We feel that we can do the same thing for about 1,000-fold less now, as we get to scale. That essentially means we are in the range of getting to premium pricing, which is above organic, as we start building production facilities at scale that can produce anywhere in the range of 10-20 million pounds. That’s not too far away.

It looked impossible or insurmountable in 2015, even when we were putting this on paper and saying, “In five years, we expect the price to come down by 1,000-fold.” It was $18K a pound back then, when we were at IndieBio. Now we are 1,000-fold less as we think of getting it to scale.

So we have to de-risk in a way we can do with production consistently and that we can do in a way that is profitable for other people who are our partners. I think that’s the next stage, in terms of price. We will, of course, release the price as we get closer to market, and that depends on timing.

So at the moment, timing is entirely dependent on regulatory approval. And we’re working very closely with the regulators to think about what are the things that they need to make sure that they’ve gone through a safety check, they’ve gone through good manufacturing practices and all the hazards and controls that we need to have in place as we get food to the table. So we are working with both the FDA and the USDA.

We’re very grateful that they’ve realized the opportunity in this space for food safety and food security. They’re working really hard and fast with us to make sure that we realize that opportunity and, frankly, that the United States stays ahead in this area.

But the opportunity doesn’t stop in the United States. Now this is happening across the world in every continent except Antarctica. So there’s the opportunity that exists outside the U.S. also. It’s all imminent. We think that, in the next year, there’ll be more products that will be coming onto the market.

AMANDA LITTLE: It’s an astounding moment to be having this conversation. Po, could you jump in here and give us a sense of the broader context of the explosive growth of the old protein industry? The past five years are significant not just for what we’ve seen happen with cellular agriculture and cell-based meats, but for the whole range of protein products that have become accepted in a way that I certainly didn’t anticipate they would be in 2016.

PO BRONSON: It’s good to put it with a little context, right? So even right here, after funding Arturo and Uma, we’ve gone on to fund 45 companies in food and ag, looking at disrupting the entire food system and solving a lot of the problems there that relate to whether it’s our relationship to animals or to impacts of the climate.

But what we’ve seen here has been a microcosm for what’s happening globally with hundreds of companies being built, whether it’s precision fermentation companies, like Perfect Day, Clara Foods, Geltor, and others, or it’s plant-based companies like our NotCo or our shrimp companies. And the whole gamut has been happening.

That said, it’s also important to know that is capping right now at about 2.5%, 2.7% of the market. And more innovation is needed. More technologies such as Uma’s, we think, will help really expand that market.

It comes down to taste and memory and evoking family and these things, and so not everybody is the same. Some people are very happy with the new products. Some people are waiting. They’ve tried it, but they’re waiting for the next thing. And that’s where we feel Uma and the technology and others like it will really change the way the world looks at animals, the way they look at meat, the way we look at our food.

AMANDA LITTLE: I want to get to those big questions, because that’s why we’re all here and why this has so much meaning for all of us. Liz, we got to ask about the risk that you took as a filmmaker. And you spoke to that a little bit, but I’m curious about if there was ever a time when you weren’t sure that you were on the right path here, that you weren’t sure that filming this was a good idea, or that you had to convince Uma that filming the process was a good idea.

LIZ MARSHALL: Yes, lots of times. I think a long-term relationship between a filmmaker and the protagonist of a film is a really unique one. And I think that Uma is so good at what he does, which is as a businessman, as an innovator, protecting IP, like all these things, growing his team, taking enormous risk, following his passion.

And then, for me, I was doing everything I could to try to push the boundaries of what we can actually witness and document and chronicle as a historic, unique, and extremely exclusive story. So I think there’s always a healthy tension. And I think, in the end, we danced every step of the way.

And there’s something I want to say about risk: I think it’s important to say that we’re living in a world where the greatest existential risk and the greatest threats facing us today are the climate emergency, our use of animals for food, human health pandemics. If we don’t move on these solutions, and if films like Meat the Future are not widely seen to open hearts and minds around what is possible, then what?

