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Eat Just founder and CEO Josh Tetrick. Image credit: AFN

Podcast: JUST how this startup became the first to serve cell-cultured meat in a restaurant

March 23, 2021

In November, the foodtech industry reached a major milestone when Eat Just — the alt-protein startup first known for its plant-based ‘egg’ substitute, JUST Egg — became the first company in the world to get regulatory approval to sell cell-cultured meat to the public.

The approval was granted in Singapore on US Thanksgiving Day, according to founder and CEO Josh Tetrick, and Eat Just went on to serve cultivated chicken — in the form of nuggets — at a restaurant called 1880 in December.

JUST this week — see what I did there (!) — the company also announced a $200 million funding round led by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

It’s certainly full speed ahead for the company, which boasts it has served the plant-based equivalent of 100 million eggs with its egg-less products.

These are led by JUST Egg, which is sold across thousands of retail outlets and distribution channels globally.

So it was about time I caught up with Tetrick to learn more about this growth and dig into a few things from the past. (Did you know, we were one of the first, if not the first, to interview him back in 2014 when he showed us around his lab?) We cover the following topics and more:

  • How Eat Just managed to get regulatory approval for GOOD Meat ahead of other cultivated meat startups
  • How it manages a plant-based and cell-cultured food company and maintains focus
  • New formats it has in the pipeline
  • How investors reached a $1 billion valuation for the company
  • Advice for fellow entrepreneurs
  • Josh’s moonshot idea for beans

Listen below or on your favorite podcasting app. And there’s an abridged transcript of the conversation below. Enjoy!

Louisa Burwood-Taylor, AFN (LBT): You’ve always been a leader in the plant-based space and it was a few years ago now when you announced your plans to get into cultivated chicken, but I have to say, it felt like you were on the back foot a little bit compared to some of the other groups. But now with your groundbreaking launch of GOOD Meat in Singapore – a fantastic achievement – it feels like you kind of overtook all the others to reach this point. How did you do that?

Josh Tetrick, Eat Just (JT): Well, we’ve been doing a lot of hard work in the background. We have a team that’s really been focused over the last handful of years on research and development, on meeting the demands of getting to the serum-free formulation of scale up. And the scale up element is a particular piece that’s important to us. We’ve learned a lot of lessons about how to scale up food technology through what we’ve done with JUST Egg, we’re approaching 100 million JUST Eggs sold. That requires a lot of scale up expertise and yeah, on Thanksgiving day of all days, we heard back from SFA, the food regulators in Singapore, that we were the first company ever to receive approval to sell an animal product that didn’t require killing an animal called cultured meat. And then on December 19th at about 7:00 PM, we sat down a group of four young people between 12 and 17 who stuck their forks into some chicken and then paid for it and we were able to get over that important milestone. And we hope there’s a lot more to come.

LBT: Had you always had this in the back of your minds that you were going to move into this space while you were doing your plant-based mayo and egg products; had you already done some of the discovery there?

JT: Well, the mission of the company was never, “we really want to be a plant based technology company.” That’s not what the fixation has been. The fixation has really been on, how do you take this objectively broken, irrational, sad food system that doesn’t represent our values, and change it quickly, focusing on changing the dynamics of animal protein? That’s what, more than anything, I cared about. And we started thinking about, “What is the most consumed animal protein?” That happens to be the chicken egg, “What is the best way to solve it? Through plants? Let’s go.” And then as we began developing that, we thought, “All right, what’s next?” And we knew we wanted to hit chicken or beef, pork. And we looked at technologies. We certainly looked at plant based technology because that’s what we had a lot of experience in, but then we also looked at others including, cellular agriculture and we made the determination that for the purpose of doing [meat], a different technology is necessary.

And then we developed the capacity to do it. We brought on folks that are experienced in cell line development, have experience in media, understand how to work with a buyer reactor. And that’s how we think about things. They’re all sorts of technologies within this field of food technology, and I don’t think you need to necessarily specialize in just one element. We want to focus on the one that is the most relevant for the application. 

And just to give you more logic as to why we thought the cultured process is better for us to handle meat: we want restaurants, small diners in Birmingham, Alabama, where I’m from; cafes here in Kauai, big, fast food chains in China; we want all of those places only to have one kind of meat on the menu. And that’s the kind of meat that didn’t require the slaughter of an animal, or the tearing down of a tree, or the use of antibiotics. And we simply think the most effective way to get there is presenting a cultured meat option that literally is meat, that ultimately is less expensive than meat, and that’s what we’re doing.

LBT: Are you doing everything in-house – are you making your own growth factors and designing your own bioreactors? Or are you actively collaborating with others?

