The following is a summary of a conversation that took place as part of our evaluation of the Modern Agriculture Foundation. Shaked Regev is the Executive Director of the Modern Agriculture Foundation. Regev spoke with ACE Researcher Jacy Reese on July 19, 2016.
What were MAF’s biggest accomplishments of the past year?
Feasibility Study with Professor Amit Gefen at Tel Aviv University
The Modern Agriculture Foundation began research into the development of cultured chicken meat at Tel Aviv University in 2015. At the time nobody else was conducting this research, though New Harvest has since begun funding research into cultured chicken meat. The research led to the creation of the company SuperMeat.
Funding Similar Companies
The Modern Agriculture Foundation has also worked to support the research of other companies into cultured meat, as they see this as a viable way to end the meat industry. For example, they helped Memphis Meats, who reached out to them for publicity. However, they consider their main accomplishment to be the research they initiated into cultured chicken meat.
Success of SuperMeat Campaign
As of this conversation, the campaign still has about 7 weeks left but is going really well. Its success provides evidence that donors are willing to back the project in advance, which is attractive for potential investors. SuperMeat has attracted dozens of investor requests. Given how little MAF spent on the campaign, the media coverage it received could almost be considered free media for both SuperMeat and for cultured meat in general.
Further Details About The Feasibility Study
The study included wet experimentation with cells and a literature review. MAF can’t give full details as the study is now the intellectual property of SuperMeat, but the study showed it is possible to culture chicken cells in the same way as cow cells and that it is possible to create a chicken breast. This is significantly different from culturing a hamburger as the whole chicken breast has to be cultured in one bioreactor, and the process involves combining fat cells with muscle cells. With a hamburger you can culture small strips of meat and then combine them.
Work was carried out on a plant-based serum and plant-based scaffolds during the study, but again MAF can’t go into detail. The best way to determine what MAF is able to discuss is to look at information published by SuperMeat. Any research made available to the public by SuperMeat, for example on their Indiegogo page, relates to the research started by MAF. There will be a live Q&A with Prof. Gefen on Thursday 11am USA time, which ACE can join to find out more about Prof. Gefen’s research. Although SuperMeat decided to work with a different researcher, their work is based on Professor Gefen’s research.
How does MAF cooperate with other players in the cellular agriculture field?
MAF cooperates with Memphis Meats, and generally tries to promote awareness of other companies. Their broad goal is to see as many cultured and plant-based products on the shelves quickly, cheaply, and with the lowest ecological footprint possible. They aim to educate people both within the animal rights movement and outside it on the importance of cultured animal products, as well as other alternatives such as those being developed by Impossible Foods. MAF thinks alternatives are the most important way of changing people’s attitudes towards animals. However, Regev notes that the burger created by Impossible Foods seems to be more popular with vegetarians. MAF’s primary goal is to create products that meat eaters will consider adequate replacements for animal products.
Memphis Meats contacted MAF through Facebook. For some time MAF has shared all their press releases and directed movement towards the Memphis Meats page, which seemed to be successful. MAF has 30,000 likes on Facebook, which is more support than Facebook pages related to cultured animal products usually have.
Vegan-Friendly and MAF share each other’s videos, and MAF directs traffic to Vegan-Friendly when they’re crowdfunding. VF is directing traffic to SuperMeat now that SuperMeat is crowdfunding. They are associated with the Best Video You’ll Ever See page on Facebook, though just due to overlap in staff, not officially. MAF coordinates with various innovators and other animal related pages. For example, Regev is giving a lecture as part of a fundraising activity for an online vegan supermarket, the profits from which will go to the supermarket.
Is there an umbrella organization in Israel for animal rights advocates?
There is a lot of cooperation, but no formal umbrella organization. The Vegan Congress is held annually, at which there is a lot of cooperation in terms of raising awareness and advocacy. It’s a small circle, which makes cooperation easier. Most activists in Israel are never more than two or three hours drive from each other at most.
What are MAF’s one– to five–year goals, and how would these change with more funding?
MAF is looking into a number of possibilities, but their decisions will be heavily determined by the funding available to them. With significantly more funding they might try to carry out a similar project to SuperMeat to develop cultured fish meat, aiming to reproduce the success of the SuperMeat campaign and make improvements based on what they learned. Fish are killed by the trillions every year. NASA did some research into the possibility of cultured fish, but over a decade ago.
