This interview has been excerpted from the GFI series "Pioneers of the Future of Food." We profiled some of the trailblazing scientists and engineers building a sustainable food system. Explore the full series here.
New Age Meats co-founder and CSO Andra Necula has an extensive background in cell biology research, entrepreneurship, and the intersection of international relations and public policy. Necula is working closely with her co-founder Brian Spears to build a company that will incorporate automation to enable rapid scale-up in cell-based meat production and equitable, widespread consumer access. First on the menu? Sausage.
Do you remember how you initially learned about the alternative protein field and how you became interested in getting involved?
Once you start learning about synthetic biology, you start thinking that some ideas that initially seemed crazy are actually possible. I personally became interested in working in the alternative protein field while working on my PhD at Oxford, where I began to understand that this space has the potential to make an enormous impact. I had started thinking about how I could make a positive impact through effective altruism, which is based on the philosophy of an Oxford professor who identified the most effective ways for us to put a dent in the universe through our career by creating frameworks to quantitatively measure the effect of altruistic acts and their potential impact. One area the professor highlighted was creating alternatives to protein production; that was what introduced me to the idea that this field has a lot of promise to have broad-reaching impacts, including ameliorating the environment and improving animal welfare.
What led you to the decision to found your own cell-based meat company?
For me, I think entrepreneurship came before I knew that I wanted to be in the cellular agriculture field. Since a very early age, I’ve been interested in the idea of how to have the most impact with what I do in my life. I went into research because discoveries have so much potential to touch people’s lives and for a long time I really thought that I would stay in research. However, the longer I stayed, the more I realized that there are many barriers to progress that are not research-related, such as policy, regulation, commercialization, and financial interests that will completely kill certain projects.
A lot of progress depends on how you sell something and how you brand it, so to me, entrepreneurship became a way to actually bring research to the market, any type of research. I realized this about a year into my PhD, and I knew at that point that after completing my PhD I would become an entrepreneur, but I didn’t know exactly what this would be like.
After my PhD, I joined a program in London called Entrepreneur First, which is a program that allows you to do self-exploration for a few months in different markets. It gives you the space to think about your background and where you might have the most impact given your skill set and expertise. It also teaches you about different aspects of the market and to consider things such as how commercially viable is this thing? Is this something that actually suits my interests? It was during this program that I got the chance to really roll up my sleeves and do a deep dive into the clean meat field.
There were many questions that I didn’t have an answer to when I started my exploration, and really there are a lot of questions that nobody in the field has the answers to. That in itself is quite intriguing and scary in many ways, to realize that there’s so much that we don’t know and so much that we are only starting to discover in terms of long-term cost projections and how technologies are going to change. I kept on pushing my exploration into the clean meat field until I felt I had enough answers to be able to make up my mind and convince myself that producing clean meat is actually technically doable and there are paths to get there.
In the meantime, I found my co-founder Brian Spears, who had also been in search of a field in which he could make an impact. As he learned more about the alternative protein industry, he also decided he wanted to found a company. He put his details on the monthly GFI call to find a co-founder, which is how I found him. We interviewed each other a lot, then he also was accepted in Entrepreneur First and we decided to work together. After Entrepreneur First, we both decided to move back here to the Bay Area because most people in the space are here, which makes forming connections much easier. I’ve found that it really helps to go through the design process with someone else, to bounce ideas off each other and get to a point where we are both comfortable with our vision for the company and how to get there.
How does your background in entrepreneurship and policy work influence your leadership style and what you hope to achieve with your company?
I think the clean meat space is so important because it is so closely linked to the vast majority of the human population. You have a massive responsibility as a founder in this space, and the more your company grows, the bigger that responsibility becomes. One thing I obsess over is whether people will have equitable access to the meat alternative world. I fear that we are going to end up with the massive meat conglomerates just as we have now, but with meat that is just made differently, and that we will continue to have inequality in lots of countries with extreme poverty who will have to import all of their meat. Brian and I constantly discuss how to ensure that all countries at some point will be able to access this technology and resources internally.
Although the skill set to go and farm is widespread, that skill set is very different from being a scientist who goes and farms. There are countries who can afford to train people as farmers and food technicians, but it’s very different to train someone to be a scientific technician and make sure that they can do the process in their own country in an environment that is able to supply them with what they need to make clean meat.
What barriers do you think will be most important for the cell-based meat industry to overcome in the coming years in order for it to be the most impactful it can?
In terms of adopting of the technology and relevant regulation, which are some of the big initial challenges we are currently facing, I think there will need to be a few big economic forces becoming interested and actively starting to support this space. I think the rest will follow, and that in itself will enable a lot of development in terms of seeing more and more countries buying clean meat. I don’t know if the United States will actually be the first space to see clean meat come to the market, just because there is a lot of ambiguity surrounding regulation in the United States and there are other large countries that are equally or even more interested in supporting the space who could become actively engaged to define regulation and clear the path for clean meat to be introduced.
It will be interesting to see which smaller countries become the first players to buy clean meat from abroad, and how clean meat will change the perception of meat in those places. For this whole space to advance, we’re going to have to see the kind of government support that there has been for other technologies such as renewable energy. I think the field is going to need to get to a place where governments understand that this is something that will be positively impactful on the economy, that it really is worth engaging in, and demonstrate that by providing subsidies to support the clean meat market. For that to happen, we really have to start thinking systematically.
What is the most notable difference you have found in doing academic research versus doing research for product development within the context of a startup?
In terms of the research itself, I think you learn to think about research differently in the context of a startup. In an academic research lab, you have a very specific path and you’re working on a very specific type of project with limited resources and a strict timeline. It’s very rare to actually pivot in zigzag like you do in entrepreneurship where the scope is much wider. You can make assumptions and say, “This is where we could be in a year with this, and here’s where we could be in a year with this other thing.” The way of thinking and planning gives you much more flexibility in terms of the techniques you can use, the equipment that you require, and the team that you can build. It’s still long nights of work.
Building a company requires the same kind of dedicated lifestyle. The vision of the company is to go to the edge of what’s possible in terms of technology, not just with biotechnology but through combining engineering and computing to try and advance the field much faster.
How do you see research opportunities developing and changing as the alternative protein field evolves?
I think it is a field that should be interdisciplinary, it shouldn’t be just a biotechnology field. I think we will start seeing a lot more opportunities for engineers and computational people to join in, and I would be very thrilled to see more postdoctoral fellows or full-research fellows join the space of clean meat. A lot of what we are doing is very translatable from other fields, and in the same way as we’ve seen with regenerative medicine, it’s been a field that has slowly started to attract people from different areas. Now, it’s becoming a field that uses engineers and people with materials expertise, scaffolding experts, physicists, and biologists. We’ve all slowly moved together to work on the same solutions together. I would like to see more of that happen and I think an academic environment would actually be ideal for that, to actually start discussing paradigm shifts that we might need to do in the space. I think we also need to create a basic toolset that people in the space should have for when they start doing this kind of thing. It’s a very immersive experience to do research into this for a few years, understand what tools are already available in adjacent fields, then join a company in the space. I think we’re going to move towards that, but it’s a slow process of doing outreach and making sure that there’s funding for this kind of research, which is another challenge in itself. I imagine that in three years’ time it’s going to be the beginning of something that’s quite different from where it is now.
What do you think will be the moment that will tell you that you’ve begun accomplishing what you’ve set out to do?
I want to taste our own sausages and think, “Yep, that’s some good sausage.” We hope we’re going to be there in the next couple months and that’s what we are now working tirelessly towards.