Isha Datar and Erin Kim are the executive director and the communications director of New Harvest, respectively. They spoke with ACE Researcher Toni Adleberg on July 25, 2017. This is a summary of their conversation.
What are New Harvest’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Over the past year, our biggest accomplishment has been growing our donor base and our comparative success in fundraising compared to previous years. This growth has allowed us to develop our fellowship program further. In addition, a large proportion of our funding now comes from people who do not have a history of animal advocacy. For example, The Shuttleworth Foundation, focused on creating “a more open world” provided about $275,000 in support in late 2016 and has signed on to do the same for 2017; more recently, the MIT Media Lab gave us about $20,000 to put towards collaborations with their researchers.
Our second greatest accomplishment was narrowing the focus of our programming. A lot of success has come from us having the clarity and confidence to focus specifically on funding research fellows developing open academic research to advance the field of cellular agriculture. Having those clear boundaries has really helped us optimize how to grow in that area and make real scientific progress. We’re excited to be doubling our fellowship from three to six full-time research fellows this fall.
A third accomplishment is seeing the actual progress our researchers have made. Before, we were acting as a science funder—but we weren’t really involved in the “day-to-day” of the research. This blog post highlights our learnings and the evolution of our Research Fellowship program. Now, we are able to see progress as it is happening, guide that progress, make suggestions, and provide a lot of support to our research fellows, and that’s been incredibly rewarding. As a result, we are seeing so much more research come back to us. We now have a protocol that we can share for making a turkey nugget, which we’re really proud of.
We are becoming a more mature organization. We are still relatively young, having been active with full-time staff only since early 2013. We are focused and functioning really well as a team. It has just been a really good year with a lot of clarity and focus.
We are publishing our first annual report and general reader this year. Because it’s our first, it covers everything from 2013 until 2016. It also includes specific information about our activities in 2016. It will be out in the next couple of months and we would really recommend having a look at that. It will be published online and hard copies will be available (for a suggested donation amount) at our conference.
Can you tell us about New Harvest’s fellowship program?
We began in 2017 with four fellows and we are now down to three. The reason we discontinued our fourth project is described in a blog post on our media page. We will have six fellows by the end of the year; their upcoming work is described in this blog post.
The fellowship program is grant-based. Researchers submit proposals to us with their supervisor, a clear budget, a timeline, and a set of objectives. Our review process is robust—an internal review followed by two external reviews, with opportunities for the applicant to work with the external reviewers to submit a modified proposal. Sometimes we invite applicants, but rarely—there are many factors at play when it comes to bringing together an institution, a supervisor, and the applicant who will become the New Harvest Research Fellow. All of this must be attached to a research project that we think is relevant, transformative, and complementary to the projects that the rest of the research community is working on.
We are trying to promote a lot of “cross-talk” between our researchers to make sure that we are minimizing redundancy but also introducing a little bit of redundancy where it might be helpful.
In terms of the research fellows’ experience, once an applicant is approved and becomes a fellow, they join our Slack team and they are able to get in touch with us or any other fellows at any time. We have weekly “Fellow Up” meetings to share progress and seek help, and each fellow uploads a one page summary of their past week of work, creating a log of their progress. We also have retreats twice a year where all the fellows are in one place, face to face. They are able to discuss issues they are working on, talk about how the fellowship program could be improved, or hone other skills such as scientific communications or public speaking.
We help the fellows with a lot of different things. Kate, our research director, may help them design a certain research protocol, or Isha and Erin will often look at what things they are sharing in our research chat and see what might be suitable for social media and sharing. We also train our fellows for speaking engagements to make sure they are able to go out there and be a voice for their own research.
The interest in this program has been steadily increasing. We now get about 5–10 student inquiries per week, asking what potential applicants should study or how students can get involved in cellular agriculture.
How does New Harvest measure the outcomes of their most important programs?
