As GFI Director of Science and Technology, David Welch, Ph.D., marries his doctoral studies in plant biology with more than a decade of work in regenerative medicine to help companies and academic research institutions accelerate the development of plant-based and clean meat.
A UK native, David moved to Houston as a teenager before leaving for California to earn his bachelor’s degree in biology from UC-Berkeley. After a few years of lab work, David moved to Utrecht in The Netherlands, where he received his Ph.D. in plant developmental cell biology. He then returned to the UK before moving to Maryland to work for a large US-based life science company.
This intercontinental loop and interdisciplinary experience led David to The Good Food Institute!
–And then I led him right to our blog, where I made him answer some of my questions about his work. Enjoy getting to know David, the fearless leader of our SciTech team!
Q: It seems like you’ve done it all! After all of your work in various scientific fields, what drew you to use those skills to address problems in the food system?
I feel like I’m just getting started! My interest in agriculture – and particularly animal agriculture – actually came from outside of my professional career, though it has obviously crossed over since! Around five years ago, after reading the book Eat and Run by Scott Jurek, I decided to adopt a plant-based diet. Initially, I did this to improve my running (more on that later) but I quickly discovered the positive impact this diet has on overall health, the environment, food security, and animal welfare. As a result, I became curious about roles in the food industry where my skills and experience would be useful.
Around the same time, I began to think about a career move that would allow me to do the greatest amount of good in the near-term, as compared to, say, developing a drug that might not come out for decades and would only serve as a band-aid for a systemic problem. All of this was bubbling around in my head when I came across GFI’s website. Up until that point, I was not aware of the progress that had been made in clean meat. As I read through the content on the website I had this beautiful “aha” moment when I realized I could combine my academic background in plant biology with my industry experience in regenerative medicine and bioprocessing to help transform the food industry.
Q: What most excites you in the realm of food innovation?
Wow - I’m not sure I can narrow it down to one exciting thing. If you’ll allow me the indulgence, I’ll pick one for plant-based meat and one for clean meat.
In the plant-based meat industry, I’ve been really excited by the innovations made by Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and legacy brands like Tofurky and Gardein that are reinventing their products and adopting a more scientific approach to product development. That is, companies are no longer mashing vegetables together. Today, innovators are identifying the components in animal-based meat that provide consumers with the sensory experience of eating a given food. Companies have then identified components from plants that could provide that same experience.
The plant-based heme in the Impossible Burger is a great example of this approach, and I think we’ve just scratched the surface: Scientists in universities and industry alike are analyzing a broader range of crops, generating huge databases of animal-based and plant-based components, and exploring novel methods of protein processing and plant-based meat formulation that will result in plant-based foods that get closer and closer to an exact sensory replica of the animal-based counterpart. I’m excited to see what comes next and equally excited to be exploring this path alongside scientists and entrepreneurs!
On the clean meat side, I’m particularly excited by the scale-up efforts within the clean meat industry as startups prepare to compete in the big leagues (game on!). The research happening in both the private and public sector is compelling; for example, backed by a grant from GFI, researcher Marie Gibbons has begun exploring better and more efficient ways to culture and scale-up turkey cells to create clean turkey meat at Dr. George Church’s Harvard Medical School lab.
Q: Give me your pitch: Why do you think scientists should get involved in plant-based and clean meat research?
For me, there are two main reasons.
First, as I mentioned above, I think we’ve just scratched the surface with how closely and efficiently we can replicate the foods now created by industrial animal agriculture. Beyond imitation, we have the opportunity to create products that are not just replicas of the animal-based foods eaten today but that taste better, are healthier, and are gentler on the planet. In this way, we can completely transform our current food system for the better.
Second, there are so many interesting scientific questions to answer! What are the best cell types and cell culture methods for clean meat production? Which crops produce the best plant-based foods and are best suited for growth in each region of the world? What technology will we use to differentiate cells to muscle tissue at a commercial scale? It’s a curious mind’s dream!
Q: What do you see as a key barrier to research and development for food innovation?
Right now I think the main barrier is a lack of scientists focused on plant-based and clean meat, egg, and dairy innovation. As more scientists in adjacent areas of research such as crop genetics or tissue engineering learn about the global problems we can solve and the exciting scientific questions that need solutions – and as funding continues to increase – I think we will see a big influx of activity that will significantly accelerate this industry.
We’re actively working toward this within GFI’s SciTech Department! For example, we’re developing a database of academic scientists with expertise in these adjacent areas that will allow the research community to identify collaborators and we're reaching out to the top research institutes around the world to develop courses on clean meat and plant-based meat. Already, a course GFI helped develop at U.C. Berkeley is in its third semester and has generated a lot of excitement on campus and numerous new product ideas.
Our analyses of the plant-based and clean meat industries have revealed a number of opportunities for collaborative research and innovation (we recently published an article on opportunities for applying biomedical technology to the clean meat industry), and we’re working with the scientific community to execute this research and use the findings to accelerate the plant-based and clean meat industries.
Q: It’s a big – and varied – task! What has been one of your favorite moments with GFI thus far?
During my time at GFI, I’ve had many amazing conversations and met so many inspirational people.
One story that comes to mind is from my trip to the Bay Area for the Pulse Protein Innovation Summit GFI organized with the American Pulse Association.
The day before the conference, I visited the Berkeley campus to meet with two professors I worked with after completing my bachelor's degree. Professor Lewis Feldman inspired me, through his teaching and research, to pursue a Ph.D. in plant molecular biology. I'm forever grateful to him for sparking that initial passion with plants and it was great to catch up with him after so many years. I was also fortunate to work in the lab of Professor Peggy Lemaux, a pioneer in crop genetics. Peggy and her lab are now involved in several projects related to plant-based foods, including the Millet Project, which will help us understand how to use locally grown, lesser-known grains in plant-based foods. Peggy will also be participating on a panel at the inaugural GFI conference on plant-based and clean meat this fall (details to come!).
It was amazing to return to where my career with plants began, after almost 20 years, and discover so many connections with my current at work at GFI!
What do you do for fun? Do you have a favorite plant-based product?
When I’m not hanging out with my family (I have an incredible wife and three amazing young boys), you will usually find me running – either around my neighborhood with my dog or out in the mountains. Last year I ran two 100 mile races, two 50Ks, and one 50 mile race.
This year I’m tackling the Beast Series, a six-race series in the mountains of Virginia, culminating in my favorite race, the Hellgate 100K. This race is held in mid-December with a midnight start and does a terrific job living up to its name.
As for food, I mostly eat a whole-foods plant-based diet but sometimes my wife makes a traditional British comfort food dish: bangers and mash. She uses Field Roast sausages, which are just awesome. If they’re looking for an athlete to sponsor, I would be open to carrying those sausages on my long runs!
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Wow. You heard it here first, folks: GFI's SciTech Director would run 100k to Hell(gate) and back for Field Roast sausages!
Want to join David in his mission to change food and change the world? Apply to join our team – no marathon experience required!
To learn more about GFI's work supporting scientists and entrepreneurs, click here.