Clare Bland is the director of development, Bruce Friedrich is the Executive Director, and Alexis Vanderhye is the Senior Foundations Manager of The Good Food Institute (GFI). They spoke with ACE Senior Researcher Greg Boese on July 17, 2019. This is a summary of their conversation.
What do you consider to be GFI’s three biggest accomplishments from the past year?
Friedrich: If we asked our Corporate Engagement Department, or our International Associate Director, or our Policy Director this question, they’d all be able to come up with three extraordinarily impactful things that their specific department accomplished. There’s just so much happening across a variety of program areas, and it’s all activities that only GFI is doing.
If I have to pick three, I think our competitive research grant program is certainly one for me. Two visionary donors generously gifted a total of $3 million for our inaugural grant cycle: $2 million for open-access plant-based meat research, and $1 million for open access cultivated meat research. We awarded 14 grants in the last grant cycle. Eleven of them were to scientists who are for the first-time applying their expertise specifically to advancing the fields of plant-based meat and cultivated meat. It’s a relatively small pool of money relative to what we’re up against, but it inspired a tremendous amount of interest and enthusiasm among scientists. These scientists could be tissue engineers, recombinant protein scientists, plant biologists, or biochemical engineers—we aim to let them know the degree to which their skills can be used for plant-based or cultivated meat to essentially transform industrialized animal agriculture globally.
The grant program really did create a terrific amount of enthusiasm and excitement in the scientific world. Nature Magazine wrote about it: They mentioned that in the last 20 years, a million dollars has gone into cultivated meat open-access science. So literally with one grant round, we doubled the amount of funding in that space, and it was also the first-ever infusion of money for plant-based meat. As an indication of the program’s global reach, four of the fourteen grants were awarded to researchers based in the U.S., three went to Canada, two went to Europe, two to the U.K., two to Israel, and one to China. So it really got scientists worldwide excited about the space.
I’m going to stay in the “get scientists excited” category for the second of my three because one of the things that is a pain point for companies in the plant-based or cultivated meat space is hiring good scientists. In our conversation last year, I think we flagged having the cover story in Food Technology about cultivated meat and food technology. Food Technology is a publication of the Institute of Food Technologists, which is the largest professional body of food technologists in the world. In the current issue, we have a seven-page spread about plant-based proteins, non-animal cell culture (including fungi and algae), and recombinant proteins. GFI has built a strong reputation as a thought leader in this space. If you look at our monthly reports, every single month our scientists are speaking to key audiences of tissue engineers and biochemical engineers and so on. In June, one of our scientists, Elliot Swartz, was at the International Society for Stem Cell Research. He delivered three different poster presentations, all of which were very well received. Month after month, our scientists are at all of these key events, raising awareness of and excitement about this space, in addition to all the publications that we are generating.
The third one is getting the GFI affiliates up and running. We now have impressive managing directors and staff in Brazil, India, Asia Pacific, and Europe. Each of our affiliates has already achieved significant progress. Our Brazil office was a key part of launching a plant-based burger company and has been working with the largest egg company in Brazil. I think they’re the 11th largest egg company in the world. Following a series of GFI-facilitated and hosted visits and meetings with Bay Area companies including Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats, the heir to the egg company was inspired to lead the development and launch of a plant-based egg product. She is now going to be launching a plant-based meat company herself.
In the last year, our India team secured 640,000 USD dedicated to creating a cultivated meat research center. The Asia-Pacific office, which was then just one person, developed and released the Hong Kong edition of our Good Food Startup Manual; they worked alongside an established accelerator in Hong Kong called Brinc, which also promoted the manual, which has since been downloaded more than 200 times. Our European managing director hit the ground running, working with scientists and establishing a relationship with the U.K. Food Standards Agency. He brought in our science and technology director to speak to the Food Standards Agency of the U.K. about a path forward for the market introduction of cultivated meat.
