David Welch of the Good Food Institute
Alex Shirazi (01:45):
Most people learn about podcasts from their friends, so please share the link with any friends or colleagues that you think might find this show interesting. David holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of California Berkeley, and a PhD in plant development cell biology from URec University. He has more than 15 years experience in the life science industry, including the product development, market development and commercialization of cells, scaffolds, cell reprogramming tools, and cell culture media for regenerative medicine and bioprocessing applications. At G ffi, David combines his background in plant biology and regenerative medicine to help companies and academic research institutions accelerate the development of plant-based and clean meat alternatives to animal products. David, I would like to welcome you to the Cultured Meat and Future Food podcast.
David Welch (02:36):
Thanks, Alex. I’m happy to be here.
Alex Shirazi (02:39):
Tell us David, how did you get involved with Clean Meat and what is your current role at the Good Food Institute?
David Welch (02:46):
You know, like you mentioned in the, in the introduction, my academic background’s in in plant molecular biology, and I actually studied stem cells in the root of a model plant called a rabbit opsis during my PhD. And so I’ve had a, an interest in stem cell biology for, for quite some time. And then, you know, I moved into the life science industry where as you mentioned, I developed and commercialized a lot of tools for stem cell biology research and, and cell therapy applications. And along the way, I became vegan initially for, for running. I was, I’m an ultra runner and wanting to improve my performance. But I soon discovered there were far more important benefits to a plant-based lifestyle, namely the environment and animal welfare and, and, and human health. And I was, as a scientist, I was in intrigued by two problems related to the inefficiency of our, our current food system.
David Welch (03:45):
The first is, first of which was that I was a lot of the work I was doing was to develop tools that were used to research diseases of lifestyle by scientists or to actually create drugs to treat them. And Gina know, with my newfound knowledge of, of a plant-based lifestyle and the benefits of it, I, I thought, well, why not use science to create better foods that can reduce the amount of, of those harmful foods that people are eating and, and in, in turn reduce the need for these, these drugs. And then the second problem that intrigued me was just the overall inefficiency of the industrial animal agriculture system. If you look at the chicken as an example, which is the most efficient livestock animal, the chicken requires nine calories of energy in to produce one calorie of, of food out. And so as a, you know, as a scientist or an engineer, if you look at that very simple equation, you sort of immediately come to the realization, well, there, there must be a, a better more efficient way to produce food than that.
David Welch (04:54):
So why not use science again to create more efficient foods that are less energy intensive and at the same time help improve the environment and human health and, and reduce the suffering of, of animals. So, you know, all of that together kind of brought me to, to G F I where I combine that background in, in cell stem, cell biology and, and plant biology to, to work on better ways to create plant-based food and, and clean meat. So that’s how I got to gfi. Now what do I do at gfi? I’m the director of our science and technology team, and our team is really our, our primary goal is to accelerate the amount of research and commercialization in both plant-based meat and, and clean meat. And I see us doing that through sort of two main pathways. The first is around inspiring and educating scientists and, and entrepreneurs and in investors to help them better understand this space.
David Welch (05:59):
And we perform a lot of foundational research on the current state of the clean meat industry and help scientists identify opportunities for research that we think is gonna move the industry forward. And a lot of that is focused on scientists that are in, that are in adjacent areas of research like stem cell biology or, or tissue engineering, to help them understand how they can take their skills and apply them to the, the research problems that exist within, within clean meat. We’ve also published some, some nice white papers and articles. We recently published a, a review of the Clean Meat Industry in the biochemical engineering journal. That’s an open source paper. So I, I’d be happy to provide a link to your, to your audience to, to take a look at that. And we also help educate scientists through courses. So Alison Burke in, in my team, she helps run a course on alternative meets at uc, Berkeley, and she’s developing a, a MOOC or an, an online course to provide the same type of, of resources and education on a, on a global scale.
David Welch (07:10):
And then alongside that that ed those educational activities, we also work to mobilize funding so that that research can a, actually happen. So we work with a lot of, of generous donors to allow their, their funds to be applied to both plant-based meat and clean meat research. A great example of this is work that we are funding in Dr. George Church’s lab at, at Harvard University. A scientist there, Marie Gibbons is, is working to create a clean Turkey cell line. We’re also working to launch some competitive grant programs later this year that will fund research into, into clean meat. And then we, we also work with investors, so we help them better understand the clean meat industry and how, and the, the new companies that are starting so they can better allocate their funds and with public funding organizations. Just the just last week I was at the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, which is a division of the U S D A to help them better understand both plant-based meat and clean meat and how areas of their funding can be applied to, to research in, in this space.
