- Upside Foods’ Dr. Uma Valeti on: what is “cultivated meat?”
- How Upside Foods received the greenlight from the FDA
- The societal acceptance of cultivated meats
- Why Dr. Uma Valeti started Upside Foods
- The environmental benefits of cultivated meats
- Dr. Uma Valeti on Upside Foods’ relationship with its investors
- The future of Upside Foods
UMA VALETI: For someone who’s a meat lover, when they first taste cultivated meat, they’ll have an experience that is going to be surreal and probably out of body type of experience at the same time as it being very unremarkable. And the reason is you know immediately when it hits your taste buds, that this is meat. It fires all the neurons of what meat should taste like.
The FDA has never ever given a green light for a cultivated breed product before in the world. This entire field was in the realm of science fiction with a few academic labs doing small scale research and proof of concepts. But in the span of 6 years to come out into the real world and have people care about it, write about it, anticipate it, and invest in it, to the point where we can now release a product for consumers to experience when this works, it’s an incredible accomplishment for humanity.
BOB SAFIAN: That’s Dr. Uma Valeti, founder and CEO of Upside Foods, a pioneering producer of what’s known as “cultivated meat” — meat created and grown from animal cells rather than from slaughtered livestock.
I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. I wanted to talk to Uma because a recent landmark decision by the FDA Greenlighted the safety of Upside’s meat for human consumption.
This is a coming of age moment for a brand new industry, which now includes some 150 companies across the globe.
Upside Foods counts Bill Gates and Richard Branson among its investors, as well as food giants Tyson and Cargill, and secured a $400 million funding round last spring to accelerate its commercialization efforts.
Before founding Upside Foods, Uma was a cardiologist, whose experience with stem cell procedures inspired Upside’s remarkable journey.
He also attributes much of his leadership ethos to lessons he learned at the operating table.
Uma’s aim is to build a new kind of food ecosystem to help save animals, human lives, and the planet.
SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian. I’m here with Uma Valeti, CEO of Upside Foods. Uma, thanks for joining us.
VALETI: It’s a delight to be here.
Upside Foods’ Dr. Uma Valeti on: what is “cultivated meat?”
SAFIAN: So Upside Food is not exactly a household name. Not yet anyway. The company started in 2015, but you have no products on the market. And then late last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a ruling about chicken meat that your company had grown in a lab from cells. And the FDA accepted the assessment that this cultivated meat was safe for human consumption. Did the public burst of attention from this surprise you? Or was that part of the reason you went to the FDA in the first place?
VALETI: The amount of attention we got was just incredible. It validated what we were thinking that this is a transformative change. And we believe strongly that nearly everybody can get behind it. The FDA green light meant that cultivated meat is something that is to grow into a very significant platform that could address challenges we are facing with respect to climate, food safety, food security.
Let me just step back for a second and really talk about what cultivated meat is. And so cultivated meat is meat. It’s meat made from real animal cells, instead of having to raise an animal and then slaughter it. We take really high quality cells from either eggs or animals, and we identify the cells that can continue to grow outside the animal. And we establish a breed of these cells, and we feed them with clean nutrients and grow it outside the animal. We harvest it from these clean cultivators, and we make it into chicken breast or chicken tenders or a beef burger or a steak. So it is not a vegan meat substitute or a vegetarian meat substitute. It is meat from real animals.
A product like this is very familiar to us for millennia. We’ve been eating meat from animal cells for thousands of years. But the process in which it comes to the table is novel. And that’s what Upside Foods has pioneered.
How Upside Foods received the greenlight from the FDA
SAFIAN: Now, you didn’t need to go to the FDA, right? If I understand this right, you still need approval from another agency, from the USDA to actually begin selling and distributing your cultivated meat. So why did you go through this hurdle first?
VALETI: FDA and USDA are the two food regulatory agencies in the United States. We wanted them both to be aware that this is a novel process by which a very familiar food is coming to the table. We started talking to both the agencies. They both were incredibly excited about the opportunity it offers and felt they had the necessary skill sets and the experience to be able to regulate the product. And we as a company had to decide: Do we go with one agency or ask the agencies to play to their respective strengths?
