Joshua March first encountered the concept of cultivated meat nearly two decades ago — in a sci-fi novel. Fast-forward to 2022, and he’s co-founder and CEO of the fittingly named SCiFi Foods, a US startup that officially emerged from stealth this year and is developing an alt-beef burger that’s a combination of plant-based ingredients and cultivated beef cells.
The hybrid approach is very intentional on the part of SCiFi foods, and, March says, crucial to overcoming the current cost barriers of cultivated meat and putting the industry on the path to commercialization.
“As someone who eats meat and loves burgers, I just want to be able to eat the things I love without destroying the planet,” he adds.
The company recently announced a partnership with Michigan State University’s Food Processing and Innovation Center as well as its Center for Research on Ingredient Safety, which SCiFi says will help accelerate product development.
Below, March (JM) offers details about how he and his co-founder built a company, the challenges he overcame along the way, and gives a few pieces of advice for other startups.
AFN: What led you to cultivated meat in the first place?
JM: Prior to founding SCiFi, I’d been founding and running companies in the software space. But I’ve been dreaming about making cultivated meat a reality since reading about it in Iain Bank’s book 18 years ago [“The Player of Games,” in which society cultivates meat rather than getting it via animal agriculture]. As soon as I read it, it struck me that [cultivated meat] had to be the future — both the inevitable future but also one we had to make happen as soon as possible. It’s one of the biggest contributors to climate change, especially beef. And how do we provide whatever our growing population wants and needs without destroying the planet? I say this as someone who eats meat and loves burgers, but I just want to be able to eat the things I love without destroying the planet.
In 2016, I got introduced to New Harvest, an organization that’s been funding academic research into cultivated meat for a long time. Their first conference in the US, I think, was 2016, which I attended and I started spending more and more time with scientists and entrepreneurs in the cultivated meat industry.
What started to become really clear to me over a number of years was that there were some really big cost and scale challenges that I saw were going to prevent cultivated meat from really having the impact that I knew that it could have. Honestly, I became kind of disenchanted with what I was hearing in the industry about the approaches to actually solving those problems. And I became pretty convinced that a different approach would be needed to make cultivated meat successful. That basically led to the founding of SCiFi and developing the strategy we have today.
AFN: What were a couple of challenges you encountered in the early days? How did you overcome them?
JM: My dream was, “I want to be 3D-printing steak and make all these products.” And what became really clear is that just to grow enough cellular biomass is incredibly expensive. Then there’s the CAPEX required for the bioreactors, the cell culture media. And the output of that is a cell paste that’s like a meat paste, not muscle tissue or fat tissue.
There is lots of exciting early-stage R&D on turning those cells into muscle tissue and fat tissue, and people are using 3D-printing and scaffolding to create tissue maturation. But all of that stuff is super slow, super small-scale, and super expensive. How do you scale that up?
It became super clear to me that trying to create structured meats, like steak, is not happening anytime soon. The challenge, from a CAPEX perspective, is that just creating the cellular biomass would be too huge, even before any of that super-expensive downstream processing. That got me thinking about what would be commercially viable and what products we could create that are really impactful for consumers and really impactful in the market.
One of the questions I asked early on was, “Can we make a big improvement to the quality and the taste of meat alternatives by combining plant based and cultivated cells?” That massively simplified a lot of things, because it means you have much less CAPEX and you basically remove all of the downstream processing. You’re just growing cells in a bioreactor and putting them out.
I spent the next three, four years just learning as much as I could about technology.
The big moment was when I met our co-founder, Dr. Kasia Gora, a synthetic biologist. She brought in the understanding and the experience of how we can use CRISPR and other genetic engineering technologies to engineer edible beef cell lines that can be grown at large scale and low cost. We have very strong conviction that that is a fundamental unlock that is required to [make cultivated meat] an immediate commercial reality.
AFN: Did the challenges ever feel too insurmountable?
JM: [Cultivated meat] is something I’ve always felt has to happen. It’s a hard problem for sure. There are definitely times where I felt like there were easier ways of making money. But the funding is not the motivator for me.
AFN: Did anything in particular keep your confidence high as you were learning all this?
JM: Something that gave myself and Kasia a lot of confidence early on is was a technical economic analysis. We brought in process engineers who had experience scaling up manufacturing processes. And we did a quick analysis in order to understand what the process would need to look like at large scale: all the CAPEX involved, all the unit economics, everything else. Then we could figure out what would we need to do to have a product that we can produce profitably and to be an affordable product at large scale and understand all the all the different inputs and what technology we would need.
That gave us this real clear Northstar, and also roadmap. If we could achieve these, we could scale this up profitably.
The next thing was when we actually started tasting the burgers, which taste really great, like beef. And you compare them to a plant-based burger and the differences really stark. That gives us a lot of confidence and excitement.
AFN: Is being the CEO of a cultivated meat company vastly different from being one of a B2B software startup?
JM: Fundamentally, being a CEO is a very privileged position. My job is to hire really great people who have to be better at the job than me. I shouldn’t be the subject matter expert in any of the functional things that we’re doing as a company. A lot of my job is hiring great people, telling them the narrative, telling a narrative to investors, managing investors, managing the board, keeping the company super aligned, and holding high standards. Almost all of those things transfer between industries and companies. There are differences in how we need to like operate as a company, for sure. My personal job as CEO is like extremely similar. And also, I’m just extremely lucky to have such an awesome co-founder who has amazing technical expertise and functional experience in the area, which is obviously a massive, massive benefit.
AFN: What advice to you have for other startups in the space?
JM: Doing a techno-economic model and analysis is absolutely essential. In bio-manufacturing, small differences in cost inputs can really make a big difference. And things have to be physically and biologically possible.
Food is fundamentally a low-cost commodity product. So you have to do the work to understand how do we create a profitable process. And [chemical engineer] David Humbird did a really in-depth, technical economic analysis of cultivated meat that came out about a year and a half ago. Some people in the industry just sort of “poopoo’d” that, saying, “There’s always skeptics and technology will overcome it all.” But this was someone who was funded by a pro-meat-alternative lobby to understand the feasibility [of cultivated meat], and he did a pretty amazing and in-depth analysis.
We compared it to our own and they basically come to the same conclusion, which is trying to do 100% cultivated meat without genetic engineering is not possible. With today’s technology, you will not be able to get the cost profile where it is.
My advice to other founders in the space is, you have to have a plan for how you can create a scalable, profitable and affordable product that acknowledges the reality of the cost profile in different throughputs, and that isn’t just based on hope that everything’s gonna get cheaper. Maybe there will be new technology, there will be new innovations, but hope isn’t a strategy fundamentally. And so don’t don’t dismiss the critics.