The following is a summary of the second conversation that took place as part of our evaluation of the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF). Shaked Regev is the executive director of MAF. Yaron Bogin will be MAF’s first full-time employee. Regev and Bogin spoke with ACE Researcher Jacy Reese on September 7, 2016.
MAF’s Strengths and Weaknesses
Regev considers MAF’s main strengths to be their achievements in research and the world-wide recognition they’ve gained with relatively few resources. Regev was manning the inbox for SuperMeat for at least half of the campaign and they were bombarded with requests for investment. 90% of the requests probably aren’t coming to fruition, but a significant number of investments are now in advanced stages. Although MAF can’t know whether the SuperMeat project will be a success, if it is, it will be a successful project that was started by them and couldn’t have been done without them.
MAF’s main weakness is that, as a young organization, they don’t yet have people working for them full-time or for a salary. Being volunteer based means they don’t necessarily have the correct people in each role, and operations might not be as organized as they will be when they have paid staff.
Bogin is a biotechnology professional with a PhD in cell biology from Technion (Israel Institute of Technology). He has 6–7 years experience in the research, development, and commercialization of cell-based technologies.
Bogin has worked in a technology incubator called the Alfred Mann Institute at the Technion. The incubator helps to commercialize life science innovations from academia and establish small start-up companies. Bogin later worked as a development manager in the biotechnology company Accellta, which works on culturing and differentiating masses of human stem cells in suspension culture.
About 6 months ago, he became a vegan and animal rights activist.
What are the main benefits and changes MAF anticipate once they have a full-time employee?
Bogin looks up to the model of New Harvest. He wants to develop MAF into a vibrant and active research institute like New Harvest, which will help to conduct, promote, and fund scientific research and provide small grants to researchers and students.
MAF will educate and inform the public. Bogin wants to continue the work Regev has begun of building a community of researchers, teachers, managers and other people from the biotech industry. He plans to bring people together, initiate conferences, and invite keynote speakers from organizations internationally.
Working with Existing Companies and Startups
MAF will continue to support the creation of new companies to deliver cultured animal products…Bogin also wants to initiate collaboration with existing companies and new startups to bring about the development of commercial products.
There are companies that have advanced platforms that allow them to culture billions of cells in either adherent conditions or adherent-free, 3-dimensional suspension conditions, but are still not well informed about the possibility of using their advanced technologies for the mass production of animal cells.A good strategy might be approaching these companies and informing them about the potential market in the field of cultured animal products, which could be very appealing to their investors.
Accellta’s expertise in culturing human stem cells is acknowledged worldwide, and its formulations for growth media are now licensed to key players in the life sciences such as EMD Millipore, Ajinomoto Incorporated, and Thermo Fisher Scientific. Accellta is able to grow 20–40 million cells per milliliter of growth media, the largest quantities in the world in terms of culturing these cells. Bogin feels that Accellta Ltd., an acknowledged pioneer and leader in culturing masses of human stem cells, is in prime position to try and adapt its advanced technologies into the mass production of animal cells that can be used to develop cultured animal products. Bogin aims to approach Accellta and additional cutting-edge biotechnology companies in Israel and to inform them about the possibilities and advantages in pioneering product development in the field of cellular agriculture that is growing worldwide.
It would be practical to advance the R&D in existing companies that already have round A or B investment and have the money to advance products themselves. There are other companies Bogin is in close contact with, particularly those in the portfolio of Horizon Ventures such as Impossible Foods, which he plans to encourage to set their R&D pipeline in motion regarding cultured animal products.
Fundraising is crucial. Bogin will approach philanthropic organisations and commercial companies in traditional and modern agriculture.
Bogin has experience in fundraising and has personal connections with philanthropic organizations. At AMIT (the Alfred Mann Institute at the Technion), the cumulative funding of about $30 million was raised primarily from the Alfred Mann Foundation, located in Valencia, CA. In addition, Bogin assisted in raising private funds from the prestigious, Hong Kong–based venture capital firm, Horizons Ventures Limited, which is involved in disruptive and technology–focused start-ups, such as Skype, Facebook, Waze, Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek and Modern Meadow. Bogin also assisted in raising significant government funds from The Office of the Chief Scientist in the Israeli Ministry of Economy, as well as from Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Bogin also has a network of connections, including a number of Jewish philanthropists in the US, whom he will begin to approach once he’s assumed the role.
Building a Team
Bogin also wants to expand and manage MAF’s volunteer base and add more employees once MAF has the resources.
Does MAF have a fundraising goal now Bogin is on-board?
Not yet, but they probably will have a goal of roughly $100,000.
What is MAF’s next hiring priority?
Regev hopes the next hire will probably be a spokesperson. One of their aims is to get as much media coverage as possible, both for their work and for other cultured meat products, plant-based products, and the relevant NGOs and companies. Regev has discussed this with people in other NGOs who agree a spokesperson is the best role to hire for next.
However, the next role they hire for will also depend on how successfully they meet their goals. If initiating research goes well but MAF still needs more funds, they might employ someone to help with fundraising. After hiring a spokesperson, they will probably hire various professionals such as lawyers, web developers, and accountants, though that’s in no particular order at this time.
Bogin agrees a spokesperson is important for PR and would like MAF to be able to hire their current volunteer spokesperson. As well as hiring people to establish the infrastructure of the foundation, Bogin would also choose to hire assistants in fundraising and marketing. After that he would hire people to run MAF’s scientific projects and support initial research and the formation of startups, and to support startups in raising seed capital.
