Silicon Valley and the Search for Meatless Meat

In August one of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups closed a $17 million round of funding. The Series A had attracted some of the biggest names in tech. “I got closed out because of Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” bemoaned Jody Rasch, the managing trustee of an angel fund that wasn’t able to buy in. Venture capital firm DFJ—which has backed the likes of Tesla and SpaceX—led the round, with one of its then-partners calling the nascent company’s work an “enormous technological shift.”

The cutting-edge product the startup was trying to develop? Meat—the food whose more than $200 billion in U.S. sales has come to be the defining element of the Western diet. But what made this company’s work so revolutionary was not what it was trying to make so much as how it was attempting to do it. Memphis Meats, the brainchild that had the startup-investor class salivating, was aiming to remove animals from the process of meat production altogether.

It’s the type of world-saving vision that has oft captured the imagination of Silicon Valley—the kind of entrenched problem that technologists believe only technology can solve: feeding a fast-growing, protein-hungry global population in a way that doesn’t blow up the planet. Conjuring up meat without livestock—whose emissions are responsible for 14.5% of global greenhouse gases—is core to that effort. Just listen to how the progenitor of Googleyness itself describes the prospect of animal-free meat: “It has the capability to transform how we view our world,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin has said. “I like to look at technology opportunities where the technology seems like it’s on the cusp of viability, and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative.”

Indeed, in the eyes of many Silicon Valley engineers, meatmaking is a process that’s so inefficient it’s ripe for disruption. Animals, it seems, are lousy tools for converting matter into muscle tissue. Cows require a whopping 26 pounds of feed for every one pound of edible meat produced. In a culture obsessed with high performance, that is maddeningly wasteful.

Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown at the company’s research facility in El Segundo,Calif.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune

So why not take them out of the equation? That’s precisely what Memphis Meats and a cohort of other startups are trying to do. Memphis represents one possible path called cellular agriculture, in which scientists are trying to grow what has become known as “cultured” or “clean” meat from animal cells. Others are trying to make plants taste like meat. The goal here is not to create your vegan cousin’s Boca Burger of yore, but instead a veggie patty that a hard-core carnivore wouldn’t be ashamed to bring to a neighborhood barbecue. (In principle, anyway.) Companies in this camp include Beyond Meat and its rival Impossible Foods—which has raised an eye-popping $275 million from the likes of Gates and Khosla Ventures. These more convincing plant burgers can already be found in the meat aisle of mainstream grocery stores like Kroger and are on the menus of restaurants ranging from famed chef David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi to TGI Fridays starting in January.

Both cellular ag and plant-based meat companies have the same goal—but their paths to get there couldn’t be more different. The plant-burger boosters don’t believe cultured meat will ever be able to scale; Memphis Meats and its brethren counter that plants—no matter what you do to them—will always taste like plants. But both groups share the same ultimate vision: to create the post-animal economy—a world free of consumer sacrifice, guilt, and compromise.

As a sign of the market’s potential, alternative meat producers point to the explosive growth plant-based milk has made in the dairy aisle, now capturing almost 10% of U.S. retail sales by volume. “I want to be able to say you don’t have to make a choice in what you’re eating,” Memphis CEO and cofounder Uma Valeti says, “but you can make a choice on the process of how it goes to the table.”

Hoping to make that choice easier, the new agripreneurs are tackling semantics first—redefining what “meat” means. Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown says he’d like to get people to think about meat “in terms of its composition” rather than its origin. The reframing isn’t just an epistemological one, but also a scientific one, reducing meat to its molecules.

That won’t be an easy sell, and the movement has its detractors—some of whom seem miffed by the notion that anyone would try to mess with Mother Nature. “They want to make up their own dictionary version of what meat is, and these are people who do not eat meat,” says Suzanne Strassburger, whose family has been in the meat business for more than 150 years. “The real question is, are they feeding people or are they feeding egos.”

The $2,400 Meatball

Growing cells in Petri dishes sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but the basic elements of the science are actually decades old. It’s essentially the same process used in medicine to cultivate human cells and tissues. Memphis Meats’ Valeti started thinking about growing meat when he was training as a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic. Later, at his own practice in the Twin Cities, he began injecting stem cells into patients’ hearts to regrow muscle after a heart attack.

