Bruce Friedrich is the co-founder and executive director of The Good Food Institute (GFI), Clare Bland is GFI’s director of development, and Alexis Vanderhye is GFI’s senior foundations manager. Friedrich, Bland, and Vanderhye spoke with ACE Research Associate Yzar Wehbe on July 17, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be GFI’s major strengths?
Bruce Friedrich: We can follow the standard Effective Altruism model here. First, we know that our targeted problem of animal suffering is clearly important since literally tens of billions of animals are suffering. Second, we know that the problem is tractable given overwhelming evidence from surveys and observations that people make their dietary decisions based on price, taste, and convenience. At GFI, we can design products that meet those needs for people by giving them everything they like about meat for a lower cost. Over time, we predict that plant-based meat and clean meat will become less and less expensive. Third, we know that the issue has been neglected. For the vast majority of our work, GFI is the only organization doing it. Even where there is some degree of overlap, we are doing our work in ways that are clearly distinct from any other group, and we are more than happy to discuss specifics. Finally, we have hired exclusively people who are highly qualified and excellent at their jobs, which means that we are able to implement our programs very well.
Alexis Vanderhye: From the perspective of someone new to GFI, the workplace culture also fosters support and collaboration, which allows team members to excel and meet goals. The people are incredibly kind, helpful, and intelligent.
Friedrich: We hear that a lot. From the origin of GFI, we have been committed to implementing Daniel Pink’s principles from his book Drive. This entails ensuring that people have a lot of autonomy, that they are listened to about their work, that they are challenged but not too challenged, and that they feel they are making the world a better place. We put a lot of effort into creating this kind of positive workplace culture.
What do you consider to be GFI’s major weaknesses?
Friedrich: Because GFI has been growing very quickly, and because of our commitment to autonomy for our staff, it is possible that more centralization would have allowed us to be more effective up to this point. While we have put a lot of work into goal setting and accountability, it could be a lot better. To avoid burnout among our staff, we have been growing our team (to take work off people’s plates) and there has consequently been a degree of the proverbial flying the plane while we’re building the plane, which is not ideal, but we decided it was better than the alternative of not getting the work done. To address this issue and increase centralization, we have recently hired a Strategic Implementation Specialist, who will start in a couple of weeks (note: Mike Fotinatos joined GFI on August 6, 2018). His job will be to ensure that all of our key performance indicators (KPIs) make sense across all departments and all staff members, while also ensuring that those KPIs, our strategic plan, our mission, and our vision are all aligned.
Another possible weakness, which we are in the process of solving, has been failing to maximize talents. Some of our directors, for example, have needed to take care of logistical details like booking travel and accomodations. We are in the process of hiring assistants for each department so that we can free up our scientists to really do science, and our directors to really think strategically, and so on.
What do you consider to be GFI’s three biggest accomplishments from this past year?
Clare Bland: Just to clarify, we are discussing the period between July 2017 and June 2018. There may be some overlap with our last conversation, but this is the time period that we have been thinking about in preparing for this interview.
Friedrich: The first accomplishment is the launch of Dao Foods. This is the third company launched out of GFI, and while it is still too early to say for certain, it looks as though it will be responsible for jump-starting plant-based eating and clean meat research in China. It appears to be raising $20 million for plant-based meat and clean meat in China. Dao’s work is tagged in this Blog from our Managing Director for China, Elaine Siu. Second is the relationships we’ve built and are building. I recently attended a meeting, along with one of GFI’s scientists Liz Specht, with the CEO, CFO, Chair of the Board, and other representatives of one of the biggest food companies in the world to discuss how our work will be disruptive to their business model and what they should do about it. We have similar connections with many of the largest meat and processed food companies in the U.S., and a growing number around the world. These relationships are allowing us to educate these companies and make this a transformation of the meat industry rather than a disruption that they will have to fight back on. Third is the work we’re doing to secure funds for plant-based and clean meat research. For example, the report accompanying the recent Senate Agriculture Appropriations Bill contains supportive references to plant-based and clean meat. This support for plant-based and clean meat influenced the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture in a subsequent call for proposals. As a next step in that area, our science team at GFI will actually be working with scientists to put together proposals for USDA to try to secure funding for plant-based meat and clean meat research and development.