To what extent does MAF prioritize academic open-source research vs. establishing companies?
Regev believes cultured meat will happen eventually, probably within a decade or two. However any acceleration is hugely significant in terms of the magnitude of animal suffering. Climate change is also a pressing issue. Regev thinks enough theoretical work has been done at this point. Although there’s still room for theoreticians and cultured meat research teams, MAF should be more oriented towards getting results as soon as possible. They need to fund projects and get them to a place where they can be continued by a company. This can be challenging as SuperMeat is raising at least 2 million dollars, and that isn’t money a small non-profit can realistically bring in.
With the permission of directors of the foundation Bogin intends to go in both directions. He wants to collaborate with companies he has personal connections with who are in prime position to work on cultured animal products. He wants to create opportunities and collaborations, even small feasibility trials with existing companies, that will allow them to partner with multinational companies. Bogin is optimistic about this direction. However continuing research into tissue engineering and assisting researchers with grants is also important.
SuperMeat’s branding (e.g. name, tagline) has had some criticism from the community. What was the process for deciding the branding for SuperMeat and how does MAF make branding decisions?
Regev wasn’t involved in the naming of SuperMeat. He does think the word ‘meat’ or something to that effect should be in the brand name. He was involved in the process of naming MAF, which was decided during a brainstorming sessions. Like New Harvest, MAF wants to suggest with their name that conventional agricultural methods are outdated and that they are offering a modern approach.
Is there anything particular that would change MAF’s future plans, other than how fundraising goes? For example will how successful SuperMeat is in the future affect MAF’s approach to a fish startup?
One thing that could change MAF’s future plans is the emergence of any new and successful cultured meat or innovative plant-based product. In the US there are a few million vegans and vegetarians. If a plant-based alternative commands a good share of the market a lot of money can be made just in the US. However, MAF is looking for a product that can compete with conventional animal agriculture. Regev is really interested to see the Impossible Burger in supermarkets and to find out what its reach is. This could definitely affect MAF’s choices in the future. Although it may be an issue that the Impossible Burger is about the grade of a fast-food burger, if Impossible Foods cut the price and the burger just replaced all fast-food burgers, that would be significant. Impossible Foods might also be able to make improvements to their product.
Plant-based alternatives have their advantages. Impossible Foods have to process plants in various ways to create a meat-like texture. Genetically engineering or artificially selecting plants to be more meat-like would cut costs and be more efficient even than cultured meat. Regev is looking out for anyone genetically modifying plants to be more meat-like. MAF has spoken with a researcher at the Technion who has experience in innovative genetic engineering on plants and who thinks this is possible. Although there is anti-GMO feeling in some countries, Regev anticipates that fading, especially if there is a bigger incentive to accept GMOs as people will generally choose the better product. Additionally, there isn’t much anti-GMO sentiment in China and India, which together encompass a third of the world’s population.
How would MAF respond to vegans and vegetarians who say they don’t want to support cultured meat because it’s not vegan/vegetarian?
Vegans and vegetarians preferring not to eat cultured meat doesn’t really matter; the target market is meat-eaters and the aim of cultured meat is to remove conventional animal agriculture products from the market. However, Regev would point out that for vegans and vegetarians who don’t eat meat for health reasons, cultured meat will actually be more healthy. He would also argue that cultured meat is compatible with the spirit of ethical veganism, unlike palm oil for example, which is technically vegan but furthers habitat destruction and causes the deaths of orangutans.
What determines MAF’s focus?
Cultured Meat vs. Plant-Based Alternatives
MAF can’t say definitively that their next project won’t focus on the development of plant-based alternatives, especially if they adopt a format where they persuade universities and companies to invest their own funds rather than outsourcing research to them. In this scenario MAF could run a few projects at once. There’s evidence that cultured meat would be a successful product; polls show 50–60% of the population say they would eat cultured meat, and the percentage is higher among younger respondents. Although MAF wants there to be as many plant-based alternatives on the market as possible, they consider cultured alternatives necessary to stop everyone buying conventionally farmed animal products. Their focus is also influenced by Bogin’s specialization in cellular agriculture; if a future employee’s skills were more geared towards focusing on plant-based alternatives, MAF might also follow this course.
Animal Rights vs. Environmentalism
Regev believes the main difference between MAF and New Harvest is that MAF unabashedly focuses on animals. Some MAF volunteers are environmentalists, but they are first and foremost animal activists. New Harvest focuses on culturing beef and dairy products. While the beef and dairy industries are more detrimental to the environment, the farming of chickens for meat causes more individual animals to suffer. MAF has calculated that every person who drinks dairy is responsible for, at most, one or maybe two dairy cows in their whole life. MAF wants to focus where more animals are being killed, hence they started researching chicken meat and hope to continue with fish.
There is some debate in the EA community around whether it is more important to focus on technological or social change. Why does MAF focus on technological change?
While social and technological change go hand in hand, in pursuing technological change, MAF is focusing on the more neglected area. There are very few organizations dedicated to technological change for animals, in comparison to many dedicated to social change.
Regev would argue that a lot of social change has been made, at least in the Western world. He would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks it’s great that animals are killed for meat. In considering veganism, many people experience a conflict between their compassion and their reluctance to stop eating animal products. You can increase how much some people care, but the success of this varies and some people truly don’t care about the consequences of their actions at all. Cultured meat would lower the incentive to harm animals almost globally. It’s much easier to disagree with killing animals once you are no longer doing so; you see this with people who become vegan for health reasons and then adopt an ethical stance.