The trouble is getting the economics to work for a hamburger, not a human heart. Memphis Meats created a cultured meatball that costs about $2,400 a pound to produce, and that was notable progress. The cost last year was $18,000 a pound—down from the more than $300,000 spent on the first cultured burger made in 2013 by Dutch scientist Mark Post.

Mark Post holds the first lab-grown burger in 2013. It cost more than $300,000 to make and was backed by Google cofounder Sergey Brin.David Parry—Reuters
David Parry—Reuters

The biggest hurdle to lowering the cost is the cellular medium, the stuff the cells feed on. Mike Selden, CEO of Finless Foods, told me that this substrate contributed 99% of the cost of growing the company’s first fish croquettes (price tag: $19,000 per pound). A critical part of the standard medium that works across animal cell types is fetal bovine serum (FBS), which is extracted from the heart of a calf fetus when its mother is pregnant at slaughter. One does not have to be an animal rights activist to see why this is not an acceptable option for the industry. As a result, much of the R&D focus right now is on finding an alternative. Selden says Finless has cut its FBS use down by half by reproducing the essential components of the serum through fermentation, and Memphis says it has come up with an FBS-free medium but won’t reveal what it’s using instead because it’s proprietary.

But even if scientists forswear FBS, cultured meat may not be wholly acceptable to one group of potential customers—vegans—because the animal can never be completely removed from the process. Cultured meat producers still have to source the first set of cells from an animal—even if it’s just a small biopsy that doesn’t require slaughter.

Post, however, says he’s not trying to turn vegetarians and vegans into cultured meat consumers anyway. In fact, he believes, it would be counterproductive. “Eating a plant-based diet is always going to be more efficient,” says the 60-year-old entrepreneur.

Then why not forget the cell-culture route and try to make better burgers from the likes of peas and carrots? “We’ve seen plant-based products for 40 years,” he says, “but they are basically still substitutes that are very different from the real thing. We believe plant-based options alone are not going to make a big difference.”

I never got to taste a meat product made from cellular agriculture—very few people ever have—because none are on the market. For one thing, there are significant regulatory challenges to getting them to grocery store shelves, and it’s unclear how a manufacturer seeking approval would even proceed in this uncharted area of science. The FDA oversees products made through fermentation—a key process used in the biotech sector—but the USDA is responsible for regulating meat quality and safety. Vincent Sewalt, who works in regulatory compliance at DuPont, has said if a company started the approval process today it would take two years to get through in the very best-case scenario.

“Most of the companies are overly optimistic,” says MosaMeat cofounder Mark Post.

Post has been working on cultured meat since 2008, now through his company MosaMeat, and his experiences over the past nine years have made him somewhat cynical about the hurdles to scaling. The challenges of finding an alternative to FBS, bringing costs down massively, speeding up cell growth, and finding an appropriate regulatory pathway, have compounded one another. And there’s another scientific roadblock too: getting the cells to adhere to a certain fixed structure—assuming, that is, the aim is to produce more than ground chuck. Want your Petri-dish animal cells to end up shaped like a porterhouse? Not so easy.

Post won’t put a timeline on how long the quest to get to market will take, but during my reporting I heard people throw out dates ranging from next year to more than a decade hence. “Most of the companies are overly optimistic,” Post says, ruefully. “They’re very idealistic.” A few sources even spoke of cultured meat in the context of space exploration; we need this technology to colonize Mars, they contend. For nearly all of these scientists, it has been hard not to get sucked into the grand notion that science can solve the world’s big problems. “I wouldn’t call myself an idealist,” says Post, “but I’m driven by the societal impact this can have. I guess that is idealism.”

There Will Be Blood

If scaling up is the limiting factor for cellular ag, the key challenge in making viable plant-based meat is more rudimentary: getting ingredients like sorghum to taste like sirloin. “There’s no black-and-white path to creating the perfect plant-based burger,” says Selden. Even if you can get a garden emulsion to look like meat, and even feel like meat in your mouth, it’s a whole different animal, so to speak, to get it to taste like the real thing.

