Josh Tetrick has always been able to get investors to back his trailblazing ideas for producing “better-for-you” products that seek to propel the food industry into the future, whether it’s plant-based mayonnaise substitutes or “cultivated” poultry based on teasing real chicken cells into slabs of faux meat.
But now that Tetrick has in his pocket approval by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and Agriculture Department of the sale of his company’s Good Meat’s chicken imitator to the public, he’s facing a new challenge and opportunity in the need to scale up manufacturing of his new lab-based product into availability as the mainstream consumer good he long has envisioned.
It has been much more expensive to develop cultivated meat and gear up a nascent industry than he had imagined. “The technology is compelling, but you have to deal with everyday food production: the warehousing of food, the cold chain, a quality-assurance and quality-control team for foodservice and retail,” Tetrick told Chief Executive. “Even with breakthrough products, the laws of physics still apply. I didn’t realize when we started how critical managing logistics would be, for sure.”
Tetrick has learned lots of lessons along the way in a zig-zag entrepreneurial career that alone has done much to transform the food business and its use of technology that promises continued disruption. He founded Hampton Creek in 2011, an early startup aimed at replacing traditional animal protein — in this case, the eggs in cookies and mayonnaise.
Then, his successor company, Just Eat, became a leader out of the gate in raising capital to finance cultivated meat. Just Eat got approval to sell Good Meat “chicken” in Singapore in 2020 before notching the FDA’s nod just months after the agency’s first OK of cultivated meats, for startup Upside Foods, last fall. Good Meat first served the product at a Washington, D.C., restaurant run by Eat Just board member and chef Jose Andres.
But it’s been an uneven path for Tetrick and his enterprises. Billionaire investors were attracted early to his Silicon Valley-based outfit, but Hampton Creek fell into scandal and legal battles, including accusations that it bought its own product to boost sales, and Target’s removal of Just products from its shelves over food-safety allegations. And internal strife saw the company’s entire board resign in 2017.
Yet, as Eat Just and with its new focus on cultivated meat, the company has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars of investments from sources as diverse as the investment arm of Paul Allen, the late co-founder of Microsoft, and the government of Qatar.
Tetrick said his checkered experience with Hampton Creek taught him several valuable lessons as he heads into scaling up Just Eat. Among them:
It’s worth dreaming. “We can do something that seems at least improbable, [adapting] a plant [protein] that scrambles like an egg, selling tens of millions of dollars of it and being in two million new households,” he said. “You can create an entire new category from an idea and have it be something.”
Expect difficulties. “Many things,” Tetrick said, “will be significantly harder than what you think when you first start going. It’s difficult to know exactly what. But don’t delude yourself by thinking that just because you have things on PowerPoint slides and a whiteboard and experts say it’s do this and that, that it’ll work. There will be any number of things that will make it much more challenging.”
For instance, he said, the “big challenge” Just Eat has in scaling up its cultivated-meat production is that it will require much larger fermentation vessels than the ones it has been using for limited output so far. The “bioreactors” that cultivated-meat startups are using are similar to the ones that microbrewers use, but Tetrick now needs such vessels that “hold 100,000 or 200,000 liters instead of ones that hold 3,500 liters. The challenge to that is a capital challenge, requiring hundreds of millions of dollars, and a timing challenge — when you order materials for these vessels, you’re looking at a minimum two-year lead time until assembly. And there are engineering challenges.”
Defeat can be overcome. “Standing still doesn’t do much,” Tetrick said. “Any time you’re moving forward, positive things happen. Now we are attracting talent and capital and showing other countries that [a cultivated-meat industry] is possible, that consumers are aware, and that commercial production is possible. USDA approval sends a big message of credibility in where America is to the world.”