Bruce Friedrich and Clare Bland are the co-founder/executive director and the development director of The Good Food Institute, respectively. They spoke with ACE Research Associate Kieran Greig on August 9, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are the Good Food Institute’s three biggest accomplishments of the past year?
Choosing only three accomplishments is difficult, as the Good Food Institute (GFI) has done a lot of work in the areas of science, technology, innovation, and policy.
Last year, they were the genesis for the founding of a plant-based meat company in India and a plant-based fish company, which are both succeeding and moving into the process of competing with industrialized animal agriculture. The two companies have had very successful initial fundraising rounds.
GFI hosts monthly entrepreneur calls and a Slack channel focused on plant-based and clean meat entrepreneurship; two companies started based on those endeavors. One of these companies is presently under the radar, but it has been accepted to a very prestigious startup accelerator in the Bay Area and has raised more than $1 million. The other is successfully marketing plant-based meat to schools.
One of GFI’s senior scientists, Liz Specht, has given presentations at some of the largest venture capital firms in the world, such as Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Andreessen Horowitz, and DFJ. Her speaking engagements also included the first-ever clean meat panel at the Institute of Food Technologists annual conference. Furthermore, she talked about clean meat’s path to commercialization at Y Combinator. Through her speeches, Specht has been able to convince multiple venture capital firms that the clean meat space will enter the commercialization and profit phase within a reasonable timeframe. The presentations have also contributed to GFI becoming the global authority on the commercialization of clean meat.
Another accomplishment is the organizational capacity building that GFI has achieved in a short time, after having been launched officially in February 2016. One year ago, they had only eight staff members. Now they have 23 employees, three of whom joined the team in August 2017. They plan to expand to 38 staff members, hiring more specialists (in line with their strategic plan). The plan was formulated last summer and serves as a roadmap to help the organization prioritize among the many opportunities that have come up. GFI recently hired their directors of communications, international engagement, corporate engagement, and operations—as well as a general counsel/director of finance. The director of science and technology will join the team in late September. Until recently—while the full slate of directors was being recruited—most staff reported directly to Friedrich. The recent hirings were part of GFI’s ongoing planned growth so that the organization can deliver on the goals and objectives detailed in their strategic plan.
One of GFI’s greatest strengths is their ability to attract specialists who would not work in animal protection otherwise. Their team of highly skilled experts often impresses people they interact with.
Part of GFI’s work is fostering and advancing innovation, which involves collaborations with startups. They have helped startups with naming exercises, pitch deck design, media strategy, scientific focus, and more.
However, GFI is careful not to appear to take too much credit. Rather, they want to have a positive working relationship with startups, recognizing that there is more at stake for the founders of startups than there is for GFI.
How does GFI measure success?
Measuring success has been a very iterative process. Since last year, every staff member has had quarterly goals that map to GFI’s mission and strategic plan, and all accomplishments are tracked against these goals. Four times per year the most recent quarter’s activities and accomplishments are analyzed and the plans for the following quarters are reevaluated and adjusted as necessary. Once the hiring process has slowed down, Director of Operations Reannon Branchesi will make sure that both the quarterly goals and the tasks and projects processes are more structured with specific key performance indicators for all.
What are GFI’s greatest strengths?
GFI’s strategic plan is very strong and their team is highly qualified. Organizationally, they are committed to ensuring that all staff members are capable of autonomy and self-actualization. To that end, Executive Director Bruce Friedrich involves everyone in the decision-making process. Each director is considered the expert in their respective field and is given the autonomy to design and execute projects, within the framework of the strategic plan and their/their team’s quarterly goals. This leadership style is inspired by Daniel Pink’s book Drive and various articles from The Harvard Business Review, which have found that autonomy and self-actualization are key to a satisfied workforce. GFI considers themself among the best organizations regarding these two variables, in both the for-profit and the nonprofit sectors.
Another strength is the uniqueness of GFI’s mission, which was explicitly designed with the principles of effective altruism in mind. Everything they do is completely complementary to the work of other animal protection organizations, such as Mercy For Animals, The Humane League, and Animal Equality.
The culture of philanthropy they have built is a further advantage. Every staff member is fully aware of and appreciates that their work is only possible because of their supporters. Program staff are actively involved in building and maintaining strong relationships with supporters. Detailed “Monthly Highlights” reports ensure that donors and potential supporters are up to speed on GFI’s latest work and feel connected to their mission.
What are GFI’s greatest weaknesses?