So that’s what motivates me. And so I saw, back in 2016 — and I’m speaking about Uma — someone who was risking everything. And I believed. I really did. And I thought, I’m going to hang my hat on this story, on this person, on this topic because it brings together everything that I care about, from human rights, the future, sustainability, animal rights, and environmental sanity.

And so here we are, and the film is about to be released soon. And the greatest hope is that it really can touch hearts and minds and open people’s awareness. And that’s really the purpose of documentary filmmaking, is that it’s a vehicle for social change.

AMANDA LITTLE: Thank you, Liz. That was so powerful. And I’m trying to be restrained here to keep us on track, but there are just so much in your comments. I do have to ask how Jane Goodall and Moby got involved in the film, because you’ve clearly, really been engaging with a lot of important thought leaders and influencers on this; who’ve been way out front on ethical choices, eating choices, and environmental vision.

LIZ MARSHALL: Well, let me first just quickly say that when Meat the Future was released, we had a very prominent Hot Docs world premiere. That’s a wonderful film festival. And it was right smack at the beginning of the pandemic. So Meat the Future got stuck in the pandemic trajectory.

So myself and a few handfuls of global documentary filmmakers were in the same position, where everything was virtual and everything got shut down. There was no theatrical release. Everything got stuck in this pipeline, so to speak. And Moby was like an angel. He came out of the woodwork and said, “I heard about your movie, and I’d like to see it.” And so he watched it, and then, the next day, he emailed and said, “I love it. I love this movie. How can I help?”

So Moby came on board as an exec producer. He opened the door to Dr. Jane Goodall, who, of course, is one of the world’s greatest, wisest elders. She’s respected across all divides and really carries that wonderful voice of sanity around the natural world. And so having her stature and her signature on this film is really a gift to the movement and to the film. And so we repackaged the film slightly to include Moby’s music and some narration by Jane Goodall, and now we’re trying to get the film released.

UMA VALETI: I wanted to just add that the integrity in Liz’s production was incredible. Of course, we’ve never been on film. None of our team members have ever been on film. And when I sat them together and said, look, let’s just let the independent filmmaker come and follow us for many years, of course there were lots of questions and scary moments for the team.

But there was one thing that was never in doubt. It was very clear to us that we have to tell the story, because we needed the world to know about what we’re trying to do and what this means for the world. So that was never in doubt. And the only thing I remember asking Liz is, “Please be sure you stay true to the authentic story, and let’s not have drama or hype in there.” And Liz looked at me directly and said, “Look, you will never have to worry about that with me.”

I think that’s fundamentally so important as we see this documentary. This is not a dramatized film. This is really getting behind the scenes and saying, tell the story as it evolves, with all the challenges and all the challenges with funding, getting both the company funded, the movie funded, and not knowing if anybody will ever care about it. So I really want to tip the hat to the integrity that Liz showed in this movie.

AMANDA LITTLE: Speaking of that trust, I felt a great deal of trust — this is queuing up the next clip — in you, Uma, when I had to sign the waiver that said that I’m about to taste an experimental product and that Memphis Meats, at the time, is not responsible for my untimely death. And you said, “Don’t worry. My kids have eaten this. I’ve eaten this.”

As a parent, what really speaks to me about this product beyond the humanity of it and the humaneness of it and the environmental sameness of it, as Liz keeps saying — and I love that phrase — is the safety of it. And especially in the throes of this pandemic, it means so much to think about the safety of this product. Uma, could you speak to that?

UMA VALETI: Certainly. There are a lot of things to address there, Amanda. So it’s important to keep in mind that we are trying to bring a very familiar product to the world, so we have the choice of this, as opposed to being asked to do something which is an alternative. But what we’re looking to change is the process behind it. And that’s the part where we’re like, look, we want people to really know we’re working on multiple cells from various animals.

