I became a cellular meat convert while chatting to Jalene Anderson-Baron! She is the cofounder of Future Fields, a biotech startup enabling cheaper development of cellular ag. We discussed how Future Fields is working to get cellular meat to price parity with conventional meat, how large food companies are reacting to cellular meat, whether the future kitchen includes a desktop meat maker, what it is was like attending YCominator’s first remote cohort, their plans for 2021 and more!
Here is the audio. The excerpts below are lightly edited:
MCWALTER: Thanks for having me. Fantastic to start. Could you tell us a little bit about future fields?
ANDERSON-BARON: We’re a biotechnology startup located in Edmonton, Canada founded in 2018. We basically make the most important ingredient for cell-based meats which is cell growth media. I’m not sure how familiar you are with the cellular agriculture industry, but one of the main barriers right now to scaling up commercialization is the cost of production. And the growth media makes up around 90% of that cost right now, it’s incredibly expensive, and it really doesn’t allow for products to be created at price parity with conventional agricultural products. So that’s where we’re currently focused.
MCWALTER: What is your founding story?
ANDERSON-BARON: We actually originally started out as a consumer facing cell-based meat company producing chicken products. Our first MVP was a chicken nugget in early 2019, using commercially available growth media. And that was costing us $400-$500 a liter so that single chicken nugget cost us around $300 to make. And I think if you look at it at a per pound, it was around $3,000. So definitely not feasible when you can go down the street and buy a chicken nugget for probably 30 cents at any fast food restaurant. Based on that, we knew that something had to change and we decided to prioritize creating a new method of producing growth media that was more affordable, so we could drive down our own production costs.
MCWALTER: Could you tell us a little bit more about your technology?
ANDERSON-BARON: I guess a way you can think of it is like, it’s the nutrient broth that feeds the cells. It’s made up of common ingredients, like simple salts, sugars and amino acids. And growth factors. Growth factors are essentially, what is required to actually have different types of cell lines grow. And they’re also the most expensive component of it. When you see a picture of a petri dish with a piece of lab grown meat in it, it’s that liquid that’s in the petri dish that’s what we’re talking about.
MCWALTER: I believe one of your two cofounders is your husband; what are the pros and cons of starting a company with your husband?
ANDERSON-BARON: It’s been great, honestly. I mean, we get that question a lot. We’ve always worked on projects together, it is always been a kind of joke that maybe we’re a little bit too into the same thing sometimes. I think such a big part of making a startup work is being able to communicate well with your founders. And I think that there’s nobody that I can communicate better with than my husband and so it’s been really nothing but positive.
MCWALTER: In terms of the supply chain are there any elements of cellular meat that require it to be produced in a specific place?
ANDERSON-BARON: That’s really the beauty of it, ultimately, this product can be produced anywhere. I think one day, people will have a system in their very own kitchens, some sort of “mini meat maker”. I don’t think that’s really that far fetched. I think we’re going to get to a point where, there’s a whole spectrum of localized products like that similar to other industries, like beer brewing, for example. You have the big factories, and then you have your microbreweries, and then you have your at-home brewing kits. I think we’re gonna see a very similar thing with this industry down the road, where there are all different types of scale, and, you know, different kinds of end products.
MCWALTER: What so far has been the reaction of the large meat producing companies, the agribusinesses, the meat packers, etc? Have some of them started placing bets in this space and buying up companies, or have they generally been blocking development/lobbying against cellular meat?
ANDERSON-BARON: I think it’s been a bit mixed within the traditional ag industry overall. But some of the biggest meat producers in the world, Tyson and Cargill have both invested in this space. The big ones know that this is coming, and it’s kind of time to get on board otherwise, you might find yourself in a position down the road, where you have some competition.
We’re seeing that with plant-based solutions now. There’s a lot of parallels with that industry, in terms of popularity its a couple of years ahead of where we’re at with cellular agriculture. But I’m sure it would be hard to find a major meat producer that’s not also in the plant-based space at this point. So yeah, I definitely see them continuing to kind of diversify into these alternative methods of protein production.