JT: It’s a combination. Almost all of the research and development is in-house, so we have a build-out team, about 50 of our 150 person team are on the research and development side, process engineers and biochemists, molecular biologists, analytical chemists, food engineers, chefs, product developers. So the core work around cell line development, media formulation, scale up, that’s all in-house. But we’re not, as an example, currently building our own bioreactors; we work with companies to identify bioreactors and customize them to our needs, and we’ll continue to do that.

We want to run as fast as we can and this will begin in Singapore where we’re scaling up from the restaurant we’re at today to five, to 10, to 1,000, then moved to the US, China, other countries that eventually will clear this from a regulatory perspective. We want to scale up from 1,000 liters to 100,000 plus liters. We want to launch chicken breast, and then beef, and then pork, and then seafood. We are very much all in. It’s going to be very capital intensive. It’s going to be very hard and it’s also going to be very worth it.

LBT: So what’s happening with the plant-based side of the business? That’s ticking along at the same time?

JT: That’s right. And we’re in about 20,000 points of distribution with JUST Egg, we’re far and away the fastest growing egg brand in the United States. The goal is to eventually be number one egg brand globally, not just plant-based egg brand, but egg brand full stop. We’re approaching about 100 million plant-based eggs sold in some top three to five retailers. We’re selling more than 95% of all the eggs that they sell. The vast majority of people who buy JUST Egg are not vegan or vegetarian, they’re just trying to eat a little bit better. And eventually with JUST Egg, we want to get to the point where we’re significantly below the cost of a conventional line.

Seventy-five percent of people prefer us to a pasteurized egg. We partner with companies like Michael Foods, or like PHW, a major food company in Western Europe who take our proprietary protein, convert it into the finished product, and then push it out through their distribution channels. Michael Foods in the US is a really good example of that. They are far and away the biggest provider of eggs to restaurants, hospitals, big fast food chains. They’re the dominant player, and there’s not even a close second. And they’re our partner. And they have 700 people on their sales team, and most of those 700 people now know how to sell a plant-based egg. And most of those folks are actively selling a plant-based egg under our brand to the channel today. And that’s how we’re going to get to scale.

LBT: How do you maintain focus with so many different products and technologies under one roof?

JT: Well, we’re doing eggs and meat; that’s it. We’re not doing milk. We don’t want to do milk, we don’t want to do ice cream, we don’t want to do pastas, we don’t want to do cupcakes. We want to do egg and then chicken and beef really in the next few years. So, although it might seem a lot because there are these two technologies in terms of product focus to just those things, egg and meat, and they’re more crossovers than I think one would think. A really good product developer, a really good chef is competent at doing work for egg or chicken. A really good process engineer understands the physics of protein separation and also the physics of large scale cell production or really good CTO.

Thankfully, we have a phenomenal CTO, Peter Licari, who is really good at leading and allocating resources and hiring a team to execute these things. And that’s how we do it. I can’t imagine not doing meat because I think it’s so fundamental, and I’m such a big believer in the technology of cultured meat to give us the highest probability of moving away from the current system of production. There’s also this other element of, I just have to do it. I can’t not do it. I wouldn’t want to leave the company and focus as we are, if that wasn’t a part of what we do.

LBT: True or false: 10% of meat will come from cultured meat by 2030, per management consultancy Kearney?

JT: False. I think if companies like us do our job, it should be a bit higher than that. I actually reached out to the folks that wrote that, and I said… I think they wrote that before we launched, but I think they’re understating how fast this technology can scale. Although, I think generally the report did a good job with the sentiment of what the transition’s going to look like.

LBT: True or false: plant-based animal product alternatives are innately healthier than cultivated meat?

JT: It depends on the product. That’s a hard true or false. Now, what I can tell you is true is the healthiest way to eat has nothing to do with cultivated meat or plant-based products like JUST Egg or other plant-based burgers. The healthiest way to eat is papayas and spinach and apples and oranges and kale. So, evidence would say that’s far and away the healthiest way for the human being to eat. But yeah, it depends what product we’re talking about, what the ingredients are, what the makeup is. So it’s hard to generalize whether the question is true or false.

LBT: There has been quite a bit of discussion now about the health profile, nutritional profile behind some of the plant-based alternatives. Are you working on making yours healthier? Are there any kind of concerns around some of the other ingredients that you use in some of the plant-based products? Just wondering how you’re tackling that new focus on making sure these aren’t overly processed goods.

JT: Yeah. Well, I think there are few dimensions of that. The most important dimension is just to be really honest with people. So when we talk about health, we should look at what the evidence says about health and what the evidence says about healthy eating is really clear. And that clarity has nothing to do with selling more JUST Egg, or more GOOD meat. It’s eat the whole plant. That’s what it says. And our company doesn’t get a dollar for that advice; it just happens to be there. And so I think in any conversation about health and food, we should start with what I think is the most true. Second thing is, when we talk about health there is relative health.