Beyond Meat’s research takes place at a lab dubbed the Manhattan Beach Project, down the street from its headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. “I wanted people to understand the global significance,” says CEO Ethan Brown. “We have the brightest scientists and we’re going to fund them at a level that this work deserves,” he adds. “This is a global problem, not a culinary choice.”

At its Manhattan Beach Project lab, Beyond Meat uses heating, cooling, and pressure to reset the bonds of plants so they mimic meat.Photograph by Spencer Lowell
Photograph by Spencer Lowell

Beyond Meat is taking the proteins from plant matter and resetting their bonds using heating, cooling, and pressure, so they mimic animal muscle. “Why go through all the trouble of using the animal or any organism if you don’t need to,” says Brown. “The animal is just taking all of that material from the plant and organizing it in a certain way.”

Brown admits that his team still has a ways to go. “I’m more critical than others,” he says, “and I say we’re pretty far away.” As a constant reminder of the work that still needs to be done, Brown has a poster hanging in his office that reads “Slightly better Tofurky”—a harsh line from a critic in 2015.

For anyone working on alternative meat, the first step is fully understanding what it is you are trying to replace—not just its taste and texture but why it makes that certain sound and changes color when it cooks, what one scientist described to me as the “theater of meat.”

Pat Brown, CEO and founder of plant-based meat company Impossible Foods, wants to end the use of animals in food production by 2035.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune

“We started out by basically asking how does meat do what it does—how does meat work,” explains Pat Brown, CEO and founder of Impossible Foods (and no relation to plant-based-meat rival Ethan Brown). Pat Brown, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford, started by studying meat in the way a researcher would study disease. “You don’t just say I want to cure this cancer,” he says. “You have to understand how normal cells work.” He adds, “That’s the way you solve a problem in biomedical research. And really that is not the mindset in the food world at all.”

Impossible’s breakthrough was in discovering that meat’s essence comes from heme—the iron-rich molecule in blood that carries oxygen and is responsible for the deep-red color. Heme also exists in the roots of plants like legumes that turn nitrogen into fertilizer. Brown spent a little over a year thinking, incorrectly, that he could source heme by harvesting the root nodules of soybeans. But using the dirt-covered plants would be a food safety disaster—and turning the soil to harvest them would release carbon into the atmosphere, creating the kind of negative impact on the environment Brown is trying to offset.

A technician pours heme—what Impossible Foods considers the essence of meat—at the company’s lab in Redwood City, Calif. At right, the startup’s plant-based meat patties.Photographs by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Photographs by Spencer Lowell for Fortune

He again went back to his roots for an answer. Thirty years ago he engineered a bacterial strain to produce an HIV enzyme so he could study how it enables HIV to infect human cells. “That’s the go-to move of a molecular biologist,” he says. So several years ago he tried the same approach for producing heme. He took the plant gene for the protein and inserted it into yeast, then fed the modified yeast sugars and nutrients to stimulate fermentation. In that process, most of the yeast is filtered out, leaving behind heme.

At Impossible’s lab just outside San Francisco I try heme in its pure form. It was far from delicious, with a metallic quality that tastes like the aftermath of biting down hard on your lip. Its flavors lingered for a long time in my mouth and oddly reminded me of soy sauce. A team of engineers was sorting out a production problem the day I visited and their white lab coats, splattered with plant blood, made it appear like an especially horrific crime had just taken place. “This is not normal,” apologizes Chris Davis, Impossible’s director of R&D. Davis had been working on biofuels at a company in the same office park when he got a call from Brown five years ago. “I said you do know what I do, right?” Davis recalls telling him. Brown, says Davis, simply explained the “idea that the cow was just a technology to turn plants into something you want to eat.”

Inside Impossible Foods’ production facility in Oakland.Courtesy of Impossible Foods
Courtesy of Impossible Foods

Much of the work the R&D team focuses on is developing meat flavor, a minor fraction of which we perceive by way of our tongues and the rest via aroma. No single molecule makes up the smell of meat, so Impossible’s scientists are trying to identify the hundreds of compounds involved. Davis walks me by its gas chromatography mass spectrometry system, which separates out those molecules as a slab of real meat is cooking. A young researcher sits by the machine marking down notes about the varying aromas. One recent tester, for example, had identified the scents of cilantro, Cheerios, plastic, and raw potato. (Yum.)