MCWALTER: When will we see cellular meat products on supermarket shelves?
ANDERSON-BARON: It’s funny because I’m in the industry, but I still don’t fully understand why nobody has released a product yet commercially. Because the technology is absolutely there, the taste is there, the texture is there. We’ve seen the different prototypes, and there’s been tastings and all that so yeah, I’m honestly not sure what the holdup is at the moment. Granted it would be released at a higher price point but, whoever gets there first, with definitely have bragging rights.
MCWALTER: In terms of taste how close can the taste get to the real thing? I grew up in the west of Ireland and the flavor of the typical steak in the west of Ireland is quite different from even very nice steakhouses in the United States? Could those sorts of differences come out in cellular meat?
ANDERSON-BARON: Yeah, again, I mean, that comes down to really the different products that every company is working on. But I think that’s kind of the beauty of it as you can take a particular cell line from a specific breed of cattle and create meat like that. There are even some companies working on more exotic animals like kangaroo. Ultimately, the industry is trying to get to, is something that tastes exactly like every existing agricultural product. So if you’re trying to create, you know, a particular type of steak from a particular region of the world, that’s, that’s essentially what they would be working towards, and they definitely have the ability to tailor that flavor profile through, different methods of production. I’ve even heard ideas around creating brand new meat products, like why be limited to things that already exist as domesticated animals in the world? How do we know that that’s really the best meat as far as taste goes? And you know, if we’re able to try kind of anything by growing it in a laboratory, then why not maybe expand our pellets a little? There is woolly mammoth DNA available so who knows?
MCWALTER: What are the kind of goals and milestones you’re looking to reach over the next year?
ANDERSON-BARON: So we just finished fundraising our seed round. So now we’re ready to get back to work. And ultimately, our big goal is to become the premium supplier of growth media to this entire industry, getting to a point where we can provide hundreds of thousands of liters of growth media, every month. We’ve brought on 40 scientists to our team, we’ve fully validated our technology and made a lot of progress around optimizing our products over the last 12 months. So we now have some contracts in place for this coming year. And so we’re going to be scaling up our production to meet our customer’s scale, and then just continuing to meet demand. And we’re just constantly working to improve our system and optimize our technology.
MCWALTER: You attended the most recent and first remote YCombinator cohort, what was it like?
ANDERSON-BARON: It was definitely an interesting experience, spent a lot of time on zoom. But it was really great. I think they did such a great job of completely shifting to remote operations in such a short period of time. And as much as we feel a bit like we missed out on the experience of getting to live there, it actually probably worked out much better for us, because we have our lab here and our operations and science team. And I’m not sure how we would have been able to leave it and continue to make major progress. So it actually really worked out well for us, we likely wouldn’t have been able to do it if it hadn’t been remote.
We were successful in meeting our milestones, and then our fundraising coming out of Y Combinator really could not have gone better. It was a very smooth, quick process.
MCWALTER: Interesting because I think YC presents itself open to any of the great potential startups in the world. But it sounds very dependent on software versus hard tech or biotech. Because how are you going to do biotech in a room in San Francisco without a lab or your industrial press or whatever it may be?
ANDERSON-BARON: For sure. And I know biotech companies have successfully moved there in the past and had great experiences. But yeah, it just worked for us. Matt and I also have a one year old so logistically it would have been very challenging to manage all of that plus a small child in a new city. So yeah, so no complaints really about how it was run, it was a really amazing experience.
MCWALTER: What’s your biggest surprise about YC?
ANDERSON-BARON: That they let us in! I mean, I think we have a great technology. But we applied late, and it was our first time and like I was just so astounded that we got in which I think really speaks to our technology. And it was very validating, to hear others also think that our technology was as great as we think it is. For me, it was an interesting experience because I have a pretty unconventional background for someone in a biotech company or in a startup, probably period, but particularly a biotech company. And so I was hearing a lot of the kind of tech lingo at times, and I felt like “they’re gonna kick me out for saying this!”, but I didn’t know what SaaS meant, the first day, I had to Google it. So I just learned so much.