So, if someone does what to eat chicken, it’s not just asking whether a plant-based is healthy or not, it’s is it healthier than what the alternative is? And then the third is saying, All right, there are a lot of things that plant-based products can do, including JUST Egg that we do, to become a lot healthier. And that includes more minimal processing that include removing ingredients that folks can’t pronounce. For the most part, that includes lowering the sodium and includes generally removing ingredients that are not conducive to health and including those that are. So it’s really important to us, whether it’s kind of an in thing for consumers or the inside guys to talk about or not. We just want to make our thing as healthy as we possibly can.

And with each subsequent version that we put out, there’s some element of health that we’re attempting to improve. Again, whether it’s less processing, whether it’s the removal of ingredient, whether it’s the inclusion in ingredient. Another thing we’re doing on the health side is encouraging people to eat JUST Egg with more whole plant. So if you look at our social media over the last handful of months, as an example, versus what it looked like a year and a half ago, you’ll see JUST Egg paired with a lot less sugary, fatty things and paired more with kale and spinach and other whole plant vegetables and fruits, which are just better. So we’d like people to look at it as a vehicle to eat more whole plants, as opposed to just a breakfast in and of itself.

LBT: True or false: cultured chicken is a premium food product.

JT: Well, it is true if the word premium is defined as it is today, more expensive than conventional, so that is true.

It is false if the word premium is defining what it will be in the future. 

LBT: So what do you think the cost curve looks like? We saw an announcement this week from Future Meat saying they cut their costs down to $7.50 per quarter pound of chicken. I’m not sure where you are compared to that?

JT: We won’t disclose cost. What we need to understand about the cost in this product today is until we were approved, there’s no reason to make an enormous amount of it. And if you think about how costs work in any industry, think about the phone that’s in your pocket. If Apple was only allowed to make phones for their friends, family members, and a few of their major investors because regulators hadn’t approved the sale of an iPhone in the US why would they make 100 million of them? There’d be no reason to do it. And the only reason that Apple was able to get the cost of its components down is because it makes hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions on the phone. Same deal with Tesla. So the cost curve only comes down in part, when you can make many of the things.

And you can only make many of the thing when you’re actually approved to sell the thing. And until we were approved, that was not the case. So now, as we’re expanding in Singapore from one restaurant to many, there was a reason to scale up, right? There’s a reason to make more per day and more per week and more pounds per month. And that’ll significantly drive the cost down. Generally speaking, I can tell you, I think in the next five to 10 years, we’ll be at a place where this will be at parity or below the cost of chicken or beef. I also say, I hope there are 10 entrepreneurs around the world that are listening to this, or not even entrepreneurs, want to be entrepreneurs who’ll read this and say, “You know what? I want to start a company that beats his ass.” We want that. The problem of animal agriculture is a deep endemic problem that is affecting all of us, and we need many companies attacking it from different angles. So I hope more people get after us.

LBT: True or false: there’s no such thing as bad publicity?

JT: That’s false. There definitely is such thing as bad publicity. Yeah, that’s definitely false.

All media is not good media. The best media is increasing the probability that you can accomplish your mission, not decreasing it. That also happens to be based in reasoned evidence. So that’s the most false of all the questions.. That’s my most emphatic true, false of all the questions you’ve asked so far.

LBT: Well, I don’t want to drag into this, but there were allegations around your company’s purchasing many jars of the mayo product [and an US Securities & Exchange Commission investigation that was dropped.] How did you kind of turn that around and motivate your team? It must’ve been a really tough time for the company.

JT: Well, there is kind of a media side then the internal company’s side. So just the internal company’s side, that was in 2014. So a handful of years ago, maybe even more than that in start-up time, we spent less than… I spent around 1% of sales in a particular year doing something that a lot of companies end up doing around getting shelf space. And it got media attention a handful years after it. Everyone, my company knew what the deal is and how straight up we were about it. So there’s no change in any particular company operation. It was dealing with some elements in the media in a straightforward, honest way, and continuing to keep our heads down, building the company. And that’s a really… The most important lesson that came from it wasn’t a lesson that we necessarily need to learn because we were doing it, which is the most important thing to do every day, is to put your attention, attention meaning your brain, your body, where you physically are, your time on things that make it more likely that you’ll achieve the mission.

That’s the most important operating principle. And whether there is press that says your company is a revolution to the food system, or there is press that says the opposite, neither actually matter, because what matters is what you’re doing, right? What matters is the team. What matters is what you’re literally building. What matters is how many consumers are actually buying your product and then buying it again. What matters is your ability to rip out unnecessary costs. Scale. What matters is your ability to be honest and straight forward and forward thinking with regulators. And what matters is building an effective culture. Those are the things that, that end up determining whether you’re winning or not. Everything else is just noise.