If heme is the Impossible Burger’s blood, then coconut oil is its fat. Wheat protein and potato protein gel make up the meat’s “muscle”—its sinewy fiber—and then gum gel is added to make the whole concoction moldable. The R&D team constantly plays with those ingredients to adjust smell and texture. A couple of times a day the team comes around with samples for employees to taste. That can sometimes hit a snag when they come around to Brown. The startup’s founder is a notoriously slow taste tester. “He’s been a vegan for so long that he doesn’t actually do a very good job,” Davis says. “He doesn’t know what meat tastes like.”

Davis says the best description of the company’s first successful meat analog was rancid polenta. “It was still terrible,” he says. “And yet it was so much better than anything we’d made to that point.” The rule of the lab, explains Davis, is that, “it’s very bad manners to poison your friends, but you’re allowed to make it taste bad.”

Technician working with heme at Impossible Burgers R&D facility in Redwood City, Calif.Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune
Photograph by Spencer Lowell for Fortune

In the food industry, companies traditionally don’t launch a product until they think it’s ready for prime time. But the likes of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are emulating the tech world by constantly rolling out improved versions—or in Valleyspeak, “iterations.”

Every major reformulation of the Impossible Burger gets named after a bird—anhinga, blue-footed booby, condor, dodo. The updates represent Brown’s ultimate goal of making something superior to a cow rather than something identical to one. The effort is about far more than making a great burger, says Brown. “Our mission is to develop the technology that makes animals obsolete as a food production technology,” he tells me as we each chow down on an Impossible Burger—the version known internally as Oriole 2.0—at New York’s sleek Saxon + Parole restaurant.

“It’s very bad manners to poison your friends, but you’re allowed to make it taste bad,” says Impossible Foods R&D Director Chris Davis.

But as it turns out, there’s one rather important player who has some questions about the company’s technology. And that’s the FDA. While Impossible Foods doesn’t need the agency’s approval to market its burgers in the U.S., the company voluntarily asked the regulator to confirm the designation of the protein it uses to carry heme as something “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. But the FDA responded with some follow-up questions instead. (In November 2015, Impossible withdrew its GRAS submission but refiled this October with additional safety data.)

More troubling to some is that studies have shown that heme found in red meat facilitates the production of chemicals called N-nitroso-compounds, or NOCs, that have been shown to be carcinogenic. Davis, for his part, is not convinced by the science. “Right now there’s good epidemiological data that eating meat is bad for you,” he says. “That’s pretty much clear. But which part of meat is causing that—the data just isn’t there.”

The Vegan Mafia

For some animal rights groups, the alt-meat effort marks a chance to finally make some progress on their ultimate aim. Or as Paul Shapiro, vice president of policy at the Humane Society of the United States and author of the forthcoming book Clean Meat, sums up: “It’s possible that folks in this field might end up doing more good for animals than what I’ve done with my life.”

While the movement may have persuaded industry to free some pigs from gestation crates and hens from cages, it has so far pretty much failed in the goal many view as paramount: getting people to stop killing and consuming animals. The percentage of people who identify as vegetarians in the U.S. has remained essentially unchanged over the last three decades. If mainstream Americans won’t stop eating animal flesh for ethical reasons, suggest many animal rights advocates, then perhaps they will if they’re given a tastier alternative. “Rather than presenting people with tradeoffs, we should focus on making new products that are better than the status quo in every way,” says Kyle Vogt.

Vogt is part of what several people jokingly refer to as the Vegan Mafia, a group of wealthy investors whose main motivation is to remove animals from the food system. Like a surprisingly large number of millennials, it seems, Vogt in part got interested in animal welfare after binge-watching a series of Netflix documentaries on the topic. But unlike many others in his age cohort, Vogt sold his self-driving-car startup Cruise to General Motors (GM) for $1 billion in 2016—and therefore has the money to do something about it. He and his wife, Tracy Vogt, who opened a farm animal sanctuary, subsequently became vegan and invested in Memphis Meats. For him it’s a straightforward thought experiment: For people living 100 years from now, “what are they going to see that seems barbaric or abhorrent or just completely wrong?”