And there’s a lot of research that’s been done in medicine with animal cell lines that are, many times, not edible cell lines. They’re just doing those experiments to understand biology. We were doing that in the same R&D lab as we were also growing food animals, and we wanted to make sure that people understood, look, this is the idea, but we need to know that this is not fully approved yet. It’s not gone through a regulatory process. And we intend to get there, but this is an early look.

And it’s really important to be, I think, honest about it, so we’ve been very clear. Before anyone tests, we do a verbal consent and say, “Look, here’s what it is. Here’s what you’re going to be tasting. We believe that this is safe. I personally believe it is safe. I’ve eaten it multiple times. My kids have.”

And a really strong motivation for me is a promise that I made to my daughter that she can have fried chicken for her graduation. And my kids are the first kids in the world to have tasted cultivated meat. As a family, we were the first ones to eat it all together. So I think when you’re building something like this, trust is so important. And I would not put anything on anyone’s table without it being first on our table.

And the same thing with our team. They recognize that what we’re going after is important. There will be lots of learnings. And as we learn, we’re going to adapt and we’ve already adapted. There are things we know that we won’t be able to do, or we would not want to do as we get to manufacturing scale here. And we know how to put those barriers in place.

Fundamentally, for any major innovation that has had any meaningful impact on the society, they’ve all gone through the same process. That gave us a lot of comfort that we are following in the footsteps of people that took on incredible risk, but we’re very candid. So when you think about Pasteur, he immunized himself first before anybody else, because nobody was willing to take it.

When I think about the person who did angiography — I’m doing an angiogram on the heart — nobody was willing to do it. So he put a catheter up his heart himself, through his wrist, injected dye, showed in X-rays, and said, “It works.” Knowing this also helped us to say, “This is what we’ll need to do.” And you were one of the early people, one of the early few thousand people that have done the tastings.

AMANDA LITTLE: And I will say, too — you mentioned there’s a very timely advantage of greatly reducing the risk of future zoonotic food-borne diseases, and much lower threat of bacterial contamination in cell-based meats. These are very timely concerns from a public health standpoint.

UMA VALETI: I’ve said multiple times in 2015, ’16, ’17 that we take the food we eat now for granted. We think that’s the gold standard. But despite that, a third of us in this world are going to die from cardiovascular disease, a third will die from cancers, and a third from chronic diseases and accidents. So we just can’t take the food that we have for granted and say, “That is safe.” There has to be innovation that will make it better to address chronic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, and decrease the risk of cancer. So I’m an absolute believer that we have to be able to innovate food. And then, talking about the risk of zoonotic and pandemics, I’ve talked about that multiple times — that’s the risk that we face. And who knew this pandemic was going to come?

And if you watch the film, you have my family on the film. My dad’s in the film. And my dad passed away last year from COVID. He’s a veterinarian. I grew up right behind him with the animals, and he was incredibly proud and wanted to be a part of this whole thing. And I lost him. So it’s come and touched us very personally. This is not a hypothetical scenario anymore, and has not been for a while. But I think the world is moving, in terms of timing — the scale of getting production without the risk of intense, confined animal agriculture is a must-have for us, going forward.

AMANDA LITTLE: Uma, I’m so sorry to hear that you lost your father. That’s just a tragedy, and I’m so sorry that you had to experience that in your family. Po, do you want to comment on the issue of safety before we jump to the next clip?

PO BRONSON: Uma spoke to the safety of the cultured meat sector. I’ll just say, a lot of people—if you get into a dinner-table conversation or riding-the-bus conversation, people will be comparing it to this natural meat that they eat all their life. Wait a minute. Remember mad cow disease? Remember how we got rid of all the birds in Asia because the avian flu? You know how blue-ear disease has taken out half the swine population in China, and then swine flu took out the other half?

This COVID pandemic thing has been happening to our animal populations repeatedly, on cycles, and it will happen to anything you grow too intensively in too small a space, in too much of a monoculture. Everything that says it’s antibiotics-free isn’t antibiotics-free. They’re just using bacitracin. That’s not on the list.