And we thought it’s much better for them to work together than work separately. And that’s really what we advocated for in 2018 in August. And within 9 months, they worked together and released the guideline for the industry in March 2019 to say: “This is how we expect cultivated meat to come to the market in a safe way that a consumer can understand what it is and in a well run, inspected facility.” And that became the blueprint for us to go ahead and led to the landmark decision that came out in November 2022 that the cultivated chicken produced by Upside Foods is safe for consumption.
FDA has never ever given a green light for a cultivated meat product before in the world. And it sends a very clear message to the regulatory agencies across the world. Now, they throw that over to the USDA, which is going to help us label the product in front of consumers. So that’s what is left, but it opens the door for this to come to market, and people can experience it very soon.
The societal acceptance of cultivated meats
SAFIAN: As you’re describing this mix of science and regulation and in some ways perception, it’s like these different kinds of hurdles that this emerging industry has to surmount. It’s not just that the product is there, but that it’s accepted in lots of different ways.
VALETI: This is a new category that never existed. This entire field was in the realm of science fiction with a few academic labs doing small scale research and proof of concepts. But in the span of 6 years to come out into the real world and have people care about it, write about it, anticipate it, and invest in it to the point where we can now release a product for consumers to experience has never happened in most industries before.
Meat is beloved across all cultures. 96% of the world eats meat. But I can’t imagine a lot of people getting behind saying, “we love the process of slaughtering an animal,” but we are in love with the product. And there’s been this cognitive dissonance that existed historically for thousands of years. Now, it’s important for ideas like this to have financial legs.
When I first came to the Bay Area, when we started Upside Foods, the number of skeptics we had were incredible. There’s still a lot of skeptics. But we have investors, who are the top investors in the world, impact-focused investors, that care about animal welfare, that care about the environment, that care about health, or just purely are excited about frontier tech and what we can do to humanity. And we have investors who are incumbents who are from the conventional meat industry like a Tyson or a Cargill.
The first step that’s been proven in the last 5 years is: we can grow delicious meat from animal cells directly without having to slaughter an animal. This opens the field for the next step, which is the execution phase of scaling production.
SAFIAN: You say it’s delicious. Have you tried it? The cultivated chicken, what does it taste like? How is it cooked?
VALETI: I’ve tried all types of cultivated chicken, beef, duck, quail, just getting to start working on some seafood. I’ve tried the most in the world I think, and my family has tried it.
SAFIAN: Your family?
SAFIAN: You bring it home for Thanksgiving?
VALETI: I guess I’m probably the only one who can do that because we are growing it. And in 2017, my family became the first family in the world to taste cultivated meat together and have lunch together with cultivated chicken and duck. It’s delicious. For someone who’s a meat lover, when they first taste cultivated meat, they’ll have an experience that is going to be surreal and probably out of body type of experience, at the same time as it being very unremarkable. And the reason is you know immediately when it hits your taste buds, that this is meat. It fires all the neurons of what meat should taste like.
Why Dr. Uma Valeti started Upside Foods
SAFIAN: Your background is, as a cardiologist, you left your practice to pursue this new unproven area. You yourself, as I understand it, are vegetarian, are not a longtime meat eater. So why did you make this shift in your life?
VALETI: If you ask my friends they said this was a crazy idea to go after. But, this is an idea that changes generations.
I grew up in India. My dad’s a veterinarian, so I grew up around animals. And I grew up eating meat. And I was 12 years old. I went to my friend’s birthday party. In the front of the house, there was a lot of food and music and celebration. And I just happened to walk to the back of the house where they were also slaughtering the animals to feed the people in the front. So there was this moment I had of wow, incredible joy in the front and incredible suffering in the back — all happening at the same time. So there’s this birthday, death day thing in my mind that just kept bothering me. I didn’t do anything about it, I kept eating meat, and then went to medical school.
I went to the market, and I saw large scale slaughter at that time in a mechanized format. That just shocked me. And while I loved the product, that’s the day when I was 19 years old, I decided that, look, I’m going to stop eating meat. I love it, but I just can’t keep eating it.