David Welch (08:24):
And then, you know, if I think out a few years, one of the, the projects that’s really exciting to me is to bring together all of this funding and all of those scientists that I spoke about and create a clean, meet, clean meat research center at one of the top universities here in the US so we can bring together those sort of cross, cross-disciplinary areas of various science disciplines and and engineering to, to make this, this research that’s needed to happen in inlaid happen.
Alex Shirazi (08:55):
What do you think is the main factor for the increased interest in plant-based meats and foods? We used to have veggie burgers for vegans and vegetarians, and now we’re really marketing veggie burgers to the masses. Do you think it’s an environmental aspect or do you think that the interest in meat alternatives has increased since the announcement of the first lab grown hamburger?
David Welch (09:16):
Yeah, this is a great question. Despite people being more aware of the harms of industrial and animal agriculture, meat consumption continues to increase on a, on a global scale. However, the shift towards plant-based foods, I think is really being driven by millennials or the so-called flexitarian. And they, and these people are more likely to consider the food source animal welfare issues and environmental impacts when making their purchasing decisions. And they’re really demanding better products to replace the meat products that they like to eat. And now there are better products that appeal to the masses. Some great examples of these are the Impossible Burger or the Beyond Burger that are really far more similar to animal products than the, you know, the, the veggie burgers that we’ve been used to over the past 10, 20 years. So we’re really starting to see the bio mimicking of meat for meat eaters. And I think in parallel to that some of the funding success by the new clean meat companies like Memphis Meats has created a lot of buzz in the media and in the entrepreneurial and investment communities, and we’ve seen a lot of growth in the number of clean meat companies over the past 12 to 18 months.
Alex Shirazi (10:32):
I want to jump back to a couple things that you mentioned. Tell us a little bit about what ultra running is, and as someone who is vegan and has a plant-based diet, would you personally eat cultured meat?
David Welch (10:49):
So, ultra running is defined as, as any race distance that’s over, over a marathon. I’ve run everything from a 50 k, which is just over 30 miles to a hundred mile race. I’ve done five, 100 mile races. So it’s it’s a passion of mine. I, I do it on a fairly regular basis this year. I’m, I’m attempting something called the Beast Series, which is it’s a, it’s a series of six ultra distance races three 50 ks, one 50 mile race, 100 k race, and, and one 100 mile race all in one calendar year in in the mountains of Virginia. So I’m, I’m in the middle of training fairly, fairly regularly for, for that at the moment. And then in terms of, you know, would I eat clean meat? You know, I thi I don’t have a strong need to eat animal meat, but from a scientific perspective, you know, just from sort of the curiosity of scientist, I’m I’m curious to try some of the clean meat products. I’ve not had a chance to do that yet, but I’m very interested to, to experience that. I’m not sure I’ll be the best test case since I don’t eat meat. But I’m very curious.
Alex Shirazi (12:08):
So let’s get a tad Bitt technical. Tell us exactly what stem cells are in the scenario of tissue culture and how do you exactly identify these particular cells From an animal?
David Welch (12:20):
You can categorize stem cells into two broad categories, first of which would be pluripotent, and those are stem cells that can essentially become any cell or tissue type in the, in the body. And then you have multipotent stem cells, which have a restricted differentiation capability. So they might just be able to form a couple of different cell types in the body. And scientists in, in clean meat companies and, and scientists in, in academic settings are really at the moment looking at all of those different stem cell types to understand which are the best cells to work with to create the, the different types of of clean meat. These cells can be extracted via a very small biopsy. If you take for example, induced pluripotent stem cells, these can be generated from a blood sample or, or a skin sample.
David Welch (13:17):
So these are very non-invasive procedures. Once you have that very small biopsy, you can sort those cells via specific biomarkers so that you have a population of cells that is, is just that stem cell type. And then you can proliferate those in so-called cell culture media, which is essentially a, a nutrient broth that’s providing all of those nutrients that cells need to grow and proliferate. Once you’ve got a specific volume of those stem cells, then you can tweak the culture conditions to push those cells down a particular differentiation pathway. In the case of clean meat, you’re gonna want to push those stem cells to become mostly muscle, but also fat and, and connective connective tissue. And all of that is being done inside a bioreactor, which maintains the appropriate growth conditions for those cells.