Vanderhye: We have also had a number of communications and media accomplishments. In July 2017, CNN published a feature with Bruce [Friedrich] that reached over 60 million social media users. There have been dozens of other stories reaching millions of people through mainstream publications and other media including The New Yorker Radio Hour, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, and TEDx (Bruce [Friedrich] has given two TEDx Talks in the past year). Most of these pieces very clearly explain plant-based and clean meat, as well as how GFI is advancing these products.
Bland: We have been very proactive about building relationships with the media and giving as much access to information as we possibly can about the immense potential for plant-based and clean meat to transform the global food system. We have not limited this outreach to highly specialized scientific and technical journals, but rather extended it to the full range of mainstream media (TV, radio, online, print, TEDx…) in order to get the conversation about plant-based and clean meat out of a niche space and into the public domain.
Friedrich: On that note, I have also been working with the L.A. Times on an op-ed about clean meat, which they will be publishing along with their own editorial about clean meat. Similarly, GFI wrote a recent cover story for Food Technology, which is the professional association magazine for food technologists, as well as another piece on plant-based and clean meat for Biochemical Engineering. This kind of publicity is helpful in attracting people with cross-applicable skills working in related fields. Through the Biochemical Engineering piece, we actually attracted a world expert in tissue engineering, who will be attending GFI’s Good Food Conference in September.
Have you set specific goals in the past that you have now achieved?
Friedrich: Since the founding of GFI, we have had an iterative goal-setting process, which gets better and better over time. We also do retrospective assessments of our goals, to see how we measured up against them. We have 49 staff across nine programmatic departments, so goal-setting is done a bit differently depending on the department. Goal-setting and analyzing is done on a department level as well as on an individual level. We have just completed our Q2 analysis (i.e., analysis of the degree to which we did or did not meet stated Q2 goals) and Q3 goals, which we would be happy to share with you.
If you were to give just one example of an organizational goal that was specified in the past and that you have now achieved, what example would you give?
Friedrich: Last year, we successfully reached our goal of starting two companies, and we have the same goal this year. So far this year, we have started one company and we have been responsible for another. We have recently started considering companies that start out of our Slack channel and monthly entrepreneur calls in our goal setting and goal assessment. Additionally, the company Terramino Foods started out of a course at UC Berkeley that GFI designed and launched, so that is another possible path for starting companies that we can now consider.
As another example of an organizational goal, Liz Specht recently had a goal to produce a thorough report on the work that she did with regard to costing out clean meat scale up, which was a big part of helping Memphis Meats to fill their Series A. She has developed a 30-page report that demonstrates our belief that clean meat is absolutely commercializable and will be, at full scale, less expensive than industrial animal meat. This report is now going through a pseudo-peer review process.
Have your long-term goals changed since we last spoke? You mentioned that you wanted to support two companies this year, just as you did last year, and then mentioned that you might refine that goal. Could you elaborate a bit more on that?
Friedrich: When we started Good Dot, which is a plant-based meat company in India, and Good Catch, which is a plant-based seafood company, these came about because of conversations with individual entrepreneurs about the kinds of companies they wanted to start and how we could help them get going. Similarly, Terramino Foods, as mentioned above, was an outcome of a class at UC Berkeley, rather than our entrepreneur program. Experiences like these have led us to rethink what it will look like for us to start companies going forward. We want to be starting and supporting companies in a more methodical manner and making sure that we are putting CEOs and CTOs through a proper process, like we do with our staff. We are hoping to fully launch this program in Q4 of this year.
Do you have a formal or standardized way of revising the strategic plan? Do you meet with the board of directors often?
Friedrich: We have been updating the strategic plan every six months, but now that we have all directors in place and strategic visioning has been going for more than a year for all of them, we plan to update it annually going forward. The most recent iteration of the strategic plan includes the best thinking of all the department directors as of August 2018. A year ago, we only had three directors, and now we have all nine. The revision process for the strategic plan involves everyone in the organization working in a Google Doc that focuses on their own department. Then, directors revise the strategic plan with the input of their staff as well as staff from other departments and me. And then I go through that and solidify final versions.