We check in regularly with our research fellows in a weekly meeting called the “Fellow Up.” Everybody reports on the progress of their work in the past week. We have those meetings on Slack, because it is a great way to share—for instance—graphs, images, figures etc., in real time, and for us to have a database of what has been shared and when. It allows us to monitor that progress over time, even though it is qualitative.
It is hard for us to have quantifiable outcomes at this point in time. First, we think that many quantifiable outcomes are problematic measures of success anyway—they can turn to distractions or promote the wrong things—this is for example why we chose to not share our Facebook metrics—they are not a good measure of us achieving our mission. Second, we are more focused on research projects being useful and complete—we know these can be multi-year research questions. They may end up with “negative results,” but those are just as useful as the questions that lead to positive results. Knowing what we can’t do is as important as knowing what we can do. We’ve always been realistic about the state of cultured meat research. We’ve always known that our role as a nonprofit was about answering research questions. We have been very true and on-pace with what we expected to see for the research that we do. We wouldn’t say we have a great test of how we measure progress, but we have a good sense of how we measure the progression of our researchers and the health of their research projects. For everything that can be quantified that we consider meaningful—funds raised, number of research fellows, number of speaking/media engagements, funds given to research, we share these in our donor updates monthly.
On top of our “Fellow Up”‘ meetings, we have also started to do retreats. Because our team (Isha, Erin, and Kate) is based in New York and our fellows are all spread out across various institutions in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, we have started to implement a twice-yearly fellows’ retreat at which we can all have face time. It has been a really great way to check in on how the fellowship program is working and what can be improved. Because the fellows program is such a big aspect of our work, the retreats have been very valuable for us in terms of reflective improvement.
What are some of New Harvest’s long-term goals?
Our strategic priorities are to (1) advance crucial, neglected science in cellular agriculture, (2) establish open, accessible research tools, protocols, processes, and publications, and (3) cultivate and expand the cellular agriculture talent pool.
The very long-term goal is a world where the livestock industry looks like the brewing industry. Animal products like meat, milk, and eggs are brewed in stainless steel tanks. Every brewery (from that of a home brewer to a massive multinational brewery) makes unique products with its own special recipes and methods, and it’s all built on the same basic, open technology. These products are addressing the issues of animal agriculture.
What are some of New Harvest’s medium-term goals?
The medium-term goal is the creation of public, open, research that asks and answers fundamental scientific questions related to cellular agriculture. This is already underway with several projects in our portfolio. We’ve already created and shared exciting protocols and cell cultures along the way. The first project should be complete by May 2018.
We would also like cellular agriculture to be seen as a more credible science, so that it will be supported by establishing science funders. It is only because we have been doing this work for so many years that people are starting to pay attention to it as a meaningful effort; we are gaining support and interest from institutions now. I think our communications and our story have matured, but over the next year to two the needs are in the physical reality of cellular agriculture, as opposed to just generally spreading awareness of the concept.
What are some of New Harvest’s short-term goals?
The short-term goal is to create a viable, well-supported scientific community whose members are well equipped to go on to start or join cellular agriculture laboratories in industry or academia.
Our goal for the next year is to continue to develop our Fellowship Program. Currently, it has been pilot-sized; three people have been very manageable. We are interested to see what kind of work we will need to do in order to scale up the program.
As our fellows graduate, they are amongst the best people in the world to be hired by new cultured meat or cellular agricultural companies. In this way we are contributing to a talent pool that has not existed thus far. We are also contributing to a knowledge pool of protocols, experience, and research that has not been populated before.
At an organizational level, our base of supporters (and people who know we exist) has grown. As we noted before, moving beyond the animal rights space has been really good for us and we would like to continue to do that and to reach new people who don’t know what cellular agriculture is. That should increase our fundraising capacity—which would allow us to direct more funds towards research.
Can you tell us about the New Harvest conference?
