Lejjy Gafour of CULT Food Science
Alex Shirazi (00:04):
Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show. My name is Alex and I’ll be your host for this episode. We’re excited to have led before the CEO of Cult Food Science on the show. Lejjy is a self-taught entrepreneur and an experienced company operator who made his start creating opportunities at the young age of 14. He’s been working, leading, and building businesses ever since. We talk about his background, his founding story of future fields, and what cult food science is today.
Lejjy, welcome to the show.
Lejjy Gafour (00:37):
Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Alex Shirazi (00:40):
Lejjy. You’ve been in the cultured meat cultivated meat industry for quite some time. Tell us a little bit about your background and maybe even before you got into the space.
Lejjy Gafour (00:50):
Yes. Oh gosh, this is the long question. So yes, I’ve been in the space for a while officially since around 2015. It was one of the co-founders of Future Fields. Back then when my co-founders and I started the company, there was not a lot of players in this space. And we made the decision to form the company way back at a earlier New Harvest conference. But backing it up a bit on my own background, I have a very, I will say eclectic background. I’ve had over 30 jobs. I’ve been everything from a drywaller to a health researcher to designer. I worked in research computing enterprise software. I was enterprise architect for a while as well. A lot of stuff on computing, hardware startups had retail businesses. And my massive amount of random jobs that I’ve had throughout my life was a kind of result of my deeper background.
Lejjy Gafour (02:00):
Actually grew up on a farm here in southern Canada in pretty deep poverty. So I had my hands in the dirt, so to speak with actual on the ground farming. And it was interesting cuz I never imagined that I would get back into food in such a long, roundabout way. Cuz honestly, I, I hated it so much living on a farm. It was work was hard and when you couldn’t grow enough food and make things work out in the middle of nowhere, it was challenging especially in the winter. So a lot of that experience shaped how I feel about food on things like food security is a easy example, which is a common term that gets thrown around, especially at conferences. But it’s, that term loses the sensation of the reality of literally not being able to eat and starving.
Lejjy Gafour (03:00):
Which if you go through that legitimately, is something that never really leaves you. So that sense has carried me through into where I’m at today because you can never really escape it. And even then even though I grew up quite poor, had multiple weeks of not having food living on a farm, I was still lucky compared to many others. And that the food problems I feel are, are hidden for a lot of people in North America. And I’m always worried it’s gonna get worse hence what I’m doing now. But I had no formal training, so to speak. A lot of the stuff was self-taught. And fast forwarding to starting getting in the culture and meat space, I had discovered it from a 3M researcher quite a while ago, who I believe was working at tissue engineering here at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Lejjy Gafour (03:58):
And I thought it was quite interesting. So when the opportunity really came up to learn things from New Harvest and go to the conference, I jumped at the chance and made the call with my co-founders to start first company there because we saw there was really a blank slate of players, especially in Canada. So we were one of the first operating companies in Canada. And I exited here just at the end of 2021 found myself fortunate enough to pick up a role at Cult Food Science where I’m at today, focused on exclusively the cell based space for investment and new company development. A lot of stuff in there <laugh>. So feel free to ask any questions or clarifications on there.
Alex Shirazi (04:49):
No, absolutely. That’s, that’s definitely quite a story. And I would say, you know, you’re right, you definitely did come full circle, you know, starting in food and, and now you are in food. One question that comes up is Canada does have very long winters, and so what kind of farm was it, was it a vegetable farm? Did you have animals on the farm? What kind of farm was it?
Lejjy Gafour (05:12):
You ought to forgive the software terms at the start, it was a full stack farm, I would say <laugh>, but this is around, this is around like the late eighties, early nineties where it really started to not become viable to just have like a, I don’t wanna say subsist, subsistence, but the ideal farm that people kind of have in their head. For what a small farm, I will say used to be where you could have like cattle and pigs and chickens and grow wheat and have a vegetable garden. We had all these things at a period of time, but each one of them really stopped being viable. And eventually we were just left with just pretty big gardens to grow what we could. So it was, it was a, a mixed farm. There’s wheat farming at one point. But a lot of that stuff really had to start to die off at these the years grew on and stuff got more difficult till I eventually moved away.
Alex Shirazi (06:19):
And some of those other jobs or roles that you had, was that all in Canada?