Before we had directors, every new staff member was asked to think through their job description and figure out, within the confines of what we hired them to do, what made the most sense for them to be focusing on. Now that we have directors, this goal-setting process is a lot more streamlined, as people are working with their directors to figure out what goal-setting should look like for them. This happens within the context of the strategic plan, so the changes in people’s individual goal-setting process inevitably results in tweaks to the strategic plan. We prefer to work this way, since it enables individual people within the organization to tell us how we can do things better. That also goes back to our cultural commitment to helping staff to have autonomy in their roles, and also, just recognizes that most staff are the experts in their areas, more so than anyone else, often even more so than their director. For example, we hired somebody to be our lawyer focused on the international path forward for clean meat regulation, and of course she is the only expert on our entire team for that. Similarly, our social media specialist knows more about social media than our director of communications or anybody else on the team, so we want to make sure that they have a lot of autonomy to tell us how we should do things better.
Did you set a fundraising goal for last year? If so, did you meet it?
Bland: Since the founding of GFI in February 2016, we have set ambitious yearly fundraising goals, as well as strong plans to meet these goals. GFI is 100% supported through grants and philanthropy. In 2016, our goal was to raise $2.6 million in philanthropic support, and we raised $2.8 million. Last year, our goal was to secure $4.6 million and we just made it with $4,687,032. This year our goal is to raise $7.5 million, and we are putting the infrastructure and staff into place to make this goal achievable. Until last August, we had a development team of only one person, which we have since increased to six people. This year, we welcomed three incredible frontline fundraisers to the team, including Lexi as our Foundations Manager and two Philanthropy Officers who joined our team within the last month. So, we have been following a very structured growth plan for our development team to be able to maximize our revenue from all streams (individuals, grantmaking foundations, annual campaigns). We have been helped by again securing ACE’s Top Charity rating.
Besides the growth of the team, and the increase in fundraising goals, is there anything that has differed significantly from your funding situation of the past two years?
Bland: One thing that we are really focused on this year, made possible by the growth in our team, is examining how best we can reach additional audiences and new constituencies: people whose primary cause area may not be animal welfare. GFI’s work to achieve long-term, permanent systemic change in the global food production system impacts many cause areas. Today, it is still true that the majority of our donors come from the animal protection and animal welfare movements, but we are seeing traction in reaching out to donors who care primarily about other harms from industrial animal agriculture, e.g., the environmental impacts, the human health impacts, and the lack of sustainability and how we will feed a global population of 9.7 billion people by 2050.
What is the maximum amount of new additional funding that you think you could use effectively in the next year?
Bland: We feel strongly that our programs are infinitely scalable. As a 100% remote organization, we do not have the constraints of physical headquarters and we have the ability to grow as opportunities present themselves. If we meet our fundraising goal this year of $7.5 million, that should allow us to expand to approximately 70 U.S. team members in 2019, plus roughly 20 overseas. This would involve a significant expansion of our international programs, particularly in India, China, Israel, and Brazil.
Friedrich: I had coffee this morning with a Canadian Member of Parliament, where I told him that we believe governments should be putting billions of dollars into plant-based and clean meat research and development. So our primary policy goals in the abovementioned places around the world are to convince those governments that since plant-based and clean meat are the answers to problems like food security, food safety, antibiotic resistance, and climate change, they should be allocating funds to plant-based and clean meat out of their current pools of research money. The Canadian MP I spoke to suggested that I gather Canadian scientists working on tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, or other fields related to clean meat research, and then discuss with them what we would do with a small pool of government funds, roughly $5 million. We have already secured $3,000,000 in philanthropic funding (separate from funds raised to support GFI’s core operations) to grant to the most promising projects the areas of plant-based and clean meat research. Harvard or Texas A&M would also likely set up a plant-based meat research center if we went to them, but a research center at a university is a $30-60 million endeavour. I don’t think we could sustainably scale up our programs much more quickly than we currently are, so that means our $7.5 million goal this year for programs and $9 million next year for programs. But in terms of putting money into high-impact plant-based and clean meat research projects, it really is the case that we could spend hundreds of millions of dollars on very high impact projects (research institutes at top universities), and even that would not be enough. Billions are spent annually on clean energy; we should be doing the same with clean protein.
What is the maximum amount of new additional funding that your GFI programs alone could use effectively in the next year?
Friedrich: For staff and programs — so other than the plant-based meat and clean meat research funding opportunities outlined above — probably somewhere in the order of $9 or $10 million. But if someone came to us with $20 million, we would feel very comfortable ramping up our programs as quickly as we could and redirecting the other money into our competitive grant program for plant-based and clean meat research. This would significantly accelerate these technologies in ways that would have a colossal positive impact.