And then I entered cardiology. I ended up at the Mayo Clinic. And later on in my practice in the Twin Cities, we were injecting stem cells into patients’ hearts when they had a heart attack to regrow the cardiac muscle. And that’s where this crazy idea that came into my head during a procedure came from. And I kept talking to scientists and engineers across the world and said, “Hey, we are taking cells from humans and trying to grow organs or tissues. Why can’t we do it with meat?”
And it turns out people have been talking about it for decades in the academic circles, but no one had ever done it in the commercial sector. It was too high risk for anybody to take that jump. So initially I tried to ask people to do this. I said, “This is a great idea.” I wasn’t thinking of starting a company myself. I started two medical device companies, I was very happy with cardiology, and after a while got frustrated that I couldn’t convince anyone to take this leap.
And I used to wake up every morning thinking, “This is a problem that needs to be solved.” And I kept talking about it with my wife and kids. And finally they pulled me aside and said, “Why are you not doing it?” So that was the prompt to write to a venture capitalist in San Francisco, and they got immediately excited within an hour of writing the idea to them.
The environmental benefits of cultivated meats
SAFIAN: I know the folks in the plant-based meat industry, and we’ve had a couple of them on the show, talk about the health advantages and environmental advantages of plant-based meat. Cultivated meat — does that have any health benefits for the environment, for us individually? Do we know yet?
VALETI: At the moment we’re producing on a small scale. We’ve built the bones of what we call a life cycle analysis that’ll measure the entire impact from the first cells that we start off, to the feed we give them, to production, the energy it takes to produce, and to get it into the consumer’s hands.
And all our projections and calculations are pointing towards incredible advantages on lower use of resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions, lower energy use, and lower air pollution and water pollution. Lots of academics who’ve published papers say that water use, greenhouse gas emissions are in the range of about 90% less than what it would take for conventional meat, and energy use is about 40-50% less.
The fundamental principle is: it takes us anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks to grow from the first cells all the way to meat that is harvested and made into a product. If you compare 2 to 4 weeks, it’s about 2 years for an animal to be raised to slaughter for going for beef, takes about 9 months for a pig to be slaughtered, and about 3 to 4 months for a chicken. So we are shrinking the time enormously, therefore less resources to go into growing meat.
Now the second part of it, what I really get excited about as a physician, is we have this opportunity to make meat better as we go further. For an animal to have a single trait changed in it to improve the quality of something, it’ll take about 6 to 7 years because of selective breeding or gene editing. In a cell, it takes weeks or days. That means we can have cells that can be edited to say they can be low in certain bad fats, have a better ratio of omega-3, omega-6s, and may not have pro-inflammatory proteins in there that could set up the risk for cancers. It opens an entire door of exploration, which is just not possible in the boundaries of an animal.
SAFIAN: Your team includes people from the biotech industry and people from the beer industry and the automotive industry, and your COO comes from PepsiCo. Is there a reason that you’ve built this sort of multidisciplinary team?
VALETI: We have people that understand animal science, biology, embryology, genetics, molecular biology, tissue engineering; and we have to get people who understand the chemistry of food who can help us grow this in production facilities. And then we have to have people that convert it to something that a consumer recognizes as incredibly delicious food. So we have chefs, we have food scientists, we have packagers.
Our ultimate aspirational goal here is in 10 years from now, we’ll look back, and Upside is an incredibly trusted, consumer facing brand that is trying to do things that are important for humanity.
We want to create an entire category of food that we love, we preserve the choice of eating meat as opposed to asking people to become vegans or vegetarians, and be able to support thousands of companies that can have an ecosystem on this. They could be manufacturing an amino acid that’s important for us. They could be manufacturing sustainable packaging. They could be people that are giving us breeds of cells. So truly, we are not building just a company, but actually a self-sustaining ecosystem.
SAFIAN: I heard that when you first heard the FDA news, you were back in India at a family event. It sounds a little bit like it could have been a bittersweet moment for you.
VALETI: I was in India because it was my dad’s anniversary of passing aways. He passed away from COVID in November, 2020 and went back with my mom, and we had 250 of her family members we were gathering to celebrate his anniversary.