Memphis Meats created a cultured meatball that costs about $2,400 a pound to produce, and that was notable progress. The cost last year was $18,000 a pound.Courtesy of Memphis Meats
Courtesy of Memphis Meats

Celullar ag companies to know

MosaMeat was spun out of the lab of Mark Post, a professor at Maastricht University. The Dutchman made the world’s first cultured burger nearly five years ago.

Founded in 2015, Memphis this year made the first duck and chicken produced from cellular agriculture.

Previously operating out of biotech accelerator IndieBio, Finless is focused first on making bluefin tuna—one of the world’s most high-value proteins.

The Israeli company is working on chicken (in ground form) because it is numerically the most eaten animal in the world.

With Silicon Valley’s dollars has also come impatience, say some. Post, of MosaMeat, who created the first hamburger from cultured animal cells in 2013 with backing from Google billionaire Brin, believes some of his competitors have set unrealistic timelines to market in part because that’s what tech investors want to hear. “The whole Silicon Valley rhythm is imposed on this development,” Post tells me. “That may not be realistic, but part of the charm and myth of Silicon Valley is that nobody cares.”

Its influence can also be seen in the language of the enterprise—one that casually refers to living creatures as protein conversion technologies. In the months I spent reporting this story, I heard those kinds of descriptions regularly. It was always jarring—and at times, came across as a bit soulless.

“In most realms of human endeavor, technology is a positive thing,” says Andras Forgacs, the 41-year-old cofounder and CEO of Modern Meadow, which operates on a nondescript campus in Nutley, N.J. “Food is the one realm where we’re very suspicious about it.” Early on, Modern Meadow decided to focus on leather materials rather than meat because that’s where it thought it could have the most impact. Forgacs also had some concerns about how long it would take a food product to get to market as well as consumer acceptance. All food involves technology, he explains, but the most established food companies don’t want to call it that—they want to call it the art of cooking. Still, “if you want to attract investors and seem like you’re the revolutionary new thing, you have to robe yourself in the language of technology,” he says. “That doesn’t necessarily appeal to consumers.”

Plant-based companies to know

Beyond Meat and Impossible aren’t the only companies playing with plants.

The startup is developing an algorithm that identifies the molecular components of plants that create certain tastes and textures so they can be used to replicate animal-based products.

Cofounded by a marine biologist, New Wave is making an algae-based shrimp alternative that it started selling through the food service industry in July.

Ocean Hugger is using tomatoes as a plant-based alternative to the raw tuna used in sushi. Its proprietary process removes the flavor from the tomato and gives it a meaty texture before it’s marinated in soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. The company launched in select Whole Foods in November.

In one of the stranger ironies, what has given real credence to the alt-meat realm is Big Food’s arrival on the scene. It’s an odd turn of events. When legacy packaged food companies began gobbling up natural food startups, the latter lost much of their street cred. But the opposite has happened with meat nouveau: Big Food’s backing has helped validate the burgeoning industry.

The executives I spoke with at Tyson and Cargill, which have invested in Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats, respectively, laid out a future in which meat from animals, cultured meat, and plant-based meat all sit side by side in the supermarket. “To feed 9 billion people we’re going to need everybody,” says Sonya McCullum Roberts, president of growth ventures at Cargill. “It’s not a threat to us, it’s an opportunity.”

Not everybody in the alt-meat crowd is willing to partner with the big guys. Pat Brown, Impossible’s CEO, can’t imagine how his interests could possibly align with those of a meat producer. “Let’s put it this way,” he says. “I don’t have any illusions about what would happen if one of those companies had any measure of control over us. They would not want us to completely replace their industry in 15 years.”

Says Cargill’s Roberts: “I have heard some of those comments. And they hurt a little bit.”

Passing the Smell Test

In October some 300 people gather in a converted warehouse in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for the second annual New Harvest conference on cellular agriculture. As is typical of alt-meat confabs, the lunch is vegan. (And good luck finding any real milk for your coffee.)

