Kristopher Gasteratos is founder and president of the Cellular Agriculture Society (CAS). He spoke with ACE Researcher Kieran Greig on July 25, 2018. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be CAS’s biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Given that CAS launched only about five months ago, we don’t have a full year’s worth of material to share. Still, considering this short time frame—along with our resources and our budget—we have made significant progress in a few areas.
First, we have been working with The Good Food Institute (GFI) to develop the first-ever university course on clean meat, which will be running in the upcoming academic year at Stanford. We are now looking into running a similar course at Harvard next summer and have had promising conversations with administration there. We hope that by creating clean meat courses at a few top-tier universities in the United States, we can have a catalytic effect on other universities around the world.
Supplementing course development, we are in the process of outlining the world’s first cellular agriculture textbook with a top international publisher. We also recently launched a sister site to our main website. We started this site to meet the challenge of educating the public about how clean meat is produced, why there is a need for it, and what its advantages are. I think it provides an attractive, intriguing, and well-written introduction to the field. The last time we checked, this site was getting 50–100 views per day, which translates into about 20–30 thousand views per year. Our recent partnership with Google Nonprofits and the Harvard Innovation Lab, however, gives us confidence that this will significantly increase in the future due to SEO optimization. Excluding our advisory board, we have been invited for speaking engagements in the Netherlands, London, Chicago, Oxford, San Francisco, and Massachusetts, including multiple university guest lectures at Harvard and University City of London. In collaboration with CAS Partners, we have helped match investors, advisors, and employees to early-stage clean meat startups, and have assisted startups with company naming, design needs, and general counsel.
Finally, and on a related note, we have been working with some of our partners across the cellular agriculture field to design new illustrations visually depicting how clean meat works—both in terrestrial livestock and seafood. We’ll be sharing all of these accomplishments more publicly soon.
How do you measure outcomes from some of CAS’s main activities?
In general, we determine if our activities are successful based on whether they are bringing in substantial investment from companies and whether they seem likely to bring commercial products to the market. This entails keeping in close contact with companies and staying attuned to their needs. Sometimes, we have been able to come up with innovations that our partner companies didn’t necessarily know they needed but that turned out to be useful nonetheless. Other ways of assessing the usefulness of our activities include internal evaluation and consultation with effective altruism partners. It can sometimes be difficult to determine exactly where time and resources should be allocated, since there are so many factors to be taken into account. For example, it could be argued that increasing search engine optimization would have been a more effective use of time and resources than creating a university course like we just did as this could educate a greater quantity of people about cellular agriculture. But on the other hand, the course we’ve created is a flashy new product, which may end up drawing more attention to clean meat and cellular agriculture in both the short and long term. This is the kind of weighing of pros and cons that we have to do when determining which activities to engage in.
What are some of CAS’s major strengths right now?
So far, we have been very cost effective with our budget, stretching every dollar that we have to put it to the best possible use. We started CAS with a budget of less than $10,000. Many of the assets that we now have, such as our website, are worth four or five times the cost that we put into them at the outset. Even now that financial resources are increasing, we remain quite conservative in our spending and we always seek to maximize what we have. Another crucial strength of CAS is the excellent people we have on our staff. Most of our board works on a pro bono basis, and they are all highly invested in the field. Outside our core team, we have many external partners and advisors that are helpful to us on a daily basis. Finally, CAS is at an advantage simply because of the concept that we are trying to promote: cellular agriculture is so clearly valuable that we often joke about how it sells itself. It’s easy to convey just how beneficial it will be, and the science and technology behind it is genuinely interesting.
What are some of CAS’s major weaknesses right now?
One of our main weaknesses at the moment is a lack of funding. Faced with all of our goals for the future, we know that we will need to have more funding in order to accomplish them. Another major weakness is an uneven distribution of workload. In the year leading up to the launch of CAS, I was working 70-80 hour weeks, and the next biggest workload after me was about 5 hours/week. Most people on our staff are working full-time in the clean meat and cellular agriculture industry, but they are only working for CAS on a part-time, pro bono basis. As long as this remains the case, it will be difficult to have strong team unity. We do expect that this will change in the next year, however, as our resources continue to grow and we start to have more of a payroll for the organization.
We also have a system in place that we refer to as “the CAStandard,” which states that anything coming out of CAS has to be of a very high standard/quality. This includes everything from individual presentations and our website, to custom designs/graphics and the effectiveness of our programming. The belief behind the CAStandard is that in the coming decades, the concept of cellular agriculture may face pushback from multiple angles so we believe the field deserves nothing less than excellence to hopefully curb such opposition. In other words, cell ag is a potentially fragile concept and needs to have positive perceptions to ensure its success and impact. Often, when a draft is completed for a certain project, I’ll send it back for multiple revisions until it meets this standard. On the one hand, this can be seen as a strength because it means that we don’t put anything out until we feel it is truly ready, but there are of course downsides to taking longer to roll projects out.