Lejjy Gafour (06:25):
Yes. Yeah. Yeah. I, I’ve lived in Canada for all my life, been fortunate enough to travel around. But yeah, 90% of my working experiences and based here in Canada overall with a lot of it focused on computing and hardware.
Alex Shirazi (06:41):
So I wanna focus the conversation mostly on cult food science. But I do wanna kind of hear how creating future fields first came about. What was the, the process of kind of getting together with the co-founders and saying, Hey, let’s do this thing.
Lejjy Gafour (06:59):
It was, I would say a matter of inspiration and risk taking, both by co-founders time, very skilled in their own domains. In between the three of us we had each one of a unique skill set that the other person did not have at the time that really made a complete package. Like the majority of my experience was on the business and computing side and I didn’t have the bio side where other co-founders had that. So we both had different motivations for why we wanted to start it, but ultimately we saw the potential of what this technology could have which is really changing and shifting how agriculture is seen, how products are produced, and what it could mean for the future in light of climate change more than anything. Even back then all three of us were quite motivated to try to actually make a difference somehow with the things that we knew and made the decision to take the risk.
Lejjy Gafour (08:14):
But we had made the call before everything was really, really official to go to one of the earlier New Harvest conferences. And after we saw the speakers and the presenters there it was pretty clear to us that there was still a chance and an open field to really get involved in this. So after that we formalized everything and tried our first stab at making a chicken nugget which was really expensive de iterated through eventually to what Future Fields is today which is a sustainable recom a protein production which originally formed around it being a solution to the cost problem of growth media and growth factors. So it’s evolved quite a bit to where it is today. A lot of learnings in that and a lot of steps forward. But definitely along that theme where biotechnology is never just one thing. And then it crosses over into so many different domains.
Alex Shirazi (09:18):
I’ve been hearing a lot of references to the New Harvest conference. Of course we just met a couple months ago in person at the 2022 New Harvest Conference. I just got off a call with Josh March and he also said that he kind of got into the field through a New Harvest conference. I wanted to ask, which year was it that you and the other future fields co-founders? First went to the New Harvest conference,
Lejjy Gafour (09:44):
I believe it was the 2015 conference in New York.
Alex Shirazi (09:49):
Wow, okay. So definitely one of the earlier ones.
Lejjy Gafour (09:52):
Yeah, I believe it was the second or third one, I should probably know this. But it was in the Red Hook in New York that we attended that conference. Yeah.
Alex Shirazi (10:03):
Cool. And so, so future fields kind of went on to raise money and, and now they’re building out their product line. Were you kind of the founding ceo?
Lejjy Gafour (10:15):
I originally started focused on that business role, yeah. To carry things forward, given my experience to really man moving a lot of that side of it. I previously in the past had a lot of experience in service design and sales from different domains. So it was really about bringing that together especially from the, I’ll say enterprise sales side to get a lot of that stuff moving. Originally.
Alex Shirazi (10:43):
And as you decided to transition to cult, when did you kind of make the decision, you know, what future field? Is that a, is that a good place for me to kind of transition? What was that like?
Lejjy Gafour (10:56):
Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s quite, I will say for those listening who maybe have not went through it or thinking about starting a startup right now, quite common and normal to make the switch in, I will say startup life that everything was moving along quite a bit of opportunity. I’d been there for some time. So it was really a act of choice to be able to move forward, especially to help support the ecosystem more broadly. Cuz one thing, when you’re in the game of VC investment and you’re fast moving startup you really do need to focus on your customers and your product and that’s it. So the ecosystem side of it was really important to me which is definitely hard to spend time on. Cuz you don’t have time for anything either way when your customer and product is ultimately the core thing you have to be concerned about in that type of arrangement. So being able to move forward to be able to focus with a wider lens on the industry as whole as a whole was a part of it as well. Yes.
Alex Shirazi (12:11):
Cool. And I think that that’s, that’s kind of like a, a, a fresh way to transition into I guess, you know, what is Cult and how did you first get introduced into cult food science?