My grandfather was a rancher. I’ve been part of consulting in the meat industry to treat animals more humanely in their death. And I’m not trying to point fingers, but the one finger you can’t point at our sector is lack of safety.

AMANDA LITTLE: And we definitely need to underscore the fact that this is meat that can be produced with 85% lower carbon emissions and carbon and methane emissions that are associated with conventional meat production? Have I got that statistic right?

UMA VALETI: Yes, those are the projections that we have. The key thing to keep in mind is the first principles of how meat is made when you’re using cultivated methods and conventional methods. So in cultivated, all you’re growing is meat just to eat, and it’s done in two weeks’ to three weeks’ time, whereas it takes two to three years to get an animal to slaughter or a year to get them — if it’s a pig, for four months, or a chicken for three months.

When you’re doing it in a shorter duration, you use less resources and there is no methane in the production process. But ultimately, this has got to be realized at scale. So as we build our life-cycle analysis and everything, we are pointing towards all areas where we can recycle, regenerate, and also reduce the amount of time it takes to do this.

So on a first-principles, when you map this out in a model, it beats conventional in a significant way in nearly every scenario. The only scenario where we don’t think it’s going to happen is if there’s no innovation happening in energy, or no innovation happening in regenerative or recycling. We just don’t think that’s going to be possible. Even in that scenario, it’s going to be conventional parity.

These models are great to have. The most important thing for us is to build them and start actually, physically showing the public and letting people walk through it and see, This is how my meat is made, and I can immediately understand why it takes less resources, why there is no methane. I think that’s the big step. That’s the magical moment.

AMANDA LITTLE: Yes. But overwhelmingly, we are talking about safety, safety, safety across the board — planetary safety, animal safety, human safety. And that’s so important to emphasize as we introduce something new and scary to the conversation and to consumers. This is just a radically safe product.

LIZ MARSHALL: The next clip was a couple years ago. Amanda was writing her book and finishing up her book and doing a whole chapter on Uma and his team, and we got access to film her interview with Uma, but also a tour of the facility, and then a tasting. And so let’s throw to that clip right now so we can actually see this real moment, totally authentic.

AMANDA LITTLE: I remember that very well. I will always remember that moment. I think, at one point, we said, “not your grandmother’s veggie burger.”

UMA VALETI: You said that.

AMANDA LITTLE: That was such an extraordinary moment for me. Uma, you had seen many people try your product before. But I’m curious what that meant for you, Liz and Uma, to capture the moment of consumption.

UMA VALETI: That’s a deeply personal way it resonates with me, because that’s the magical moment for a consumer, for anyone who comes and tastes, because we are so well-calibrated as meat eaters. The minute you put meat in your mouth, you don’t need anyone to tell you what it is. There’s no need for anything else. The meat speaks for itself.

That’s the magical moment that we are seeing repeatedly when some people come and taste it, whether they’re a chef, whether they’re a butcher, or whether they are kids. The reason it’s such a deeply personal thing is that moment is tied to such a lightning bolt in my mind. The first time I tasted the beef we produced — this was at IndieBio, right where Po is sitting — I just tasted that.

It just literally blew my mind. I’m like, OK, this is meat. Because I grew up in a meat-eating family, but I stopped eating meat for 15 years prior to that. And the minute I put it in my mouth, I’m like, there is nothing I’ve tasted — there are all these wonderful meat alternatives out there, but nothing gave me that immediate — OK, there’s no question.

That moment gave so much conviction in going ahead with the company at that point, because we were still in this early stage where we had not talked to investors. So that’s really why it’s such a deeply personal connection when you have the reaction.

LIZ MARSHALL: So one of the challenges that we faced in pitching this concept across the film industry market during the making of it to get fully financed is, How is this not a commercial for a company? And I believe that that was our greatest challenge every step of the way, was that Meat the Future is not promoting meat, and it’s not promoting a company. It’s not a commercial. Rather, it is a film about one of the biggest ideas of the century and of the last century.