He was a driving force behind a lot of my principles and values, and he was an incredible supporter of Upside Foods. He would only wear Upside t-shirts or Upside hoodies anywhere he went.
And my Chief Operating Officer called me, and I was sitting in our family home, and she said, “Hey, I’m calling you because we are going to get the FDA green light tomorrow. They’ll be announcing it tomorrow.”
And I couldn’t have been happier because, like you said, it was bittersweet. I miss my dad enormously. And having this incredibly positive news shared with me being with my family and all his family members was very … I choke on talking about this, but it was like the best thing I could have asked for because I knew I could feel my dad there. He was very proud of this.
SAFIAN: Before the break, we heard Dr. Uma Valeti, founder and CEO of Upside Foods, talk about creating a new category in the food space.
Now he talks about the decision to invite key competitors to join Upside’s investor team. And the vast opportunity in the $2 trillion meat industry.
Plus, he shares leadership insights, drawn from his experience as a cardiologist, and explains how they apply to building a breakthrough business.
Please note: This next segment does discuss medical trauma that some may find distressing.
So this new category of food, you call it cultivated meat; some call it lab grown meat; the FDA took pains to say the terminology in its own letter shouldn’t be taken as a recommendation. Why is this description so important, so nuanced?
VALETI: It’s because food is an experience for us. Food is not a tagline or a technical term; food is an experience. And we want to be able to have cultivated meat be an experience for people, and it should be a truthful representation of what the product is. So the terminology you’re talking about has evolved significantly. We came into the market in 2016 and said we would like to call this clean meat for the simple reason that it’s produced in a clean production facility, there is no slaughter, and there is no risk of contamination with fecal material.
But the conventional industry thought that it was disparaging. If we call ours clean meat, does it mean the meat that we are eating now is dirty meat? So we were like, look, our intention is to call it something that is truthful. Cultivated is: we are cultivating it from animal cells. And it’s a category that doesn’t exist now.
But if people want to call it lab grown meat, that’s completely inaccurate, because lab grown was appropriate when you were working in academic labs that were really small 10 years ago. But now if you walk into our food production facility, it’ll look like a brewery. It’ll look like any other food production facility. So I think with scale, we also want to make sure there’s a word that captures it, just like we did organic.
Organic didn’t exist 30 years ago. There’s a whole category of organic that developed in the last 20 years, once the regulators recognized that they could call it organic. So that’s kind of what we’re thinking about with cultivated.
Dr. Uma Valeti on Upside Foods’ relationship with its investors
SAFIAN: Your investors include people like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, but also Tyson Foods and Cargill. Having food giants on the team, is that just about money or are there other advantages? Because it sounds a little bit like you’re in business with the competition.
VALETI: The number 1 value in the company is a big tent company, which means we need to be inclusive, we need to get people behind it. So we started putting out images of the first product that we ever produced when we only had 4 people in the company. That was the beef meatball that became that viral thing with millions and millions of views in 24 hours.
We knew that lots of people won’t get behind it right away. There’ll be people who think, “Eek, what’s that?” But we wanted to socialize even before the product was ready to get to market. This is a huge infrastructure investment. We recognized that while VCs are going to be the initial people, we wanted this to appeal to the next-stage people after VCs, the crossover investors.
Tesla started off as its own company with a very niche market, and they expanded. They realized it was a huge investment, and they brought Mercedes on board and other competitors on board to work with them. And we thought if we get Tyson and Cargill, the number 1 and number 2 meat producers in the country, they would see the opportunity here. And we would be able to have an impact well beyond what Upside as a company by itself will have.
But ultimately, we also knew we were building a technology that had incredible value, so we separated that knowledge of the technology from the investors having access to that. Because what we don’t want is a Tyson or a Cargill or some other company like this to come and learn about the technology and try to kill it. That happened in electric vehicles a while ago. They don’t have access to fundamental technology, but they have access to the opportunity.