Then I’m going to give a fourth just because those were pretty heavy on the SciTech side. The one thing that has radically changed about how GFI is looking at things from three years ago to today is that we really didn’t think we would be able to make significant inroads with the big food and meat companies. We have built very good relationships with some of the biggest meat and food companies in the world. We also have excellent relationships with leading US chain restaurants and groceries, and many other industry leaders. I think you get a flavor of that if you look at the conference website and see the people who are sponsoring and speaking at our conference. GFI doesn’t pay anybody to be there—everybody pays their own expenses. Kroger is the largest chain grocery in the country, and they’re coming. So is the Culinary Institute of America, ADM, Tyson, JBS, and Purdue. We can transform the meat industry through the relationships we’ve cultivated. That’s my fourth of three biggest accomplishments of the last year.
Bland: There are two things in particular that I’d love to add as an addendum to that. Through our corporate engagement activities, we really did play a critical role in influencing the Morningstar Farms brand to transition their product line to 100% plant based by 2021, which in the food industry is basically tomorrow. Morningstar is the largest U.S. plant-based brand and is part of the Kellog’s brand. They currently use egg whites in many formulations, and this decision alone is going to remove an estimated 300 million eggs annually from their supply chain. Their commitment to remove this one ingredient will absolutely have a huge impact on egg-laying hens.
Friedrich: Clare underplayed it: Our corporate engagement team has spent a lot of time with the Kellogg’s and Morningstar teams, and they credited us and included us in their press release. The head of the Morningstar brand invited us to a conference to present about corporations and NGO partnerships, and the effect that those can have, explicitly crediting us for being responsible for that decision.
Bland: Globally, our policy team is helping support the cultivated meat regulatory frameworks by sharing critical information with regulators in three countries in particular: India, the United Kingdom, and Singapore. We are more than cautiously optimistic that those three countries are likely to be first to put the regulatory framework into place to allow cultivated meat products to be sold.
Friedrich: I just got a call this morning from the New Zealand embassy here in Washington, D.C. I presented to them about six months ago, and it was very well received. Our Director of Science and Technology David Welch will soon be presenting to the Agriculture and Food Safety Minister of New Zealand. As you probably know, the United States is the only developed country where the regulation of our food system is split between two government agencies: the USDA and the FDA. Every other developed country puts all of that under one agency. So David’s meeting is with the equivalent of the combined heads of the USDA and the FDA who is going to be in Washington, D.C. next week. They invited us in to talk with him about about the regulatory path forward for cultivated meat.
Vanderhye: I also have two accomplishments that, to me, are just outstanding. The first one is our inaugural Good Food Conference that we had last fall. We had more than 500 attendees at the conference, including executives from some of the largest food and meat companies in the world. We had entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers, scientists—it was a huge number of people that were coming at this issue from so many different angles. We also had more than 4,400 people watch the live stream of the conference. We were told that this included the entire research and development team of one of the largest food companies in the world.
We were also told that a CEO of a multibillion-dollar engineering company that designs slaughterhouses watched the entire live stream and decided that he wants to go into engineering cultivated meat factories. That would be phenomenal if that were to happen.
Another accomplishment is that, since I started last year, we have pretty much doubled in size. Last year in July we had 32 U.S. staff and four international. Now we have 62 U.S. staff with three that are about to start, and 16 international (7 in India, 5 in Brazil, 3 in Asia Pacific, and 1 in the E.U.). It’s been awesome to see our growth over the past year.
Friedrich: At our inaugural conference, we welcomed moderators from The Wall Street Journal, BBC, the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, and more. One of our moderators was a New York Times journalist who had not previously written about this space. But he has written about religion, so we invited him to moderate the panel of faith community leaders who considered whether cultivated meat would be considered Kosher or Halal. He has subsequently written five or six New York Times stories about this space, including multiple front-page stories as a result of his getting interested in this field at the Good Food Conference.
What do you consider to be the strengths of GFI?
Friedrich: GFI was set up as an explicitly EA (effective altruism) organization. So the strengths are that the issue we work on is extraordinarily important. Tens of billions of animals are slaughtered every single year. If you include sea animals, that would mean tens of billions just for the United States. According to the United Nations, that number is expected to double by 2050. Even in North America, per capita meat consumption is the highest it’s ever been. We are big fans of education and advocacy, but we also think there’s a vital need for the GFI theory of change for actually decreasing the number of animals raised and slaughtered.