LBT: Yes, there’s certainly a lot of noise in this space. Let’s talk a bit about fundraising. How is that? It’s the worst part of most founders’ jobs and it supposedly gets easier, but maybe it doesn’t? When you moved into cultivated meat, it obviously changed things a little bit. And you mentioned earlier in our conversation about being honest with investors about the timeline. How has that process been? How has it changed?

JT: We don’t approach it too differently than we did in the past. And our approach to investors is, “This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re not going to compromise. These are the technologies that matter to us. These are our approaches regarding a business model or a building a brand. And if you jump aboard the ship, we’re not interested in just being a nice, good, valuable company. If that’s what you’re interested in, there are a lot of other companies that you can invest in. What we’re interested in is doing something that has an opportunity, not a guarantee, but an opportunity to shift things in a more dramatic way that ultimately it can have a more important, more meaningful outcome. It’ll be a lot harder, it might take a little bit longer, might require a little bit more capital, but that’s our approach. In addition to that, we believe it’s critically important that the management of the company, the team who’s running the company, have the autonomy to make the most important decisions and determine where we go.”

That’s my short summary of what I tell investors. And some investors hear that and say, “I’m going to go take my money elsewhere.” And then some investors hear that and say, “That sounds like a company I want to back.” And that’s one lesson that I would tell other entrepreneurs. Just because an investor has X number of millions of dollars to invest, doesn’t mean they’re the right investor for you. And there are all sorts of things that determine that, including what your very clear point of view of who you are and what you’re trying to build is. And you’ve got to find the right funding, the right alignment there.

LBT: So you’re talking about maintaining control of the direction of the company.

JT: Yes, that’s a critical element.

LBT: And what about valuations? It’s always a big topic in this space and across food tech, really, especially with companies that are pre-revenue. Obviously, you’re not pre-revenue now, you’re post revenue. Can you tell us what your valuation is today?

JT: So I’d say that I think the last reported valuation to media is north of a billion. But with that said, it’s based on any number of factors. Those factors include your revenue, your current profitability, your path to profitability, your technology, how differentiated your technology is, how scalable your business model is, the credibility of your current investors, the vision of the management team, your current talent, where the company is located, who else is competing for the deal, and then a host of other intangible qualities that are impacted by what’s happening in society today, like COVID.

So all of that is going into what a valuation is. Many of those for a public company too, by the way. But our general perspective on valuation is, listen, all things being equal, of course you’d rather a higher valuation than a lower valuation. But life is not like that, right? I would rather have the investors that are deeply in a very non-bull shit way aligned with what we’re doing at a lower valuation than I would investors that are misaligned with what we’re doing at a higher valuation, as an example. So there are all sorts of factors that go into it, but I think one thing to disentangle yourself from if you’re an entrepreneur listening to this is the very false idea that valuation is only based upon sales and personal loss, because that’s certainly not true.

LBT: Where would your next stop be? If you could choose another area of food tech, where would you go?

JT: People that are devising ways to get people to eat more whole plants. A friend of mine named Alexis once said that there should be a company called sexy beans. And the purpose of this company would be to make beans cool and sexy, right?

I love ideas like that. Because they’re so the antithesis of what we’re doing, right? It’s not about building a technology platform. It has nothing to do with it. It’s about taking something that is so objectively good in and of itself, right? I, or my team didn’t do a damn thing to it. It is just good. But making it more palatable and exciting and compelling for people who think beans are kind of uncool for the most part. So, anyone-

LBT: So it’s like a PR campaign for the beans.

JT: There needs to be a PR campaign for beans. There’s no doubt that it does!

It’s ideas like that, that I think are really interesting. How do we figure out a way to design a food system where kale is as ubiquitous as soy and corn? What are the kinds of things that we need to do? Kinds of adjustments in the food system that we need to do to enable that? I think those are the kinds of things I find really interesting, and I think I just have a lot of power to make things better, and it relates to… To me, food is not that dissimilar from transportation and that we can all agree, transportation needs to be fixed. It’s dirty, it’s inefficient. But there are a lot of ways of fixing our transportation system. They include everything from whatever Tesla’s going to build next, to an electric scooter, to the bike that I wrote to this location to talk to you, right?

It doesn’t have to be only an electric car, or only the work of crews, or only electric scooter. It could mean cities designing more bike-able cities. I’m always such a fan at some Western European cities are just so bikeable, right? It’s just easy to jump on a bike. You don’t need the electric car. 

I would never buy a Tesla in Amsterdam. It’d be ridiculous. I’m just going to jump on a bike. And I think I look at that dynamic, I think there are a lot of similarities with food that we need to figure out a way to move people off intensive animal agriculture, for all the reasons that we’re aware of, and the way of doing that includes a lot of different approaches. It includes purely plant-based, it includes culture, it includes our vertical farms, it includes sexy beans.

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