Alex Shirazi (14:11):
So we, we hear a lot about fetal bovine serum and the fetal bovine serum being a necessary part of the equation, a very expensive part of the equation. What could be a solution to replace the need for fetal bovine serum in culture media?
David Welch (14:27):
So I don’t see fetal bovine serum as a necessary part of the equation. In the biomedical industry, scientists identified fetal bovine serum or, or FBS as one of the main causes of reproducibility issues in, in cell culture, you know, 10, 15 years ago. And as a result, there are many, many serum free and animal origin free media formulations on the market today. So the, the, the technical challenges of removing FBS in cell culture and replacing it with, with something that is serum free and animal origin free has been been solved. Now, the, the challenge we have with clean meat is that these media formulations are very expensive. A lot of that’s due to the ingredients. Some of the growth factors that are used to either maintain the cells in a pluripotent or, or stem cell-like state or push them towards specific differentiation pathways are very expensive.
David Welch (15:28):
And they’re also produced for the biomedical industry. So they have different quality requirements, and they’re not currently produced at the scale that would be needed for clean meat applications. The work that one of our scientists, Dr. Liz Beck has done on serum free media formulations shows that we can actually reduce the cost of these formulations down to a level where it would make clean meat production at scale possible. So all of this from a technical perspective is, has already been solved. Now what we need to do is to reduce the cost of these serum free median formulations. And this is gonna require work with, you know, some of the large ingredient companies to create food grade versions of these components that are used in serum free media formulations. And, you know, we’d love for a company either a, a, a new startup or one of the existing cell culture media companies to, to look at this space and these problems and, and start to create food grade serum free media formulations for clean meat applications.
Alex Shirazi (16:39):
You had mentioned nine calories in to get one calorie out for the chicken. What would kind of be the ratio for clean meat?
David Welch (16:48):
I don’t think we know that exact ratio yet. There have been some lifecycle assessments done for clean meat. I, I think two or three studies. And all of them indicate that it is going to be a, a far more energy friendly system than the current system that’s used to create animal meat. We have a scientist or an environmental scientist on our team, Isaac Emery, who’s beginning a very complete and thorough lifecycle assessment of the clean meat industry. So all indications show that it is a far more efficient system, but it, that exact ratio is, is something that I’m, I’ll have to get back to you on
Alex Shirazi (17:29):
The first cultured meat hamburger, did not really have any fat in the process of creating future meat. Would we be cultivating fat and muscle cells together or are they combined later, or even would we be using a totally different type of fat?
David Welch (17:44):
So this will depend on the KLI meat product that’s being created. Are you creating, creating a burger or bacon or, you know, a more complex food product like a marbled steak? In the case of of a complex meat product, you’re likely going to need scaffolds and, and perfusion bioreactors to co-culture multiple cell types together. A perfusion bio reactor is a, is a device that allows cells to culture continuously by feeding the cells with fresh cell culture media, and removing spent media while, while keeping those cells in culture. So you’re gonna need that, that complex system, but that would allow scientists to culture those fat and muscle cells together. In the case of a more simple product like ground meat or sausage. The muscle and fat could be combined at a later point in time during the, the production process. One of the interesting thoughts around clean fat is that you could actually create fat with a better nutritional profile. So for example, with less saturated fat or more, or better ratios of omega fatty acids. Another interesting area I think, around clean fat is that you can imagine hybrid products in the future where you might have what is mostly a plant-based burger, but incorporates some clean fat to give it that perfect taste, texture, and, and mouth feel that consumers are looking for.
Alex Shirazi (19:18):
That’s cool. And you know, I heard that there was a company that was able to get, I want to say it was like mammoth cells and cr I and, and kind of create, I think it was a collagen, this might have been gel tour. Do you think that we might be able to create meat from extinct animals in the future?
David Welch (19:40):
So as long as you’ve got the, the stem cells from that animal in theory you can proliferate those and then differentiate them into muscle fat and connected tissue, which is, is meat. So from a, you know, from a very basic technical perspective, if you’ve got the cells, you can create the meat. Whether we’ll see that happen in the, you know, in the next few years, I’m not sure. But I think this does open up an interesting area of, of both research and innovation in that do we really need to s stick to the livestock animals that we currently use to create meat, or are there, can we look to other animals that potentially have better nutritional profiles for, for meat instead of, you know, a cow or, or a pig or, or a chicken. So I think this is a, a really interesting area of research that we’ll see more work done in the, in the future.