Something that would require less funding that MAF is considering is cooperating with universities on cultured fish research. There are many scientists and engineers within the animal rights movement who are now finishing their bachelor’s degrees and looking to study a masters in the field of cultured meat. They will probably be more motivated than the average masters student due to their ideological drive, and MAF is hoping to offer modest scholarships to these students. They want to work on finding motivated students, increasing publicity for cultured animal products and lobbying for governmental support. They feel their biggest contribution would be bringing an established researcher who isn’t working on cultured meat into the field from elsewhere. Although nothing is finalized, they’re currently considering working with Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) and are looking into the possibility of conducting cultured fish research there.
What is MAF’s fundraising approach?
MAF is primarily funded by smaller, often monthly donations, also they do receive some large donations. MAF supported a lot of initial research out of pocket. They have partial governmental recognition from a body that recognizes NGOs, but they are still working towards getting recognition from the tax administration in Israel. This is usually needed to get larger donations and governmental assistance. They were only eligible for recognition about 3 months ago after having been established for two years and anticipate getting recognition soon. After the SuperMeat campaign, they will try to redirect the enthusiasm of their donors towards a project on cultured fish.
Does MAF encourage graduates to earn to give?
MAF does encourage recent graduates to earn to give, although most people who write to MAF are interested in being scientists. MAF considers earning to give a good principle, and Regev expects to earn to give ultimately as he believes this is probably the way in which he will be able to do the most good in the future. MAF will focus more on encouraging students to earn to give in the future, especially after the SuperMeat campaign, although it is worth noting that wages in Israel are generally lower relative to the US. The campaign has demanded almost all of their time for the past six months. After the campaign is over, they will establish a more consistent routine and reach out to the people who donated, explaining the project was made possible because of research started by an NGO. They also want to demonstrate to people that even small donations to NGOs can get the ball rolling.
What has MAF tried that wasn’t so successful?
MAF tried to get funding for the feasibility study from investors, who were not willing to invest even though the cost of the research was low.
Like New Harvest, MAF relies on funding from individual donors to get research to the point of commercial viability, at which point investors become interested. Up until this point committed activists are vital. Investors would rather pay more later than commit to a project at an early stage.
How MAF used Professor Gefen’s research was decided by Koby Barak, the former director of MAF who now directs SuperMeat, so Regev can’t say precisely what went into MAF’s decision. If MAF were to run a similar campaign, Regev would favor persuading professors with the relevant scientific expertise to enter the field of cultured meat and draw on the funding they can command for cultured meat research. The downside of this would be that universities would then own the rights to the research, whereas in MAF’s collaboration with Tel Aviv MAF owned the research. However, Regev believes it would be a more prudent investment to allow universities to fund and own rights to future research, allowing MAF to focus on the things they do most successfully: providing scholarships to students and using social media to attract investors.
How much time do employees or volunteers dedicate to MAF and how do they spend their time?
Everyone who works at MAF is a volunteer. Regev works the most hours. A lot of this time has been spent working on the SuperMeat campaign. He also spends significant time working on paperwork to ensure donors to MAF can get tax credits and which is a prerequisite for governmental assistance. He is also working with volunteers on improving MAF’s website.
If MAF were to hire someone, what position would they hire for and what salary would they be offering?
If MAF had the financial resources they would hire someone with more experience than Regev has in fundraising, who would work full-time and manage both their next project and the organization as a whole. They have some people lined up and Regev is confident within the next few months they will hire someone. The employee would have a salary of about 25K a year, the median salary in Israel. They’re searching for someone who can put more than a 100% into the organization, head the project, fundraise, and manage volunteers.
Why did MAF focus initially on cultured chicken meat, and why are they planning to work on cultured fish next?
The founders of MAF are all former and current animal rights activists, so they want to bring about as large a reduction in the number of animals slaughtered as possible. Additionally cultured beef was already being researched, by Mark Post who formed Mosa Meat and by Modern Meadow and Memphis Meats (though MAF wasn’t aware of Memphis Meats at the time of their decision).
How does MAF make decisions?
Anyone who pays a membership fee to join the Modern Agriculture Foundation can attend an assembly and participate in choosing a board. The board then nominates a director. As director, Regev makes decisions, but he has to clear decisions above a certain cost with the board. Once a year they hold an assembly, accept new members, and re-elect the board.
Has MAF read the report by the Open Philanthropy Project about cultured meat, which argues that it will be a long time before products which require scaffolding can be produced given the current state of scientific research?
It’s worth noting that the methods developed with MAF’s funding are significantly different from those described in other publications. This will be apparent from what Regev can send ACE, though MAF’s methods are even more different than what can be conveyed through the research he can send.