“If you want to make the food system more sustainable, it’s not going to be through fixing the incumbent industry,” George Peppou of Vow tells AFN.
While that mindset could apply to many agrifood sectors, he’s specifically talking about cultivated meat here.
No one could accuse his company, Vow, of simply trying to give the incumbent meat industry a makeover via cultivated analogues. The Australia-based startup plans to grow a number of different meats via cell cultivation outside the animal. None of those are chicken. Or beef.
Instead, Vow has name-dropped alpaca, goat and even kangaroo over the last few years as potential species for cultivated meat. Its first product, set for launch in Singapore potentially this year, is cultivated quail. It also opened its own production facility last year.
Peppou and Vow have strong reasons for cultivating somewhat more exotic meats, reasons that have everything to do with helping to make a more sustainable food system. Below, Peppou (GP) discusses the Vow approach to cultivated meat and how his entrepreneurial journey led to this point.
AFN: How did you wind up working in foodtech and starting Vow?
GP: I was doing a biochemistry degree while working full time in the kitchen as a professional cook. I got into fine dining and got to work at some really impressive restaurants, including Australia’s best restaurant at the time.
Then I basically quit hospitality forever and got very lucky and found a job as an inventor for a very odd company in Seattle called Intellectual Ventures. Ironically, through that I started working for the Australian meat industry, solving a lot of problems related to improving technical solutions to boost the quality and consistency of meat. It’s how I got into the agriculture side of things. I did a bit of work with grains and horticulture there as well.
Fast forward to around six years ago, when I was working in strategy, and it became really clear that if you want to make the food system more sustainable, it’s not going to be through fixing incumbent industry. It’s going to come through building businesses that are designed from the ground up to be more sustainable. So then the question became, “What is the best business to dedicate the next couple decades of my career to?”
I wasn’t sure so I started an accelerator called Grit Lab. Over a couple of years, it made 17 investments, the most successful of which is Regrow Ag. I kept coming back to what the same thing: the massive scale of the resources and food required for animals. How could we reduce the dependency on that?
AFN: Are/were you a vegetarian or vegan?
GP: I never came at this from the perspective of being a vegan or a vegetarian, but from someone who enjoys meat and recognizes that demand is going to keep rising. For supply to keep up, it’s gonna be pretty damaging.
I spent six months doing a deep dive into the different ways we can produce [meat]. I talked to a bunch of experts and meat scientists, asking, “Why do we like meat so much?”
[Meat scientists] say it’s just really complex and has a lot of elements which, in the right combinations, are really satiating and satisfying.
AFN: Why cultivated meat?
GP: Looking at all the ways you can make alternatives, plant-based is out because it just doesn’t have the complement of molecules that [animal] meat has. Plant-based plus precision fermentation, like Impossible, works well only when there’s one or two molecules that confer the function. Casein and mozzarella productions a great example: you add a casein into a plant based cheese and you get this beautiful mozzarella-like stretch. That’s not the case in meat, which is why the Impossible Burger, even with the heme, lacks that satisfaction of animal meat.
That left cultured meat, which I thought was the least likely to work. But it seemed like the only technology with the potential to make change. So I ended up going to the US to try to find a job in the sector at the beginning of 2019. I spoke to basically every founder at the time, which was a much smaller group then. Everyone was taking the same strategy, which is still the same prevailing strategy: people eat chicken. [Startups are] making a chicken that’s the same but produced differently.
I came back from that trip unconvinced that anyone had a suitable strategy.
AFN: Is that what led you to focus on less common species?
GP: Yep. The logic is twofold.
First, which are the most economic cells to grow and the most cost effective to scale up? In other words, what’s the easiest thing to grow? If you start from the perspective of, for example, how we grow bovine muscle, you’ve [ruled out] many things that may be far easier and far better suited to cell culture.
Second, with species that are not commonly consumed, there is far less consumer expectation. If I put a tortoise meat in front of you, you’d have no idea what tortoise should taste like. As long as it’s a nice experience, and they tell you what you’re about to eat, and it delivers on that experience, you’re going to be very, very happy with that. There’s way less of that prebuilt expertise in people’s minds compared to chicken, beef or pork.
We’ve also seen moving away from the animal entirely. We really just use animals at the moment as a pretty crude way of describing color, flavor, texture, nutrition. For example, we’re just using beef as a shortcut for some of the nutritional and sensory characteristics.
Because of the degrees of freedom we have with growing animal cells, it’s no longer a particularly useful designation because you can grow quail cells to taste like fish or you can grow them to taste like quail depending on how you culture them.
You have a huge amount of flexibility around that final sensory experience. So why even bother to talk about the species because it’s not really a helpful designation for what you actually care about: Is it tasty? Can I afford it? Is it useful?
AFN: What challenges along the way stand out to you?
GP: Take your pick. It’s all challenging in its own way. I think one of the most surprising ones for me was, in the early days, finding lab space. Just getting a cell culture lab was really, really intense and stressful.
There were lots of moments along the way where we thought, Do we actually have a right to be here? Are we going to be able to attract people [for hire] that can solve these problems?
More recently, we had a manufacturing strategy that did not involve us building a factory. But it became really clear that the strategy was not going to work. There was this very scary moment between February and June where [we realized] we needed to buy a production line and make a multimillion dollar purchase on it. This was before the series A, and getting it wrong would have been a company-ending decision.
Then we had to learn how to operate. started to learn to operate. And scale up a process where suddenly everything which seems simple at a small scale is overwhelmingly complex at a large scale. But the team did an incredible job of that. And so within a couple of months, they were just like, we can run this now.
AFN: Any thoughts or advice for other founders in the cultivated meat space?
GP: Consider what cell culture can offer that animal agriculture can’t, and focus on building around that from the very beginning. The reality is, we’re going up against an incumbent industry that is mature, industrialized, often directly subsidized and also externalizes most of their costs. We’re trying to beat them on their terms. Making the same thing I don’t believe is going to either be successful or have impact.
For us, or for any founder, start from the point of what the technology will allow us to do tomorrow that we can’t do today, rather than trying to make what people already know.