Alex Shirazi (20:43):
There are talks of companies creating cultured meat and clean meat microwave looking devices for the home, somewhat equivalent to like a, a bread maker. What is really the minimum amount of equipment you need to for tissue culture today from like a cost perspective? And do you think that in the future we might even have these meat makers in our homes?
David Welch (21:07):
So you can create a small amount of clean meat in a, in a standard cell culture lab with, with flasks and an incubator to maintain appropriate cul culture conditions? I think, you know, if you were to do this on a very basic level, you’d be looking at maybe around $20,000 to set that up. But you could do it for, for much less on a, you know, in a, in a home setting. There’s a, an interesting group in Japan called Shogen Meat, which is associated with one of the clean meat companies in agriculture, and they’re actually crowdsourcing clean meat production by educating and equipping students to create small amounts of, of clean meat at, at home. So there’s some already some interesting examples of how you could, could actually do this in, in your home. But, but saying all of that, you know, if we’re really going to transform our food system, then we’ll need clean meat produced data, a much bigger scale than that. And this is gonna require large, very large manufacturing facilities with, with large bioreactors. So I think this is really where the industry needs to focus and, and this is how we will be able to transform our food system, but saying that we could see small scale devices to produce clean meat in our homes, but I really see this as a niche market. Someone like the devices that we create today, for people that like to bake their own bread at home or brew their own beer.
Alex Shirazi (22:36):
For scientists and entrepreneurs that are interested in starting research companies in this space, what really, you know, what suggestions do you have to get them started?
David Welch (22:46):
First, I would tell them to understand the market. Where are the opportunities for, for clean meat products? Where are there opportunities for, for innovation? A good place to start is the Clean Meat Technology Mind map that GFI has created that’s available on our, on our website. And also I would say, not to just think about Clean meat products, but think about all of the tools that are required for the clean meat industry, the cells that we spoke about earlier, cell culture, media, the ingredients that go into cell culture, media scaffolds that are gonna be needed to grow cells in, in three-dimensional environments, to create those complex meat products and even bioreactor technology and, and the large manufacturing facilities that are going to need to be created to produce clean meat at scale. And, you know, reach out to us at G ffi. That’s really what we are here for. We’re here here to accelerate the amount of research and innovation that’s happening in clean meat. I think you recently interviewed my colleague Brad, who leads our innovation team and his, his team helps entrepreneurs start companies in the clean meat space in the CEC team. We’re about to launch our office hours, which is a monthly one hour session where scientists can, can dial in and ask members of, of the science and technology team questions about both plant-based meat and clean meat. So keep an eye out for that as well.
Alex Shirazi (24:18):
Have you seen a, a large increase in startups in the space?
David Welch (24:21):
Yes, absolutely. So over the past 12 to 18 months, we’ve seen an incredible growth in the number of companies focused on clean meat. I think, you know, if you look back two years, there were just a few clean meat companies, the most notable being most of Meat, Dr. Mark Post company and Memphis Meats. And now, you know, we’re aware of over 15 clean meat companies that have started over the past 12 to 18 months. Some of these are still in stealth mode, but I think over the next year or two, we’ll see even more companies both focused on creating clean meat. And then companies, like I mentioned before, that are creating tools for the clean meat industry. It’s a really exciting time.
Alex Shirazi (25:07):
You can learn more about Dr. David Welch and the Good Food firstname.lastname@example.org. David, are there any last insights you may have for our listeners today?
David Welch (25:17):
Well, I’d first like to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to be on your podcast. I’ve, I’ve really enjoyed myself. And, and finally I’d just like to say how excited I am about the potential of the clean meat industry. You know, just going back to that, that problem statement that I mentioned in the beginning about the chicken and the nine calories in and one calorie out I think, you know, scientists are gonna be intrigued by that, that question and finding ways to create solutions to that through clean meat and to solve those problems of the environment in human health and animal welfare that our current industrial animal agriculture system causes. And there’s so many research and innovation challenge yet to be solved, and we need more scientists and entrepreneurs to, to do that work. So if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me at G ffi, my email address is on, on the website, and I’d be happy to hear from your audience.
Alex Shirazi (26:18):
David, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing your insight on the cultured Meet and Future Food podcast.
David Welch (26:24):
Alex Shirazi (26:26):
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to being with you on our next episode.