And this is truly mind-blowing. When you can really try to wrap your mind around what this actually is, it’s a solution, because the vast majority of the planet still — and I’ll say unfortunately, because I’m vegan — still consumes animal products and meat on a regular basis. But we need solutions if we’re going to continue as a species, as a planet, and also our care for other species. We need solutions.

And that’s what this film is. And I believe that working with such a great filmmaking team — I believe that we were really able to achieve that balance where this is truly a deep-dive story and not a promotion.

PO BRONSON: There’s a microcosm here. And the audience may not all know Liz and Amanda’s previous work, but there’s a consistency with my own journey to not just wanting to shout about the problem, but tell stories and do things that are part of the solution. And we’ve all been trained — and Uma, you can relate to this from your medical training — to be the impartial observer. And Liz does a really wonderful job throughout the film to avoid the perception of “It’s an ad for Memphis Meats” to have this very, very neutral lens and let the story tell itself.

I can’t tell how many times I’ve been in that position where I’m supposed to be neutral, and now you’re being caught on film, eating it. And then, in that moment, you’re just a human being. You suddenly have to lose your journalism, lose all these shells, lose this armor, and just taste it and enjoy something. And when it came on, watching the film, I was like, Hey, that’s Amanda! But then I was like, Oh, she’s going to eat it, and we’re going to get on film what she has to say. Because it’s a hard thing, as a journalist, to be caught on camera yourself, and it’s this moment of shifting realms in this story.

LIZ MARSHALL: And the reason why I was excited to include you, Amanda, in the film is that you were asking questions that I wanted to ask. But I’m not in the film, and I like to avoid the conventional sit-down interview as much as possible, even though we did rely on that at times throughout the film. So it was a really great way for us to ask the questions that we want, but in situ (situation) where we’re actually a fly on the wall, following this great moment of you asking Uma questions.

And then, of course, that was an article for Rolling Stone magazine. And when we were reading it, when the Rolling Stone article came out, we’re like Yep, we filmed all these moments. It’s in the film.

AMANDA LITTLE: It’s funny you say that, Po and Liz. Yes, the journalist becomes a human for a minute and just goes, “It’s meat!” If I could redo the scene, of course, I’d have all kinds of insightful things to say, like “I’m tasting a paradigm shift. I’m tasting a transformational moment in human history, a moment when we could be witnessing the end of animal slaughter. We could be totally changing the human-animal relationship.” And what I came up with was, “It’s meat!” At the cellular level, it is, and so I guess that was succinct.

But what does happen when we stop treating animals the way we have been? How else will society change?

PO BRONSON: If we can do this, we can solve climate change. If we can do this, we can raise a generation of people who can believe in more systemic and radical change. And that’s very important, because right now, across society, people feel disempowered. They feel lacking in self-determinancy, especially when it comes to climate and our ethical choices, or the choices that people are making with their ethics every day that we read about — that we can’t impact it. And the fact that these things are on an industrial scale, on a global scale, on a national scale, is itself so disempowering. It’s beyond just this sector that this will have dramatic impacts on.

I’m personally very interested in this question of when we change our relationships to animals,. How does that change our relationship to other fellow humankind? What happens to violence between humankind when we stop having violence towards animals? What happens toward our violence toward nature, our violence toward the seas, to the glaciers?

I’m interested in how that can impact new philosophies. What books will be written? How will people think? And how can they feel excited about being able to make an impact on the world as they mature through their lives? It’s more than just the meat that we eat. As Liz says, this is an extremely big idea, one of the biggest ideas of the century. And I think that the impacts can’t be anticipated, but I’m very excited to see how that story is written.

AMANDA LITTLE: Uma, you said in the beginning of the conversation that this is adjacent to some of what’s happening in the transportation industry and the energy industry. And in fact, it’s so far beyond that in that it’s about a shift of consciousness alongside a technological shift. Do you want to comment on that?