At the moment, GFI’s biggest weakness is that many staff positions are still open. At the time of our interview, three of GFI’s nine director roles were not yet filled, so many staff members still report directly to Friedrich.1 Consequently, he has so far spent too much time on project details, rather than focusing more on strategic direction. Additionally, Friedrich stressed that he does still spend significant time focused on strategic direction, KPIs, etc. with both directors and staff.
Many of GFI’s weaknesses are typical to startups, where, metaphorically, the plane has to be built while flying. For example, their standard operating procedures are not fully implemented and the quarterly reports are not uniform yet. Being too involved in the project work, Friedrich cannot take a step back and work on the strategic level to the extent he wishes to. And because some director positions remain unstaffed, the organization is not as efficient as it could be.
What is the hiring process like at GFI?
It is GFI’s top priority to recruit the strongest possible candidates for each staff role. It has been difficult to find suitable candidates for some of the open positions. After employing a couple of different recruiters without success, they decided to temporarily dedicate one full-time staffer to this task, in addition to having their director of operations focusing on it part-time. GFI’s thinking about the hiring process is heavily influenced by Laszlo Bock’s book Work Rules!, which states that often the best candidates for a job are not currently looking for work, so finding them may be a challenge.
This year, GFI has already hired 13 new staff members and they consider all of them very impressive (see www.gfi.org/our-team to review their biographies). GFI currently has highly qualified candidates for Academic Research Advisor and Science Innovation Specialist. There are also some additional positions on which they are refocusing now that more directors are in place (including Research Analyst, Environmental Scientist, Senior Video Production Specialist, and Public Relations Specialist).
At the beginning of the year, GFI advertised all vacancies on their website, but they were soon overwhelmed by the number of applicants. For that reason, they decided to fill the leadership positions first and then involve them in the hiring process within their programmatic areas.
GFI has a rigorous recruitment process because they want to find the best person for each position. They look for candidates who not only have high qualifications but also fit with the organization’s culture and mission. This ensures that new employees will feel satisfied in their roles for a long time. Applicants often report that they have never encountered a recruitment process so rigorous before. After reviewing résumés and cover letters, the team picks the candidates they think might be a good fit for the position. Next, applicants have to answer about ten questions relating to both culture and role and complete three writing exercises concerning their prospective jobs. These exercises have no word limits and so they can be extensive. Step three is the “working interview.” Each applicant signs up for a four-hour time slot in which they are asked to work on three or four questions or exercises. After reviewing all answers, GFI performs oral interviews with the applicants who seem most promising. The hiring process also includes a general mental ability test early in the process, because analysis suggests that this is the most important factor for employee efficiency and that it is important as a diversity tool—it eliminates unconscious bias. There have been cases when GFI applied the complete recruitment process until the end but did not hire anybody, as it is GFI’s policy to only employ spectacular candidates who will be an exceptional cultural fit.
What are GFI’s goals?
Every staff member has specific quarterly goals. The goal-setting process is iterative, so all goals for 2017 that were outlined one year ago have undergone changes. Goals are reevaluated every quarter.
When the current round of hiring is nearly complete, Director of Operations Reannon Branchesi will work with all directors to implement more structured goal analysis and tracking. To that end, GFI will establish KPIs as “uber goals.” Every department sets between one and three KPIs and all goals will track to these KPIs.
Can you tell us a bit about GFI’s strategic plan?
GFI reevaluates their strategic plan at least twice per year. Every newly hired employee reviews the strategic plan during orientation, in order to make sure that it aligns with their strategic thinking. Every staff member is encouraged to make suggestions.
GFI’s board focuses on strategic governance. The organization sends all strategic documents, monthly reports, and quarterly goals and outcomes to all board members for feedback. Most board members also participate in GFI’s quarterly strategic meetings, where many of these issues are discussed. Although board members can be as involved as they want, GFI’s commitment to autonomy and self-actualization requires that the staff decides for themselves what to work on and how to proceed, while the board focuses on strategic governance instead of being involved in everyday decision making. However, staff and board communicate openly and feedback is encouraged.
What is GFI’s role in the animal advocacy movement?
GFI currently has a unique role in the animal protection movement, but they hope that this will change in the future with the addition of new groups with focuses that complement existing organizations. They work closely with complementary organizations to make sure that resources are allocated as effectively as possible and also to minimize duplication of efforts.