Bland: We can envision a similarly-sized organization in all of the countries and regions around the world that we mentioned earlier, and this would still barely scratch the surface of the true potential for us to really impact the food system permanently there. So beyond the $9–10 million that Bruce [Friedrich] mentioned as an open benchmark, we really do feel very strongly that the sky is the limit in terms of what we can take, especially with an eye to expanding internationally.
Friedrich: The funding levels that we are talking about right now gets us one or two people in each of these non-US regions, but there certainly is potential to have dozens of people replicating everything that we are currently doing at GFI in other places around the world.
Is there a decision you have made recently that you have not been able to follow through on?
Friedrich: The decision to reconstitute the way we start companies is one that we have not followed through on yet. I would have expected us to have made more progress by now on generating a coherent plan and beginning to recruit CIOs and CTOs for the companies that we want to start. We know what the first two companies are going to be, and our goal was to start the recruiting process in Q2 of this year, but we likely won’t begin recruiting until Q4 of this year. The primary reason for this delay is our team members having way too much to do. Our prioritization of a healthy workplace culture and ensuring that people are feeling supported and dealing with a manageable workload. On our anonymous staff surveys that we complete every six months, we do extremely well on almost all metrics (taken from Harvard Business Review re: what makes for a satisfying vocational life), so for organizational culture and for people feeling that “my manager cares about me” and “my coworkers care about me” and “my job expresses my life’s mission” and all of the important stuff, we do great — other than people feeling like “my workload is manageable,” which is still not where we want it to be; a lot of people still struggle there, and we need to get them help by thoughtfully increasing our staffing levels.
What changes have you made recently to improve your programs? For example, have you taken steps to improve programs that you’ve deemed less successful? Or, have you cut off any of those less successful programs to make room for more successful ones?
Friedrich: Going back to the previous answer, while I am excited about where Good Catch, Good Dot, and Dao Foods are, our method for starting companies was definitely something where we had to step back and stop doing what we were doing in order to spend time figuring out how to do things differently (but that’s not to say that our programs were unsuccessful). Our hiring process has been improved as well. We now have three people doing full-time recruiting, screening, and hiring, which is something we used to do just on a rolling basis [after which the hiring staff came to BF and proposed of a different way of hiring which involved, among other elements, setting end dates for job postings]. Consequently, we now have a more methodical hiring process with distinct stages, which has been working fantastically well. A third thing that we did, to ease people’s intense workload, was deciding that we would hire assistants for each of the departments to help. To keep the assistants happy we decided to give them some research tasks and some higher order tasks that will be mentally challenging to them, but to also allow our specialists to focus on their specialty. What we were doing was that we sort of had a Gandhian philosophy of work (Gandhi ran the ashram but also cleaned the toilets), and we’ve moved away from that to something more professional, basically to preserve staff sanity and avoid burnout.
Bland: Another significant change has been the ramp up in our International Engagement team. A year ago, GFI’s managing director in Brazil, Gus Guadagnini, was the only member of our international engagement team. Nicole [Rawling], our director of international engagement, started in July of last year, and we now have team members in India, Israel, and most recently China.
Which piece of evidence would most change your organization’s approach to helping animals, if any?
Friedrich: If evidence indicated that clean meat cannot actually reach price parity with industrial meat, this would significantly change GFI’s approach. There are four critical technology elements across clean meat, so if it turned out that bioreactors couldn’t scale up to 20,000L while still doing cell multiplication effectively, then that would be a problem. Or it it turned out that food grade media ingredients could not be scaled up to allow media to drop in cost to the degree that we believe is possible, then that would be a problem. There are a variety of ways in which evidence might indicate that clean meat is not going to be cost competitive with industrial animal meat. That would radically change what we are working on, as we would shift exclusively over to plant-based meat: if it seemed that clean meat was going to remain prohibitively expensive forever (if it was just going to be more expensive, we might still put resources there, but probably fewer).
It is worth nothing on this point that when GFI first hired scientists in June 2016, I told them that we were completely agnostic about whether we worked on plant-based or clean meat. I told them that we wanted to do whatever would be most effective. If it had turned out that clean meat seemed unlikely to be cost competitive with industrial animal meat, then that would have been totally fine. But the more our scientists dive in, the more optimistic they become about clean meat’s likelihood of being significantly less expensive than industrial meat as it scales up.
How does GFI’s work fit into the overall animal advocacy movement? Are there important ways in which it supports or complements the work of other advocates?