What are CAS’s main goals for the coming year?
In the big picture, we want to advance the field of cellular agriculture as much as possible. We find that because the field changes so rapidly, our goals also tend to change frequently. A big project that has just come up for us, which is currently confidential but will soon be released publicly, is a plan to work with one of the world’s biggest publishers to create the first-ever cellular agriculture textbook. Thinking about the clean meat course we have just designed, this textbook could one day be a great supplement to that initiative. In the long term, a textbook project would benefit us financially and free us from the necessity of finding other donors. On the topic of publications, we are also planning to start an academic journal devoted to cellular agriculture, most likely in conjunction with MIT.
We are also interested in social science research related to cellular agriculture and clean meat. For example, we are currently looking into what clean meat facilities should be called (as opposed to the term “slaughterhouse” for traditional meat production). This might not seem like an urgent issue for the present moment, but one of the reasons we are looking into it right now is that we are simultaneously working on developing a realistic simulation of a clean meat facility. There currently aren’t any high quality stock images to represent cellular agriculture at media releases and presentations to companies. With our simulation, we hope to fill this gap and present a clear, memorable visual of what a clean meat facility could look like. Looping back around to our research into what clean meat facilities should be called, this is why it’s important to look into that now. The name that we use for our simulation could be the name that sticks, so we want to make a careful and informed decision.
We are also looking into creating a second sister webpage, which will be called the “prospects.” Here, we’re planning to link to at least 30 custom web pages where users can go to learn about different problems related to animal agriculture (e.g., animal rights, environmental issues). We hope that this will help spread information about why we should be looking for alternatives to traditional agriculture in the first place, paving the way for people to become more interested in cellular agriculture. In a similar vein, we are also hoping to get started on a podcast. We were attracted to the idea of a podcast because it’s a very cost-effective platform for getting ideas out into the public in an accessible format.
Finally, we are looking into creating a volunteer platform called C-Cubed (CCC): The CAS Collaborative Centre. To generate interest in this program, we’re working with a division of the U.N.
How is CAS’s strategy determined?
We always have conversations about our planning and strategy with the board of directors. We operate as a meritocracy, where I make sure to take everyone’s input into account and then we go with what seems like the best approach from the person who has the most expertise in the relevant area. One of the biggest strengths of our team is that we have people from all different areas of expertise: science, social science, legal, design, and more. At the same time, we can all step into different areas and we’re comfortable doing that on a regular basis. We were all closely involved in creating the sister website, for example. Our relationships with other NGOs are also critical to our decision-making process. As mentioned earlier, we work particularly closely with GFI, and we have benefitted from advice and guidance from veterans of the field like Bruce Friedrich. Just last night, I was speaking with Mike Selden of Finless Foods and getting his feedback and suggestions regarding our upcoming textbook project.
How does CAS’s work fit into the overall animal advocacy movement? Are there important ways in which your work complements, or is complemented by, the work of others?
If our work can bring clean meat products into the mainstream commercial market any faster than would otherwise be possible, this will help to relieve the environmental and ethical issues associated with the meat industry. Obviously, animal suffering is a big one of these, and so our work has a part to play in the animal advocacy movement. As developers and promoters of cellular agriculture, we have the potential to offer the kind of panacea that animal rights advocates are looking for. To this end, we’re working on a lot of novel projects and we subscribe as much as possible to the effective altruism framework to ensure that our work is having maximal impact and that every one of our actions leads to some kind of commercialization.
Something that sets us apart from other cellular agriculture organizations is our engagement with wildlife, outside of the agricultural context. We are currently doing some wildlife regulation work with an organization, related to cellular agriculture and rhino horns. We have also recently been approached by a bear conservation group, to investigate what kind of intervention cellular agriculture might bring to existing efforts to reduce poaching and hunting. Lastly, we plan to engage with Nike on their involvement with cellular agriculture leather, which they have a patent for. At CAS, we interpret “animal agriculture” to encompass more than just the farming of animals for food, but the harming of animals in all contexts: for horns and tusks, for fur, for silk, for leather, and so on. Our aim is to use the biotechnology of cellular agriculture to address all instances of animal agriculture, in any way we can.
What is the maximum amount of funding that CAS could use in the next year?