The number of animals raised also creates an adverse impact on global health, antibiotic resistance, and food security: by creating competition for grains that drives up their price, and further entrenching poverty and hunger. On climate change, as Chatham House has said, we’re not going to keep climate change to the Paris target numbers unless meat consumption dramatically decreases. Again, according to the U.N. global meat consumption will double by 2050. So GFI is essentially making it easier for people to eat in accordance with their ethics by making plant-based and cultivated meat taste the same or better, and cost the same or less. So the issue is extraordinarily important, obviously for animal suffering but also global health, food security, and a range of environmental issues, including climate change.
It is also tractable, we believe. The theory of change is that we can grow meat directly from cells. Chicken is the most “efficient” animal that can turn crops into meat, and it takes six to seven weeks to grow a chicken to slaughter weight. If you grow the cells directly, you can get that same growth in six days. With plant-based meat, you can get that same growth the same day; you just turn the plants into plant-based meat instead of feeding them to chickens for six to seven weeks. Because the process is so much more efficient, it should be significantly less expensive as it scales up. What people like about meat is not that it comes from an animal who was farmed and slaughtered; they like the taste, texture, and experience. So it seems extraordinarily tractable—we should be able to biomimic meat with plants and grow meat directly from cells, and it should cost significantly less. We should be able to replace all factory-farmed meat with plant-based and cultivated meat.
Finally, it’s also neglected. For the vast majority of what we do, we are the only nonprofit doing it. I guess that’s not quite true—Food Frontier is sort of the GFI of Australia. They’re a much smaller organization, and I’m on their advisory board. They are seeking to replicate the highest impact activities that GFI does. But obviously, they’re small. But no matter how you look at it, we have 65 full-time staff in the U.S., which is 60 more than anybody else in terms of the space. There are vast resources going into the ethical side and the farm animal welfare side. But very few resources other than via GFI are being dedicated to this theory of change that seems extremely practical. So it is vastly neglected. Those are three key strengths, straight out of the EA playbook.
I would also just mention our staff quality is absolutely amazing. We just hired two people who started on Monday, one as University Inspiration Specialist, her name is Amy Huang, and a Business Innovation Specialist named Blake Byrne. They introduced themselves on our staff call on Monday, and people were just blown away. They’re both really excited and knowledgeable about this space. Amy has an undergrad degree from Harvard and was working at Microsoft previously. Blake has an undergrad degree from UNC Chapel Hill and was a consultant previously. They are illustrious. If you look at all of our directors and staff, everybody is just extremely impressive. It comes out of a very stringent hiring process, and we’ll only hire somebody about whom we’re extremely excited. We will go back to zero and frequently do go back to zero in the hiring process if we end up deciding that we haven’t found the right person, even after reviewing hundreds of applications.
Bland: There’s a Philanthropy News Digest blog post Donor Dollars Into Dividends: The Past, Present, and Future of Nonprofits Aiding the Private Sector by Director of Policy Jessica Almy which draws some compelling analogies between advances in the clean energy, vaccines, medical, and global health sectors. It picks up on some of the themes that Bruce was referring to in terms of the unique role that a nonprofit can play in pushing the cultivated meat and plant-based meat industries forward. As a nonprofit, we’re objective and can push from the policy perspective to make sure that the path is smooth for companies to come in and make a big impact.
On the flip side, what do you consider to be GFI’s major weaknesses?
Friedrich: I would probably have said this a year ago, too: We have not gotten work-life balance right yet. If our operations and administration director were on the call she would point out that our numbers are getting better, and are better than the average across industries. But it seems like we’re in a work-life balance crisis in the United States. We do biannual anonymous staff surveys based on Harvard Business Review work about what makes for maximum vocational happiness. We rock things off the charts for statements such as “my supervisor cares about me,” “no destructive conflict at work,” “everybody gets heard,” and “I believe the people in charge are making decisions in the best way possible,” all of that stuff. But our work-life balance numbers are not great. I think they’re better than average across the United States, but that’s obviously a low bar and not the bar we want to have. We have been prioritizing it, and we now have assistants providing vital administrative support and coordination in each department to help ease the workload of our specialists.