UMA VALETI: Just to add to that, you’re right. This is not just the shift of technology and just doing more and helping capitalism or any philosophy that people might have. It is literally bringing humanity into how we solve problems.

And like I said earlier, I don’t think anyone will actually choose to kill or hurt, whether it’s a planet or an animal or a fellow human being, when we can start showing we can do this. And I think in the past, we didn’t attempt taking on these kinds of multidimensional problems that had deep, societal history and traditions, and also a societal helplessness that we love something, and therefore we can have cognitive dissonance in something that we don’t like how that comes to being in our lives.

I am so excited to think about people who will challenge those types of things that we are helpless and say, “That’s how it is, that’s how it’s always been done,” to where we’re actually going to be doing it differently, but we’ll preserve the choice of what we love.

People start saying, “We want to have our cake and eat it, too.” We want to have our choice, but we want to be able to do it better. I think that’s really the generation that we’re going to be looking at going forward.

AMANDA LITTLE: Uma, you’re at the new facility now.

UMA VALETI: I’m just noticing I’m actually wearing the same shirt I was wearing two and a half years ago. In the clip, we were walking into this facility as we are scouting multiple places. And we ultimately didn’t end up going into that place. That was about 70,000 square feet, but as you can see, there were lots of pillars in the way. Ultimately, we needed to have a lot more space to build out our production facilities.

But here we are now. This is about 53,000 square feet, and there are lots of images that we’ve already released last month, when we opened the facility. We call it EPIC, which essentially stands for Engineering, Production, and Innovation Center, where we expect not only to launch products into the world, but continue to actually do innovation on the production methods and cultivation systems so we can have multiple types of clean cultivators available for people who want to be able to go and set up production facilities.

And it’s so important for scale. We need to be able to show clean industrial processes like walking into a brewery and trying a craft beer or trying something that you’ve always liked. And when we put this in the middle of a neighborhood, it was done intentionally, saying that, just like you’re walking out there getting coffee or walking your dog, you should be able to come in and say, this is how my meat is made and just walk around and walk inside the facility. So we built that all with an idea of letting people understand how meat could be and should be made in the future.

That would be the second magical moment. The first one is tasting it and saying it tells the story itself. The second one is for people to understand all these things we put on a slide and say, this is what a production facility will look like. And it’s really, really hard for people to grasp it unless they set foot in this and start walking around and saying, I get it. That’s how it’s going to be made, because it’s a much better way of making it.

So I think that’s really what needs to happen. I’m really happy that, within two years of that clip that Liz recorded, we have this built. And we built it during the time of COVID. We broke ground in September, last year, in the middle of a peak surge, and I can’t thank our team enough. There’s been working night and day to get this going, and facing a lot of personal risk and societal risk.

We had things stuck in the Port of LA for months we couldn’t unload. And we had the price of steel go up like 2X or more during this time. And through all of those challenges, we’ve been able to say we moved in on time, and we did that on budget.

So this is going to be the story of our team and this industry. There’ll be multiple hurdles ahead. Many of them will be called insurmountable. As we get closer and closer, there will be lots of challenges we have to address. Some of them are well-meaning critics talking about the challenges, and many of them are going to not be well-meaning critics. It’s just the dynamism of the business that needs to grow and competing things that come into play.

That’s all ahead of us. And through all of that, we have this very sincere belief and purpose that nearly everybody can get behind it. We just want them to come meet us, taste the meat, walk around the facility, and say, look, I want to get behind this for my kids, my grandkids.

That’s really the next stage. I’m sure our team has gotten pretty resilient, with a lot of scar tissue, with a lot of punches we’ve taken along the way, things we thought would work that didn’t work, and we had to work around it. And there’s been withering criticism of all the things we do, and the personal resilience also has gone up on the team. So I’m looking forward to the next phase, which is getting products out to market and showing how it’s produced.