Our second conference (which we are hoping will be an annual event) will be taking place this October. It is a bit too early to say whether there will be more people than last year; we definitely hope that will be the case. We are hoping that the conference will be a success and we are working very hard on that right now.
Our conference will highlight a lot of the research, but it’s not focused only on the research. It is an opportunity for everybody in the world who is working on cellular agriculture to come together. It is a good introductory event for people who are just learning about it and wanting to know more. It is a great way for the people working in the community to showcase their work. It serves a lot of different purposes. An important one for us is placing cellular agriculture on the continuum of science that we’re familiar with—highlighting groundbreaking research alongside start-ups and established companies, all working on producing foods from cell cultures. It makes things like cultured meat a lot more familiar.
Can you tell us about New Harvest’s funding?
Our fundraising goals last year have been met and we have been growing very steadily. We expect to raise about $1 million this year. We have budgeted for that, so we already know how to account for it. We’ve designed a program that is very scalable, so next year’s funds will just be used to scale our research program, and to fund the staff required to do that.
We think we could effectively use $2 million next year. We could allot that level of funding to researchers within that time frame, and scale our research program accordingly. We would love to say that we could do a lot with $10 million, but we don’t think we would be able to spend that amount very quickly— choosing the individuals who we support is a decision that we don’t like to rush.
We have always been a very lean nonprofit, with not a lot of overhead or running costs—we focus on what we believe matters the most: research and administering/supporting it properly. That is something that remains very important to us.
Can you describe New Harvest’s staff size and the rationale for this?
We are a small organization; we’ve only filled the most important staff roles. We are prioritizing funding researchers because they are the people who will make direct advances in cellular agriculture. The best thing that we can do is to support those people, rather than create a large overhead in our own staff. We are only useful as long as there are fellows in the lab working on research!
Can you tell us about some of New Harvest’s recent changes?
There have been many, many changes! The most important changes worth noting happened around fall of 2016.
First, we fired our development director because we realized it made more sense to be supporting scientists rather than supporting a larger staff than we needed. We found the development director role wasn’t as meaningful as we hoped. Ultimately, it is the executive director who potential donors want to speak with about development, progress, and future plans. Maybe in the future it will make sense for us to hire someone in that capacity again, but I don’t think that in the near-term it makes a lot of sense for the expense. Development directors are meant to “multiply what they cost,” and it just wasn’t working that way for us. I’ve heard similar stories from many other groups of our size about the development director role.
Our second big change was that we thought we were going to build our own laboratory to do cultured beef research, and we raised funds on that premise but then decided against it. It was too risky to be investing so much money into one researcher instead of hedging our bets and supporting a population of researchers. It also didn’t well serve the goal of populating the cellular agriculture talent pool. Also, the costs of outfitting the lab with necessary equipment were growing outside what we were capable of. In addition, we didn’t have a very sustainable plan for maintaining labs after the year’s long funding commitment would run out. It felt like a big, difficult decision but our community and funders were very receptive, understanding, and in agreement.
We also learned some lessons about what works and what doesn’t work in the Fellowship Program; there were definitely some indicators for why we should not continue our funding of the project of one our fellows. We learned a lot in terms of what to avoid and when to step in when it came to issues in the research.
Can you tell us about New Harvest’s collaborations?
The Fellowship Program is essentially a collaboration with academics and academic institutions. So far, this has been really fruitful for everybody involved.
We have collaborated with the Environmental Law Institute to do research on perceptions of cellular agriculture. That started thanks to our work for the National Academy of Sciences, advising on which biotechnology products cellular agriculture could put on the market.
The MIT Media Lab and the Shuttleworth Foundation have been collaborators on multiple different levels as well, such as providing organizational support and connections to other potential funders as well as to funding opportunities, learning opportunities, and organizations.
We don’t work much with the startups and companies, but we do share their job listings in our newsletter, which has been helpful for them.