I think there’s an inherent weakness in an organization with a remote workforce. We looked very closely at and had planned to open a D.C. office, and to incentivize people to come to it because remote culture is just simply not the best. We were planning to tell everybody who wanted to work from an office that they could move to D.C. where GFI would have opened an office. There’s overwhelming literature that finds that everybody being in an office is the best for results. But then we talked to U.S. experts who study this sort of thing, and there was just universal “don’t do that” because it would have created an in-group / out-group mentality. So we’re left with a remote culture. We think the benefits of that outweigh the costs, but it’s still a weakness. It allows us to hire the best possible staff: as we can recruit from across the US. It allows us to remain more financially lean and to devote more donor resources into mission-critical work. Also, we’re totally committed to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and having flexible hours and remote working help with DEI.
Within the past year, we created a new role in order to help us minimize the adverse effects of a remote workplace: our Culture & Engagement Specialist whose full-time job is culture. We have an anonymous reporting line and biannual staff surveys to make sure we have our finger on the pulse of that. So those are two things.
I’ve said this in the past too, we’re building the plane while we’re flying it. It allows us to get a tremendous amount done. It’s sort of eyes wide open on the remote culture, and eyes wide open on work-life balance. So those are conscious decisions that we’re making. Then similarly, in order to get the maximum amount done towards our mission, our KPI (Key Performance Indicator) process has not been spectacular. Everybody has had quarterly goals from the very beginning. ACE actually looked at our quarterly and annual goals two years ago—they are 100 times better now than they were then. We did hire somebody about a year ago; his title is Strategic Implementation Specialist. He came from Google, jumped in, and implemented Google’s KPI process, which is called OKR: Objectives and Key Results. Then the A in OKRA is “action” so it’s OKRA. So we’ve done that since the last year, and it’s getting better and better. Since most people don’t really have a KPI process, we were a heck of a lot better than that from the very beginning, but I do think we can be stronger with how we think about setting targets and measuring our progress against those targets. That’s something we’ve made a lot of progress on in the last year, but it’s still a work in progress.
How do you typically measure the outcomes of your most important projects or programs? Do you engage in formal assessments? If so, what do those look like, and do you have post-mortem meetings?
Friedrich: In the context of the OKRAs that I mentioned, each department does its own goal setting. We have six organizational OKRs. Objective 1: The for-profit sector prioritizes PCMED (plant-based and cultivated meat, eggs, and dairy). Objective 2: Governments support PCMED. Objective 3: A strong open-access PCMED research and training ecosystem exists. Objective 4: GFI is a PCMED thought leader. Objective 5: GFI is an inspiring and well-run workplace. Objective 6: GFI operates from a position of financial strength, which obviously feeds into the rest of them. So if people feel like they’re in an organization that is not financially strong, they’re going to be less effective with everything else.
From there, each department sets its own key results and actions required to achieve the key results. The key results are measurable targets that basically demonstrate how we’re progressing toward objectives. They indicate what needs to be achieved and by when. Then every quarter each team reassesses with me, and soon it’ll be both with me and our Chief of Staff, Sanah Baig. They give a zero-to-one point ranking across each of the key results in terms of the degree to which they feel like they have accomplished it. That’s mostly iterative; I will ask some questions, but I don’t generally push back against that. The team both sets their own key results and then rank themselves against them. So we do that quarterly and then reassess the next quarter on the basis of the last quarter. We consider what things didn’t get accomplished, what we need to reprioritize, what we’re going to abandon, that sort of thing.
You mentioned what you’re abandoning and what you’re reprioritizing. Can you talk about any changes you’ve made recently, such as improving a program that you deemed unsuccessful or cutting off a program that you thought might not be worth the effort anymore?
Friedrich: We are presently involved in the largest restructuring since GFI launched. Our director of international engagement resigned to set up a consultancy in this space. Basically, she was hired to create GFI’s five international affiliates: India, Israel, Brazil, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. She hired five managing directors. Two full sets of staff have been set up. Multiple affiliate organizations have been finalized and set up, and we are working with lawyers helping us set up the remaining two affiliates, in Europe and Israel. The bulk of what she was hired to do has been done. We probably would not have made the change in how we’re thinking about the international space for another three or four months. But her resignation prompted us to rethink international, and basically move it directly into the executive team. So our Chief of Staff Sanah Baig and I work even more closely with our Associate Director for International Engagement, Stephanie von Stein. It’s more of a collaborative approach now that these are separate entities from GFI U.S. We are funding them, so we have appropriate due diligence across legal compliance and strong financial controls that mirror our U.S. controls. But that is done by our general counsel and director of finance. We don’t need our international director to do that now. I now have weekly meetings with each of the managing directors, but they’re really focused on strategy. Then we have monthly meetings of what we’re calling our Global Committees, GloCos for short, for each of the programmatic departments plus communications. They’re a lot more focused on strategy and less focused on the nitty-gritty. That’s a big change.