Friedrich: Yes, GFI’s work both supports and complements the work of others in the animal advocacy movement. As I mentioned earlier, there is nobody doing the vast majority of what we do. To the degree that animal advocacy groups are working on animal welfare campaigns, they are driving up the price of meat in ways that will make plant-based and clean meat cost-competitive in the marketplace. The work of these groups complements our work because while they are advocating for diet change, we are making their diet change advocacy far more likely to be successful by creating the products that will allow people to make those changes much more easily. Right now, 97–99% of Americans are not vegan, and that means that the extreme majority of people, nearly all of whom would likely say that they care about animals, are living in vast cognitive dissonance wherein they are paying for felony-level cruelty. I really agree with Tobias Leenaert who first put on my radar that by creating plant-based and clean meat, we are creating a world in which animal liberation can come to fruition more quickly because people will not be supporting cruelty in their daily lives. If you are involved in cruelty every day by eating meat from slaughtered animals, it is going to be a lot harder to say that animals have interests that matter, that animals feel pain the same way that we do, that they have the same five physiological senses that we do, and that we need to recognize that and stop drawing this artificial barrier between human and nonhuman beings [who are treated as objects]. The work that we are doing will replace the primary source of cruelty that people are perpetrating, which will allow them to be a lot more open to animal liberation arguments writ large.
Is GFI engaged in any collaborations, whether formal or informal, with other groups in the animal advocacy movement?
Friedrich: As mentioned earlier, our corporate engagement team has really strong relationships with a lot of the biggest meat companies in the world. But one of things that we want to do is help corporations that are marketing plant-based products to ensure that those products are successful. So we also have pretty good ties to The Humane League, Mercy For Animals, Animal Equality, Compassion Over Killing, and The Humane Society of the United States’ Farm Animal Protection team. These are mostly at the corporate engagement level, although we also sued the state of Missouri, working with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, for legislation that they just passed having to do with plant-based meat labeling. Internationally, we are very helpful to a group called Food Frontier in Australia and New Zealand. I’m on their advisory board, and we gave them our strategic plan and all of our development documents and have helped them with fundraising. We also have a similar relationship with ProVeg in Europe. So there is significant GFI overlap with ProVeg in Europe, and complete GFI overlap with Food Frontier in Australia, which is why we’re not doing anything in Australia other than supporting them, and then with ProVeg, we don’t have anybody in Europe at the moment, and we’re tight with them such that we believe that we’ll be able to minimize any sort of overlap of activities.
How much time is allocated to professional development of staff?
Friedrich: We do not have a precise time allocation. Our human resources director and general counsel spent a week at a conference focused on culture, human resources, and hiring. Our policy director also recently spent two days at a management training seminar and brought that seminar to the entire team. We have two staff retreats per year, and at the last staff retreat, we brought somebody in to do public speaking training. Although we don’t have anything codified in terms of professional development, one of the things we talk about in new employee orientation is professional development and our belief that professional development is a phenomenal investment for GFI. Everyone who has made a proposal for professional development at GFI has been approved.
Bland: Our general counsel and director of finance is a lawyer by profession, and she has a certain number of units of continuing legal education that she needs to take each year in order to maintain that status, and we actually have several professional lawyers on staff. As another example, we are also implementing a new organization-wide constituent relationship management (CRM) system, and two members of our operations department, including our operations director, are taking several days in the fall to be fully trained in that system, so that they can bring everything back to the rest of the organization.
Does GFI provide employees with a workplace that has policies and protocols to address harassment and discrimination?
Friedrich: Yes, we adopted the discrimination policy that was put out by Tofurky as their suggested best practices. In fact, we maintain a higher standard than what they suggest. For example, they suggest that male and female staff members should be discouraged from sharing a room, and we don’t allow that at all. The one component that they suggest and we do not currently have is an anonymous reporting system. We spent some time shopping around for one of these and we have now signed a contract to get one, for $3,000/year. That should be fully implemented and our staff should be trained on it in the next three or four weeks. Otherwise, our anti-harassment policy is identical to what Tofurky suggested.
Bland: We also ran an anti-harassment and discrimination staff training session as part of the onboarding process for everyone, and we recently published a blog post stating our commitment to an absolutely harassment- and discrimination-free workplace and outlining the processes that we have in place. Our employee handbook also goes into a lot of detail about the support and resources that team members can access.