We regularly forward contacts and opportunities to cellular agriculture startups or groups like The Good Food Institute. As we’ve become more confident in our approach, we have been sending along the things that don’t fit within our scope to many other people.
What are some of New Harvest’s greatest strengths?
One of New Harvest’s (somewhat surprising) strengths is our distance from animal advocacy. We were surprised to see that this has given us credibility when interacting with universities and Big Ag. When I (Datar) started working with New Harvest in 2013, I felt bad about taking money from animal advocates; I thought their money was already well spent. Instead, our funds should come from science funders. I knew that funding was so limited, and believed that a lot of the animal advocacy work that was being done was meaningful and shouldn’t be replaced by this extremely expensive research. I think we’re doing a good job raising funds from outside of the animal advocacy community, so our lack of experience in the animal advocacy space turned out to be an opportunity, although it took me some time to realize that.
Another strength is that we are very science-minded. Our approach is based on what we understand research to be, and we are very cognizant of the ups and downs associated with research. So as a funder for fellows, we can be appropriately supportive.
It seems obvious, but it is strength that we are a donor-funded nonprofit. We are not beholden to just one large funder, instead we are supported by a relatively small, but supportive base. We now have close to 600 individual donors all around the world. The flexibility that philanthropic funds have afforded us has been invaluable as we molded our activities to the changing cellular agriculture landscape. Also, being a nonprofit, and not being seen as a company with a product to sell is very freeing. It allows us to be open about what we do.
Another strength is the way our organization is structured. We are small, agile, and flexible. For example, the way our Fellowship Program runs, we can expand it when the funds are there, and contract it when the funds aren’t. The reality is that cultured meat and cellular agriculture are absolutely marathons; these are not short-term sprints. So our ability to survive through all kinds of financial scenarios is an enormous strength. Further, as a nonprofit, we believe we should always be focused on the most neglected work. As the cellular agriculture landscape grows and evolves, New Harvest may have to adjust accordingly to fill in the gaps to best move this field forward. Today, that gap is fundamental research and training experts; tomorrow it may be something else.
Our team is incredibly flexible, malleable, and able to do all kinds of different things. We are diverse in that we have a lot of different skill sets working together. We work very well and very efficiently together. It is an organizational culture that is very strong and effective. It did not always feel this way, and we’re happy to be in a good place now.
What are some of New Harvest’s greatest weaknesses?
Although there are benefits, there are also challenges associated with being a nonprofit. There’s sometimes confusion about whether we are a company or not, so there are sometimes confused expectations of what New Harvest “is” or “should be doing.” For example, sometimes people treat us as if we are consultants. They will come to us because we are an easily visible organization in the field and they will want us to advise on some sort of private issue, such as investments. We have also been asked to sign NDAs on new technologies. That’s not our role; it’s actually a bit of a conflict, ethically, with our role. As a nonprofit, it threatens our charitable status and our value on openness. We have been directing those calls elsewhere and trying to emphasize the fact that we are philanthropically supported and not investor-backed, and we have never been investor-backed. We also have a policy of never signing NDAs.
Some have also viewed New Harvest as an organization that can provide support in some material way, by providing a service or grants to other companies. That’s another misunderstanding that’s likely the result of New Harvest’s evolution, rather than any specific communication error.
Finally, the fact that we are not animal advocates can be a weakness as well. Much of our donor base are animal advocates; our “angel” donors from the very beginning have been animal advocates. It’s only recently that we have extended beyond that group. We are extremely grateful for our animal advocate supporters, and we are absolutely in alignment with their goals of making food completely animal-free. However, the fact that we do not specifically tailor our communication to animal advocates could leave them feeling underappreciated. We are not vegan, organizationally, and we do wonder how much money and support we are losing because of that. It might bring us some support from unlikely places, but there could be a cost associated with that too.
Can you tell us about diversity and hiring practices at New Harvest?
Our demographics are coincidental. Identities and backgrounds to not factor into our decision making process.