We decided we should do all of the big changes at once so people didn’t feel like there was some other shoe that was going to drop down the line. Another really big change that we might not have done right away was fusing the programs that have been in the Innovation Department into the Science and Technology Department and the Corporate Engagement Department; we moved two positions from Innovation into SciTech and three from Innovation to Corporate Engagement, and then we eliminated the Innovation department. The Strategic Implementation Specialist was in Innovation, and we also moved that role into Executive so that Sanah and I could really own that since it’s one of my objectives and key results that fall under my responsibility. So it made sense to move that person into the executive zone.
How would you describe your organization’s culture?
Friedrich: The culture is excellent. I mentioned the biannual anonymous staff survey, and we do a word cloud for the presentation about that. We ask: “What’s the word you would use to describe GFI?” What comes up is caring, compassionate, etc. It’s extraordinarily gratifying how that goes. We’re a remote workplace, which means people don’t meet around the water cooler. There’s a degree to which we have to be a lot more intentional about fostering connections among our team members, and we are. We have two all-staff retreats every year, and we have an in-depth onboarding program for new staff. In addition to a very detailed program, new staff do meet-and-greets with every other member of the staff over their first six months. Everybody gets on a Google Hangout chat with everybody else. They also have an onboarding buddy, somebody who has worked at GFI for a year or more, whom they have three months of regular meetings with. We have a bunch of social activities like a book club, a cooking club, coffee chats and happy hours. I think culture is something that probably fits into our strengths as well because we prioritize it. I think morale is very, very good.
Bland: I just wanted to underscore the intentionality of everything that we’re doing. We’re cognizant of the fact that we have people in maybe 10 different time zones, and we make sure that everybody can feel a sense of personal connection with their colleagues in the next state, country, or continent. We worked hard to build a social safety net for folks so people have many opportunities to interact with each other. And that’s particularly powerful, I think, for those folks whose day-to-day work activities and interpersonal communications don’t necessarily bring them into contact with everybody else. So we have some special groups working on different initiatives. It really has been very intentional and very successful—we get great feedback regarding that. We have an active program of appreciation for each other and we use an HR system called Namely. We also have a Sunshine Committee, which is a group of wonderful people who do something extra special for members of our team who may be going through tough times, personally or professionally. It’s just a really nice way to show them love and make sure that folks know that we’re thinking of them, even if we can’t chit-chat around the water cooler like Bruce said.
Friedrich: One thing that I’ll highlight again is that one of our six objectives is making sure GFI is a satisfying and motivating place to work. We want to make sure we’re measuring this and prioritizing it. Every week, as a part of making sure that we are not siloing, every single staff member goes into a full staff weekly report: They enter the 1–3 most exciting and interesting things that happened to them that week, or things that happened that moved our mission forward. That is organized by OKRs. Every single week, every single staff member is looking at what the organization’s goals are. One of those is that GFI is a satisfying and motivating place to work. That incentivizes staff—not only our Culture & Engagement Specialist Anna whose job it is to own that objective—to be doing things in that space. In the weekly report, we also have something called the water cooler, our remote water cooler, where people share anecdotes and random fun topics that would otherwise be discussed around the water cooler. That’s fun as well.
Vanderhye: I actually joined the Sunshine Committee after my dog died. They reached out to me, planted a tree in his honor, and just called to check in and see if I was okay. I was so moved by that, and I joined the committee. In every aspect, I feel like our morale is so strong. We have stipends for us to be able to visit each other and work together collaboratively. The development team is meeting a little bit later this month just to work together. We have coffee chats for each team and then also with the entire staff. So I have found that the remote work culture is not an issue at all for me, and the staff morale is really strong.