Animal advocacy is typically consumer-focused, concentrating on individual behavior change or corporate welfare reforms. In contrast, GFI aims to transform industrialized animal agriculture by harnessing the power of markets and technology to create products that replace those from animal agriculture. When choosing a food product, the primary factors that influence consumers are taste, price, and convenience. GFI’s aim is to create plant-based and clean meat products that become default choices because they are delicious, cost-competitive, and are readily available for purchase by all consumers. GFI is the only organization focusing on the commercial aspect of alternatives to conventional meat, egg, and dairy products.
Some overlap with other organizations exists in the area of corporate engagement. However, GFI focuses on chain restaurant and chain grocery stores for protein diversification, while other organizations work with these companies to improve farmed animal welfare.
Furthermore, GFI board member Josh Balk is the senior vice president for food policy in the farmed animal division of HSUS and Friedrich himself worked as a farmed animal advocate for many years.
When will we have cost-competitive clean meat products?
Companies like Clara Foods and Perfect Day will produce acellular products like dairy and eggs in a couple of years, though it will probably take between five and seven years for them to become cost-competitive. We won’t have collagen food products for a while, because it is much more profitable for cultured collagen companies (like Geltor) to focus on pharmaceutical uses for their products.
GFI is working hard to identify venture capitalists and governments who recognize the value of clean meat and plant-based meat as solutions to global problems that governments care about. It seems plausible, for example, that a relatively small number of people in the Chinese government could steer billions of U.S. dollars into clean or plant-based meat development. Considering that China faces an antibiotics crisis, a food security crisis, and a water crisis, working for clean or plant-based meat would be a valuable solution for them. The country has also become the global leader on climate change, after the United States dropped out of the Paris Climate Agreement. China could commit to clean meat as a measure supported by many agricultural economists to fulfill its obligations under the Paris accord.
On the current trajectory, 100% clean meat products will be available in four to five years and cost-competitive in about a decade, according to Mark Post and Uma Valeti, who know most about the technical aspects. In a recent article in Nature Biotechnology, Memphis Meats announced that they expect to have “amalgam products” (plant-based meat flavored with clean meat ingredients) in a couple of years.
However, many unpredictable factors could accelerate the development, such as a billionaire who considers clean meat essential to climate change mitigation. For that reason, GFI works on educating governments and private citizens who care about climate change, food security, water security and other issues, in order to steer large amounts of money into both clean meat and plant-based meat development.
Last year, GFI’s goal was to secure 2.5 million U.S. dollars in philanthropic gifts and grants. They surpassed it slightly, raising 2.7 million U.S. dollars last year, and they hope to raise 4.66 million U.S. dollars in 2017, a 56% increase in their budget. This fundraising goal was motivated by their plan to staff up to 38 employees by the end of the year. In a given year, GFI aims to spend the amount it raised during the previous year, which adds more stability and security to the organization. From 2018 until 2021, they are currently projecting a more modest budget increase of 20% annually. However, that plan might change, depending on new opportunities that come up.
GFI has nearly unlimited room for funding; they are the only organization working in their area, and every staff member has a task list that could last for many years. Even in the short term, every single department could be expanded significantly while remaining highly effective.
GFI Senior Policy Specialist Joanna Grossman has been lobbying to include language in the Farm Bill and Appropriations Bill to build research centers on both plant-based meat and clean meat, funded with $10 million each. GFI Scientific Foundations Liaison Erin Rees Clayton, has identified about one dozen universities where it would make sense to have such research centers (12 for clean meat and 14 for plant-based meat). GFI works on a number of possibilities to get those centers funded, preferably through an alumnus or the government. However, if somebody offered them $10 million (or $2 million/year), they could fund at least one of the research centers themselves.
Apart from these projects, there are many parts of the strategic plan they could fast-track if their fundraising goal is surpassed considerably. Alternatively, they could use additional funding for general capacity building. In fact, the team has thought about rapid strategic growth a lot recently, because they applied for the MacArthur Foundation’s “100 & Change” grant for which they created a plan on how they would spend $100 million on programmatic expansion over six years.
After having grown very rapidly during the past 18 months, GFI now plans on a more conservative annual growth in part to ensure they can maintain focus on strengthening relationships with their donors while continuing to identify and inspire/reach new constituencies of supporters. They consider taking care of existing donors to be crucial for sustainable growth.
Can you tell us about some recent changes at GFI?
