“It’s a couple of things,” said Chen, who has held senior sales, operations, strategy and innovation roles at PepsiCo in the US and China, most recently as SVP of the North America Beverages business.
“One was the potential for impact on a massive scale… this is an incredible opportunity to make the food system better; we’re really at a historic inflection point as this industry moves from R&D to the commercial and consumer world, so it’s a perfect time to be jumping in.
“The other thing is the team and the culture that [UPSIDE Foods’ founder and CEO Dr] Uma [Valeti] has built, it’s phenomenal, they’re the leaders in science and tech in the industry, but also just incredibly passionate people.”
We’re selling real meat
So how do you sell cell-cultured (a.k.a. ‘lab-grown’) meat to Americans, who are pretty partial to the conventional variety, and are also bombarded with messages from food companies who claim, albeit often disingenuously, that their food is ‘made in a kitchen/on a farm, not in a lab…’?
“I think right now we are at this interesting intersection of food and tech, which personally I find fascinating,” observed Chen, but consumers want first and foremost to eat food, not a science experiment, she said.
“One of the things I’ve learned from my years at PepsiCo is the power of telling a story around food, making it craveable, delicious and something that people want to eat.
“So first and foremost, a lot of what we need to do, not only at UPSIDE Foods but also in the cultured meat industry as a whole, is tell the story: this is the meat that you love, this is familiar craveable delicious meat that’s been part of your culture and part of your traditions, just made in a more sustainable way.”
In some respects, however, cell-cultured meat is arguably easier for consumers to get their heads around than products made via some other emerging technologies in the ‘alternative’ protein space, said Chen.
“There’s something about real meat that I think just has a natural resonance with consumers that doesn’t require a lot of explanation.”
‘I’m from Texas and I love meat’
While UPSIDE Foods is one of the most advanced – and certainly one of the best-funded – players in the nascent cell-cultured meat space, what convinced Chen that its technology is both viable and truly scalable?
“Before I signed and agreed to come on, I had to try the meat,” she said. “I’m from Texas and I love meat… and so my husband and I flew out and we had a tasting and I had that first bite, and realized that it was simultaneously one of the most unremarkable things and one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever eaten. It’s just meat.”
She added: “Then we had conversations around line of sight around some critical elements of scale, which made me feel really comfortable that this was the horse to bet on. Without getting into too many specifics, we’re already starting to lay the plans for what a large-scale commercial facility and footprint would look like [beyond the pilot scale plant the firm is building in the Bay area to support its initial launch].”
As for the addressable market, she said, “The exciting thing about cell-cultured meat is that it has global appeal and it works on so many levels… for animal rights activists, for environmentalists, for people who are just excited about the next thing.”
While UPSIDE Foods is still at the pre-revenue stage, attracting a COO of Chen’s caliber underlines the scale of its ambition, said CEO Dr Uma Valeti, who founded the company in 2015 and has since raised more than $181m from backers including Bill Gates, Tyson Foods and Cargill.
“We needed a proven leader with global food experience to match our global ambitions… Bringing Amy into our executive team reflects UPSIDE Foods’ shift in focus from research and development to a consumer and commercial organization.”
Dr Valeti: ‘We believe the majority of people are still craving real meat’
Speaking at the Future Food Tech alternative proteins virtual conference yesterday, Dr Valeti – a cardiologist – said that while he is “a big supporter of plant based proteins… We believe the majority of people are still craving real meat.”
He added: “Independent peer reviewed research has been done in this field that suggests very strongly that two thirds of Americans are ready for eating cultured meat and a third of them are ready to fully switch to cultured meat… which is pretty substantial.”
Asked about other players or technologies he admired, he said: “There’s a second company I’ve been very involved in… It’s not in the cultured meat field, but it’s something that’s really going to help cultured meat, plant-based meat, and a lot of other food companies to bring their products to the world. I am super excited about the company, but right now it’s in stealth mode, so I can’t name it.”
‘Delicious, sustainable and humane meat for everyone’
UPSIDE Foods’ pilot plant in the East Bay area of San Francisco – will “produce, package and ship cultured meat at a larger scale than any other company in the industry, all under one roof,” says the company, which is billing its wares as “delicious, sustainable and humane meat for everyone.”
Communications director David Kay would not confirm in a recent interview if the initial products – which will likely launch in a “handful of restaurants” – will be made from 100% cell-cultured meat or will be hybrid products combining animal cells and plant-based proteins (an approach deployed by Eat Just in Singapore), but confirmed the company can do both, and has “the ability to produce a cut of meat as well as ground or minced products.”
On costs and scale up, it’s early days, he said, “But we see a lot of progress on reducing costs in growth media and other areas and while the first products will be priced at a premium, as we scale, the goal is to be competitive and ultimately to produce meat that is more affordable than conventionally produced meat.”
Cell-cultured meat vs plant-based meat
Asked whether it ultimately makes sense to reproduce (albeit more ethically and sustainably) a product that many commentators believe is fundamentally unhealthy (processed meats) rather than encouraging consumers to reduce meat consumption or switch to plant-based alternatives, he said: “There is always going to be a part of humanity [that wants animal meat] as it’s such a key part of our social traditions and cultural heritage.”
As for health, he claimed, cell-cultured meat does not carry the same risks of bacterial contamination, while UPSIDE Foods is also confident that commercial-scale production of cultured meat will be possible without antibiotics.
Its nutritional profile can also be customized, he said: “One of the things we’re exploring is could we make a steak with a fat profile of salmon for instance?”
UPSIDE Foods started conversations early with the USDA and FDA, who announced a joint regulatory framework for cell-cultured meat in early 2019 and have since set up working groups on pre-market assessment; labeling and claims; and the transfer of inspection authority.
“Both the agencies have been moving quickly and we’re committed to continuing to give them the information they need to inform their process,” said Kay. “Our hope is that we will be able to sell a product by the end of this year.”