Could you talk about how GFI is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion? How has your organization benefited from diversity programs, or from having diverse members in your community?
Friedrich: To highlight our commitment to it, we have a senior team of eight people, six of whom are women. Two of our five board members are women, including one woman of color, a gay man, and a retired man. Age diversity is oftentimes not something people are aware of or prioritize. Of the 32 people we’ve hired in the last year, eight of them, 25%, have been people of color. Twenty-three of them have been women. The fact that 23 of them have been women has not been something we’re targeting, because we are doing very well in terms of gender inclusivity. But with our application process, we’re focused on doing better on diversity. We’re targeting under-represented communities on job boards: African American development offices, historically black colleges, and job boards, to name a few. The messaging in our job descriptions is designed to be inclusive. We have rubrics focused on mitigating unconscious bias. It is something that the hiring team has been very conscious of.
In terms of how it helps the organization, it creates diversity in the way that we think about things. It ensures that the best possible hires are applying and will feel welcome and included. It would be very hard for an organization that is not diverse to speak to all populations, and we want to speak to all populations. It would be hard for an organization that is not diverse to avoid groupthink, and we want to avoid groupthink. It would also be hard for us to attract the top possible talent, which is going to be diverse. So those are three ways in which a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion makes GFI a stronger organization.
If you became aware of harassment taking place in your organization, how would you handle that?
Friedrich: The first line would be our general counsel or our director of human resources. We have an anonymous reporting line through which people can report harassment. We strongly encourage people to report harassment to their supervisor, our General Counsel Sarah David, our Director of Human Resources and Administration Reannon Branchesi, or me. We have zero tolerance for harassment. We encourage people to report to one of us if they’re comfortable, or through the anonymous reporting line. The procedure for investigating claims of harassment would involve conducting a thorough investigation, interviewing the people involved to the degree that we can do that, and then taking appropriate action within best practices of the law. The process would be predominantly led by our General Counsel Sarah David. In previous years, ACE has asked us if we’ve had any reports, and we have not had any reports via the anonymous reporting line or in any other context. There have been no reports of any sort of untoward behavior, harassment—sexual or otherwise—or bullying.
It sounds like you have a very specific and nuanced strategic plan. Could you talk a bit about how you create or revise your strategic plan? Who is involved, how often do you revise it, and who makes final decisions? Do others have a viable means for challenging decisions?
Friedrich: Each department director, working closely with their team, is responsible for the strategic planning for their zone. The strategic plan has just been revised. The first iteration of the strategic plan was at the end of 2015, and then we revised it every six months, up until a year ago. A year ago, we decided that we were far enough along that an annual analysis and update serves us best.
We also really wanted to dive into the OKRA process for the year and make that our strategic focus. So directors have been in the process with their teams of revising their plans over the last month. We have a pro-bono consultant from Bain & Company who works with me on executive coaching and works with the organization on strategy. She worked with us to implement a decision-making model that Bain designed called RAPID. The D stands for Decide, and each department director makes the D for their own zone to the degree that it doesn’t impact other zones. If there are conflicts then I would have the D. It is an iterative process primarily owned by the departments themselves. We try to be in a situation in which each employee feels like they are self-actualized vocationally, and part of that involves possible disagreement between a director and an employee. The director would technically have the D, but there would be strong encouragement to defer to the employee on decision making that affects the employee. If an employee is directly responsible for something, they’re probably going to have the most to say about how that manifests in the strategic plan, working with the department director who makes the final call.
Everybody in the organization is encouraged to weigh in across all aspects of the entire strategic plan. In practice, most people don’t. Most people predominantly or exclusively weigh in on their own section. We do have three or four employees that I can think of that weigh in across the entire strategic plan in other people’s zones. We also have lots of questions from other people for things that aren’t in their zone, such as: “Hey, have you thought about doing this in this other way?” We encourage that. So every single person in the organization, from directors, to lawyers, to assistants, is encouraged to have a say in every aspect of the strategic plan. But at the end of the day, each of the directors determines what the strategic plan is going to be for their zone. I do ask a lot of questions and give a fair bit of input across the entire strategic plan. I have weekly or biweekly meetings with every director during which we have fairly in-depth conversations about strategic planning for their zones.