In their innovation department, GFI has considerably changed the way they launch companies. Previously, people interested in starting a company would come to GFI and then choose from GFI’s list of “white space companies.” The process worked extraordinarily well with the first two companies GFI helped launch. However, they decided to proceed more methodically in the future, to avoid the possibility of a company being launched by an inadequate candidate. From now on, GFI will choose the three white space companies they are most excited about and look actively for qualified entrepreneurs to start them. To that end, Business Analyst Brianna Cameron will create business plans for these three companies. GFI will then advertise for and hire a CEO and, if necessary, a CTO for the company. In this way, they can ensure that the best possible people are driving the companies forward; not just whoever happens to come to them first. In the area of innovation, this is probably the most important change they have implemented.
In the policy area, GFI plans to establish a consortium of clean meat experts. They hope to pull together scientists who can help with the regulatory approval process. Starting the consortium requires them to address environmental, health, and global poverty groups. However, it became clear very quickly that they do not have the proper life-cycle analyses to have the sorts of conversations they need to have with those groups. For that reason, GFI decided to put the entire program on hold and are currently recruiting an environmental scientist in order to have effective conversations with environmental groups in the future.
Similarly, the corporate engagement department is constantly changing—testing what works and what does not—and working to improve their operations.
Can you tell us about diversity at GFI?
GFI aims to have a recruitment process that is as anonymous as possible, to prevent latent biases from manifesting themselves in the hiring decisions. As described above, personal conversations only take place very late in the hiring process, a decision that was taken in part to reduce the effects of biases. GFI encourages evaluators to score application materials anonymously. Answers to different questions are read and scored independently, so that early answers cannot affect the scores of subsequent answers.
They are also very interested in diversity theory, which, among other things, recommends the general mental ability test they have implemented.
Concerning diversity during outreach, they have not done as much as they would like to do. They considered advertising that is focused on people of color (POC) but decided against it, because it would have been four to eight times more expensive than general advertising, which probably also reaches all the people to whom POC-focused advertising is directed. Innovation Coordinator Cameron Meyer Shorb has met with Encompass founder Aryenish Birdie and board member Lisa Feria to discuss diversity strategies for GFI. Encompass is a new group focused on diversity in the animal movement.
As the team page on their website indicates, they have not included diversity practices to the extent they would like to. On the other hand, GFI has been very successful when it comes to gender equality; seven of the eight directors recruited to date are women.
What is the staff morale and work climate like at GFI?
GFI’s employee manual includes policies to address harassment and discrimination. A strong statement on GFI’s commitment to diversity can also be found on their jobs page. Every new employee receives anti-harassment training as part of the orientation process. Supervisors participate in an additional, separate training that is two hours long. It is required by law in California, but even though GFI is based in D.C., they require it of their supervisors.
Because they are a remote workforce, GFI takes many steps to ensure organizational cohesion. All staff members file so-called “weekly reports,” which take only five or ten minutes to complete. In them, they list up to three things that happened during the past week that they want their coworkers to know about. Staff are also encouraged to include a “Stepback” reflection about what works, what doesn’t, and what the organization or the respective area is currently concerned with. Occasionally, the reflection component is more directed, concerning issues like work-life balance or tools and practices to increase productivity. One of their senior advisors is a psychologist who has led discussions on work-life balance at both retreats the organization has had.
GFI also implemented “monthly reports” to increase cohesion by making sure that everyone within the organization knows what everyone else is doing. They also use them as a transparency measure to let donors, supporters, and the public know what they are working on.
In addition, Friedrich has quarterly meetings with every staff member, which can take up as much time as staff wants and consist of three focused questions: (1) “How happy are you, on a scale of 1-10?” (2) “If you could realistically change something about your job, would you, and if so, what?” and (3) “Is there anything I could do to make you happier?”
Friedrich has always encouraged open communication. Despite his full schedule, he always finds time if an employee wants to get feedback on something or brainstorm a topic. This open culture is valued by staff members.
All these measures are implemented because of their understanding that people are unhappy with their jobs if they lack the possibility for self-actualization and if they have the feeling that they do not know what is going on in their workplace. GFI tries to find ways to prevent the creation of organizational silos and gives staff members a lot of autonomy about their own work. This way they hope to foster optimum job satisfaction.
Specifically designed to maintain and enhance staff morale and team cohesion are their bi-weekly “happy hours,” at which staff gets together on Zoom to chat about non-work-related topics and to bond. Attendance is optional but these virtual happy hours have strong participation. This is in addition to the weekly Monday morning staff meeting, at which the staff discusses overarching topics that impact the whole organization. Each Wednesday the whole team also meets to learn from colleagues about their latest program work. In rotation, each program department presents their latest work followed by discussion.