Lejjy Gafour (12:23):
Yeah, the foreign answer is that so Cult Food Science is a first of its kind platform in North America being publicly traded focused on we say cell-based foods because for a lot of people, I will say outside of our industry, the lines are very, very blurry. And I mean really it is between like what’s precision fermentation, what’s cell egg, what’s this and what’s that? So we settle on cell-based is kind of a encompassing turn for those that might be less familiar who are looking at us and we invest on a global scale. So we have investments in North America, South Africa, Singapore and beyond in the cell based space. And we also are focused on developing our own IP and spinning up companies where we see white space as well. So we had recently announced the partnership with New Lab based on our New York, which is a venture studio, which really focuses on new codevelopment to work together on creating new cellular agriculture companies as a joint project which you’ll be hearing more about in the coming months.
Lejjy Gafour (13:39):
And we look at both the themes we are seeing positive and negative from our portfolio companies and within the commodities space. So where we foresee there being an issue in the future with a particular, let’s say ingredient, whether that might be due to climate change or other issues with availability or perhaps even practices of how a particular commodity and material is created will specifically look for companies that fulfill that need to round out our investments. And if we can’t find it, we’ll find a way to develop the ip ourselves where it is symbiotic with the rest of our investments. And we look, you see that in our current portfolio where we have investments kind of across the chain of products, everything from Biore reactors to consumer products so that there can be a, a mutual benefit between the companies as well to really help things kick off.
Alex Shirazi (14:46):
Great. And I think, you know, I actually learned a lot about what Cult does beyond just kind of having this investment portfolio of companies and very interesting to see that cult is also developing, you know, new ips as well for me and maybe some audience members that are not too familiar with Cult. We saw that kind of cult came to existence, very nice branding I would say also started making some serious plays right away. And so tell us a little bit about how Cult Food science is structured as like an investment vehicle on the, I believe it’s on the Canadian Stock Exchange and then also maybe how, and I know this might be before you joined, but how it was founded and maybe who either the people or organizations that did start it.
Lejjy Gafour (15:42):
Yes. Yeah, yeah. So that is something that is our structures definitely unique to Canada and a few other companies on the planet. Where we are publicly traded, we are available on different stock exchanges in North America and in the UK as well. You can find us under Cult and then cult f in some cases. And the original founding team, yes, they did form before I joined was made up of I would say old school or OG investors in different industries. They had seen what had happened with what are now standard plant based offerings such as impossible and beyond. And they were around for a lot of ag tech investments and robotics investments kind of in that vertical. And they had watched what had happened with plant proteins and they see the same thing happening with cellular agriculture. And the biggest thing that they had mentioned to me is that they actually had just waited too long to really get involved on the plant based side before it took, before it took off.
Lejjy Gafour (16:57):
They had saw, saw all the indicators, they knew the people, they saw us getting popular, but of course at the time, way back in the day, it was still like high risk. It was the same things that were hearing abouts in some cases today. People were like, Oh, are people gonna eat this? Is it gonna be able to scale? So on and so forth. But given to where we’re at today in comparison, it’s pretty hard to argue that all some of those offerings haven’t been really successful. So they saw the same thing happening with a cell based space who was a conscious decision to get in that early to be able to put together this offering of portfolio in the cell-based space and to be able to put forward an offering for people that want to get involved in it or want to invest in it, who generally can’t.
Lejjy Gafour (17:52):
So if you want to go invest in a startup, you generally have to be a a credited investor for those who might not be familiar with that. And it’s quite a bit of money to qualify as that. So it’s not exactly common, but I actually get emails fairly regularly from just totally random people who will send me an email being like, Hey, this is exactly the type of companies that I’m able to put in my own personal portfolio, even if it’s a small amount. We’re giving people the option and access to add cell-based foods to the portfolio early on, even though it is still risky to be able to help support the change that they wanna see in food systems in the future. And that everyday people think about this stuff and it’s often inaccessible for them to support it. So that was another motivation for making cult happen.
Alex Shirazi (18:49):
Very cool. And I think offering an opportunity to kind of let not just professional investors or like you said accredited investors get involved is, is is really good opportunity. The founders of Cult or these OG finance and investor folks, do they have other vehicles similar to cult maybe in different industries?
Lejjy Gafour (19:15):
They did, yeah, I apologize cuz some of it, <laugh> helped have to be a little bit purposely vague, but yeah, they’d done it before in the past and they are, they were definitely long longstanding investors. So multiple of them have quite familiar with the capital or public markets generally taking companies all the way from startup to IPO over the last few decades. So they had quite a number of investments in different industries where they saw opportunities come up over the last 10 to 20 years to get to where they are today. And it’s, it’s quite a diverse group. Everyone’s based in Canada, but it’s yeah, they, they had a long history of I will say traditional ag tech investments as well that worked out well for them.