The minimum that we could use is a low-to-mid 6-figure budget, and there likely wouldn’t be a maximum to what we could use. Something that we are thinking about at the moment is whether or not it makes sense to hire specialists in certain domains such as communications and law. It seems possible that it would be more cost effective to just work with, say, communications or legal agencies when we need that kind of work done, while keeping the core CAS staff itself quite small. Regardless, we would still want to have a core group of people making up the CAS team, especially with some of the big projects that we have coming up. We are hoping to learn a lot from GFI in this area, given how they have been able to scale up their staff to a team of 50 in just a couple of years. So, having funding in the low-to-mid 6-figure range would enable us to hire and retain this core staff and then expand from there. In the future, we could almost certainly benefit from even more funding, but given our success up to now with a conservative budget, it makes sense to stick to that frugality as much as possible and develop slowly rather than try to build too much too fast.
If you have set organizational goals for CAS in the past, to what extent have you been able to meet those goals?
Personally, I often set very ambitious goals—this leads us to push forward on projects very quickly. At the same time though, as mentioned earlier, the field of cellular agriculture is changing and growing so fast that we do often have to adjust our goals to make way for new projects that come up out of the blue. For example, we recently had a deadline coming up for two new custom clean meat illustrations that we had been working with CAS Partners on for a while, but that had to be pushed back in order to accept a last-minute invitation to speak at a conference in Amsterdam. If a deadline is crucial, then we of course won’t push it back, but we do have to maintain a degree of flexibility in our approach to goal-setting.
What changes has CAS made recently? In particular, have you taken any steps to either improve or cut programs that were less effective, in order to make room for more effective programs?
The most significant change we’ve had recently was a change in the composition of our board of directors. We found that a number of our board members were becoming actively involved in the clean meat and cellular agriculture industries in their full-time work, and it is important to us to keep our board as impartial as possible. We are in the process of changing some members of our board, bringing in new people who are less professionally involved in these industries to replace those who have become more involved.
In terms of programming, I recently took some advice from Lewis Bollard, who suggested that it would be helpful to focus on fewer projects. Even though I often want to complete as many projects as possible in a given year, we will be aiming next year to focus on a smaller number and make each of them as good as they can be. There are currently 17 programs listed on our website. We make all of these programs available online in case someone who may be interested in working with us in a particular area comes across our website. This way, they know we run (or at least plan to run) programs in that area and they can reach out to us. But we don’t plan on truly working on all of these right now: the focus for the near future will be specifically on the divisions of high importance with an emphasis on media, design, social science, and legal.
What new piece of evidence, if it came to light, would change your approach at CAS?
We are cautious about associating CAS with animal advocacy because of rumours suggesting that the FDA prefers not to work with clean meat organizations that come from animal advocacy backgrounds. There was some suggestion that GFI was recently unable to attend a large meeting at the FDA because of their association with animal advocacy, so that’s something we want to avoid if possible. While one of the key motivators for CAS’s work is to reduce the suffering of animals, we don’t want to be too vocal about this if it’s going to inhibit our work on cellular agriculture and clean meat. We especially want to preserve our ability to liaise with key government organizations like the FDA.
Could you expand any more on the associations that CAS has with other advocacy groups or individual advocates?
Most of our key partnerships have come up at some point during the interview. One of our central partners at the moment is the publisher with whom we’re collaborating to create a clean meat textbook. We also have a significant partnership with Harvard, initially through Harvard Innovation Labs and now with the Dean of Harvard College. Another partnership is with a division of the U.N., particularly with regard to creating our volunteer platform. Through our work on rhino conservation, we have a Netflix documentary coming out in 2018 or 2019, in collaboration with Juliette Marquis. We also have a number of invaluable advisors, including Peter Singer and Dr. George Church at Harvard, who has been very helpful in giving us access to his extensive network of press contacts. In the industry space, we are revamping our partnership system soon but essentially are partnered with the top cellular agriculture & clean meat companies in the world. In the publishing domain, we have a strong relationship with MIT Press, with whom we plan to work on the cellular agriculture journal once we attain funding and a full-time staff. And of course, we have a crucial partnership with GFI.
Could you expand a bit more on how CAS would spend any additional funds beyond what you expect to raise?
We have so many ideas for how we might be able to benefit the field of cellular agriculture that it seems unlikely we will ever reach a point where we have too much money. One approach we might take to spending excess funds could be extending the contracts of core staff members down the line, so that we can guarantee having key people on our staff for the long term. As mentioned earlier, we also have a large backlog of projects that we would like to undertake if and when we have the time, resources, and funding to do so. For example, one thing that we would love to do is to take the list of 30 educational web pages I mentioned earlier and turn it into a YouTube series of short educational videos. If all else fails, we could always reach out to companies like Memphis Meats, Mission Barns, Finless Foods, and Mosa Meats, and ask them what we can do to help them. This alone would likely be more than enough to spend any excess funds.