Despite the niceties that come in an industry where everyone knows everyone else, there are still plenty of moments of discord. One clear point of angst is how candid the various startups are being with one another about the advancements of their technology. Scandal-plagued vegan mayo maker Hampton Creek had recently said it would have a cultured meat product on the market next year, and questions abound about how realistic the pronouncement really is. Not very, seems to be the consensus. (“We aim to make our first commercial sale of a clean meat product by the end of 2018,” the company said in a statement.)

One can sense another underlying tension in the way companies are describing their products in the first place. The battle lines seem drawn between the joys of weird science (which the techies cherish) and those who fear consumers will run from that.

Technician at Beyond Meat runs a meat color test in their El Segundo, Calif. research facility.

Jesse Wolff of International Flavors and Fragrances is clearly in the first camp. He kicks off day two with a presentation that includes show and smell: He instructs us to open a vial that’s been placed on the back of every chair, and then take a whiff. Inside are 62 components that make up organic vegan roast chicken aroma, he says. There’s a lot of science behind the flavor, he tells the crowd. (When I take the vial back to my office, most of my colleagues think it smells like Doritos.)

Two hours later, during a session called “Getting Cellular Agriculture Into the Real World,” Mary Haderlein, principal of Chicago consulting firm Hyde Park Group Food Innovation, alludes to the strangeness of an additive with more than five dozen ingredients in an era when shoppers say they want simplicity. There’s a big push for fewer ingredients, unprocessed foods, and clean labels, she tells the same conference-goers. “And then on the other hand we have lab meat. Those are conflicting thoughts that have to come into focus.”

Embodying this issue is the debate over what to even call meat made from cellular ag. The industry has landed on “clean meat,” after deciding that terms like “lab-grown meat,” “in vitro meat,” and “cultured meat” all have too much of an ick factor. But clean meat has its own baggage. For one thing, it has a different meaning to consumers who think of clean food as something free of artificial ingredients. “It seems like a weird term to attach to a bioengineered meat product,” Haderlein tells me. But even more problematic is that clean meat suggests that the alternative—plain, old regular meat—is dirty and wrong. “The term is offensive and insensitive to farmers,” says Danielle Gould, founder and CEO of Food + Tech Connect, a resource hub and community for food entrepreneurs and investors. And making potential consumers feel demonized, judged, or guilty is unlikely to be an effective marketing strategy.

“The real question is, are they feeding people or are they feeding egos,” asks a meat industry veteran.

The veggie meat cohort is not immune to the tension. This summer, the University of California at Berkeley launched an alt-meat lab for students to do plant-based food research. The program was so popular it was expanded to accommodate about a dozen extra people. But the students rebelled after the first semester, disheartened by how many of the products had the same heavy formulation as processed foods. They wanted to change the current food system, not replicate it, says Ricardo San Martin, cochair for the new lab. Somehow making a burger, even one made of plants, didn’t seem quite so innovative. “They were not convinced that this was the route they want to take,” San Martin says. “They feel it fulfills their ethical concerns with animals, but it doesn’t fulfill the kind of food they want to eat.”

Over the course of reporting this story I asked pretty much everyone I talked to whether they were vegetarian or vegan. It was surprising to me how many of those engaged in this movement weren’t. Post, of MosaMeat, said that he should be but that he wasn’t. “There is something in us that makes it inherently difficult to take that step to a plant-based diet,” he admits. “It feels like a step back. And something in me resists that.” San Martin of the alt-meat lab offered that he feels horrible whenever he sees any information on the mistreatment of animals, “but when I go to the supermarket and eat ham, I don’t see the connection. I just can’t make it.”

I felt their confusion. Most days I eat vegetarian, and I rarely eat any red meat at all. In fact, for months, as I’ve reported this story, I’ve been acutely aware of all the reasons why we probably shouldn’t eat beef, chicken, or pork.

But in early November, as I was driving on the highway in Northern California, I saw an In-N-Out Burger up ahead. I pulled off the highway, and gave into the cognitive dissonance. It was the best hamburger I can remember.

A version of this article appears in the Dec. 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Where’s the Beef?”

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