SAFIAN: You mentioned there are now hundreds of companies globally that are pursuing this new industry. What makes Upside special? If ultimately another business cracks the code and you’ve helped make this concept come real, is that okay, or is there something specific about Upside that makes it different from all those other efforts?
VALETI: If I step back as a human on this planet, I want this idea to succeed and have impact well beyond me and future generations.
This pie is so big. This market size is about $2 trillion right now with meat, poultry, and seafood, and that’s doubling in the next 30 years. So an annual $4 trillion market doesn’t need to be in the hands of one company, but we want to be the North Star for everybody to go after. And in time, we’ll be releasing intellectual property also for other companies to start using.
The one thing I keep telling our team is, “Look, we are pioneers. There is no one else to look at. We are setting the stage. So it’s an incredible opportunity, but we also have to learn quickly from failures or mistakes and be able to recognize that our resilience matters a lot more than for somebody in a sector that is already well-established.”
There will be days when it’ll be just nothing but despair. Everything we are working on is not working at the scale we need to work at, but the indomitable spirit of one innovator on our team is going to make all the difference.
If I look at 2016, nobody gave us a chance. If I look at 2017, a handful of people gave us a chance. If I look now, there’s 150 companies in the world trying to go after this in every meat-producing country in the world, or meat-consuming country.
We have the top food and ag programs in the world trying to do undergrad and PhD programs in this field, and we have regulators across the world asking for this product to come into their countries to be regulated.
SAFIAN: How is running a business like Upside different from being in medicine, than being a cardiologist? Or are there things that are similar that you draw from, from that experience?
VALETI: I could not have done this without having gone through my cardiology experience. I was a fully trained interventional cardiologist. We have a North Star of making our favorite food a force for good, but the North Star in cardiology for me was saving a patient’s life. The only thing I cared about was that.
That kind of focus is essential for us to succeed. I was dealing with life and death matters on a regular basis. The thing is to never give up. We just had the Buffalo Bills player, Hamlin, who collapsed on the field. Now, I would get patients who are dead on the field, declared in cardiac arrest, and their EMTs would be doing resuscitation continuously for 30-40 minutes.
I have so many examples, and one of them, this guy, had been dead on the field for 90 minutes. We kept resuscitating him, and we cooled his brain. All the cardiac surgeons around me came in and said, “Hey, it’s time to give up. This guy is not going to make it.” But we kept going as a team, because that was the only North Star. A week later, he walked out of the ICU.
The second thing is perspective. What is the really important thing that matters, versus things that we could get caught as in the rabbit holes of: There are certain procedures that may work, but certain procedures may not work. We have to have a mindset that is open to learning, open to trying, open to failing, and open to trying again. And if that’s not a context they can be comfortable being uncomfortable in, we are not the right place.
The future of Upside Foods
SAFIAN: So you’ve had this FDA ruling, and obviously things are moving in a good direction. At the same time, there’s a lot still to do. What are the next stages?
VALETI: The immediate next step for us to put a product on the market and legally sell it is getting USDA label approved and the USDA inspector’s giving us a grant of inspection. We hope it’ll happen in the first quarter of ’23. Then we will be able to sell to people in the United States. We are planning to sell it through restaurants initially.
We just closed a round of financing in April where we raised 400 million, and we are going to use that to build a facility that is 20 to 30 times larger than what we have in California. We hope that we can open that facility in late ’24 or in the first half of 2025.
We want that to show the full commercial scale manufacturing capability of tens of millions of pounds and want that to be the blueprint. And you make promises to your family along the way. I made a promise to my daughter that for her graduation, she can have her friends come and experience Upside’s fried chicken, and that’s what made her agree to move from Minnesota to the Bay Area. She said, “Okay, if you can serve fried chicken for my graduation, I’ll move.” So I’m hoping, fingers crossed.
SAFIAN: So that’s the real deadline. The USDA has to get its act together in time for her graduation this spring?
VALETI: That’s right. Look, the regulatory agencies run on their timelines, but I’m going to keep my word to my daughter and have her get a really good fried chicken dinner with her friends before they go to college.
SAFIAN: Well, Uma, thanks for spending time with us, and good luck.
VALETI: Thanks for having me here.