AMANDA LITTLE: Po, what is it like for you to witness, to behold this scaling process?

PO BRONSON: Most people watching today have all familiarity with the image of that 40-gram meatball in that pan five and a half years ago. Uma’s sitting in a 53,000-square-foot frying pan is another way to say it.

To me, we teach a simple message here. Our scientists aren’t naturally interested in making a lot of money. That’s what we’re doing. We teach that gas is what fuels the rocket ship, and the rocket is this change you’re going to make in the world. And scaling and getting big and hiring lots of people is how you make change in the world.

So to me, to get to see Uma and the facility and the new facility released last month is — the world’s largest facility in this sector, in this space, and it represents change. And you can look at it. You can say, oh, well, white walls. I see bioreactors. I see glass. I see wonderfully handsome, nice guy who’s got incredible bedside manner, whatever. The point is you’re really seeing change.

This is what change looks like. This is what change looks like. And even for Liz’s work, when you’re looking at the film, you’re seeing Liz’s work on that film and how she shot these things and how she did the sound and every little bit. This all represents change.

It’s interesting to say to my kid, “Hey, look at this picture. That represents a massive change in the world,” when she might think a protest sign was change. She might think the tents on the street outside Jessie Street in San Francisco represent change. So it’s a paradigm shift to think something as nice-looking as that is representative of a radical change.

AMANDA LITTLE: I tend to be shy. I’ve learned from students and audience members over 25 years of writing about environment and innovation — be very wary of techno-optimism. As Liz said in the beginning, we have a responsibility to ask questions and to interrogate and address the concerns of consumers and to address the withering criticism.

But having followed this story for, now, five years, I also can’t help thinking of the Nietzsche quote — “He or she who has a ‘why’ to live can bear almost any ‘how.’” It’s amazing to see you overcome barrier after barrier, Uma and Liz, and to see both of your deeply creative works come into the world. Liz, do you want to share any closing remarks? And Uma, would you like to have the last word?

LIZ MARSHALL: Only to say thank you so much for those comments. It means a lot. It has been a long and winding road, and sometimes Uma and I have a little phone call or a supportive text or something just to say, we’re in this together. And thank you so much to SOSV, IndieBio, to our panelists, and to you, Amanda, for this event and for the back-end support from Norm and Josh, and to the Redford Center, who really helped complete our financing on the film. So they were a magic partner that came in, and I’m so glad that they are a co-sponsor of this special event. Hello to all the audience—this will be archived and will live on and I’m grateful. Thank you.

UMA VALETI: I want to echo what Liz said. And what comes to my mind is gratitude. For you to think about the opportunity to create change, you have to have believers at all stages. And we are very fortunate to have the believers come and support us in the form of IndieBio, in the form of many of our investors, and in the form of Liz taking this big risk of telling a story and investing five years of our life.

And then, Amanda, you coming in and saying, I’m going to write about this. I’m going to care about going into the trenches of innovation. And lastly, the team that has been with me and their families. Ultimately, we just can’t make this happen without a team, and it’s people making this work happen despite all the challenges and all the criticisms I had. So I think gratitude is the word that comes to me.

Also, I want to thank the audience who tuned in to listen in. I appreciate it very much. There’s a lot more work ahead of us, and there’s a lot more hills to climb.

AMANDA LITTLE: Thank you so much, Liz, for bringing me into the fold, and Po, for your great wisdom, and Uma, for your great courage. I guess the only final two words I can say are “mangia bene!”


Posts from HAX (hardware), IndieBio (life sciences), Chinaccelerator/MOX (cross-border internet), and dlab (blockchain).


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We are HAX (hardware), IndieBio (life sciences), Chinaccelerator/MOX (cross-border internet), and dlab (blockchain).


Posts from HAX (hardware), IndieBio (life sciences), Chinaccelerator/MOX (cross-border internet), and dlab (blockchain).