Alex Shirazi (20:13):
You know, you’ve been in the industry for some time wearing many different hats within the industry as like we stand today. What do you think is, is really missing or what do you think is coming up next?
Lejjy Gafour (20:26):
There’s definitely some things that are emerging, which are interesting, which I feel is really about a maturity curve of the industry overall. Which I see is a good thing. So I definitely foresee that there will be some regulatory approvals relatively soon. And how those play out will be super important. And I know sometimes people like to pick on the scale of some of these early releases, but I always like to compare it to other industries where this cycle of introduction and adoption generally does start at a small scale. And it’s really the quality of those first product introductions and how all that plays out that can really shape the future of future offerings and companies really starting to hit that full scale that people talk about. It’s interesting too cuz scale I feel for food is hard to talk about in kind of like a traditional lens when you talk about startup scaling cuz literally everyone on the planet needs to eat.
Lejjy Gafour (21:43):
So it is less concrete compared to something like a single purpose app where you can do a lot of top down or bottom up calculations, whatever you want. There’s still a single value proposition and something like an app that gives you more constraints to understand what adoption might look like and how it might be going. But because everyone needs to eat and it is much, much more than utility in many cases with cultural aspects and everything else that goes with food that these early releases over the next year or two years will be super important. Another pattern which is good is the increase of B2B companies. So I mean, when the industry first started you had to be vertically integrated. So you had to do everything yourself cuz there just literally wasn’t anywhere to go to, which of course if you can figure that out, has a lot of advantages for being able to own the space, your processes and make a lot of money while you’re doing it.
Lejjy Gafour (22:49):
But it is not easy. So the increase of B2B companies in the space is good because what I see happening is there’s still like one to two new companies that pop up every month. I wouldn’t be surprised for that started to increase after some of the first product releases and regulatory approvals started to really come through in North America. But when there’s more B2B firms, a new company can look at those firms and actually actively make a choice to be like, hey, now we actually don’t have to do this one particular part cuz we can Japan in another company that’s specialized in it to accelerate their growth. So it allows them to perhaps what may have been the same steps for multiple companies for the first three or four years, even as it was five years ago, that everyone had to go through that.
Lejjy Gafour (23:47):
Then new companies don’t have to do that and that is an accelerant in its own. And that’s not to say that every B2B or vertically integrated company will be successful, it’s just that that proliferation of different ideas, different approaches and accessibility globally for the technologies and approaches will create a steady climb towards that quote unquote scale that we’re all aiming for. Another interesting item is even on the investment side for how investing can work and what that might look like with this being, I’ll say hard tech with longer timelines you definitely can’t necessarily invest in a company and treat it like you might a portfolio of software companies. There are costs to scaling and the growth curve can be different, but at the same time, once that growth curve is achieved, it could be more resilient and sustainable.
Lejjy Gafour (24:50):
But you definitely can’t treat biotech as you might treat software. And that is something that I do see changing is that there’s more and more investments investors or that are coming in that maybe coming from a different space and some of them may have treated it like other industries who are expecting a particular growth curve or particular growth speed without the familiarity of what it takes to scale something physical. And that is changing. I’m having more and more investors that want to get involved in the space come forward to us that will say, Oh right, I am not familiar with this. I don’t have someone that could do due diligence on it. Can you help me invest in this? And they’re totally left field in like things like real estate, but the, there’s more interest picking up from those that are less familiar which I believe is also good for the industry, which we’ll see more of with those product releases.
Alex Shirazi (25:51):
Yeah, definitely a good sign for the, for the industry. And you know, going off your point of, you know, seeing more B2B players made me think of the reference you made to the plant-based companies and I guess when you’re looking at cell based barrier to entry is higher, but these new companies that are emerging, they’re kind of, you know, different category. Maybe they’re stemming off from other types of biotech or maybe even medical. So it is exciting to see that there’s gonna be a lot more and new companies come into play. I wanted to ask about new harvests and the collaboration you had with New Harvest regarding Open Cell ag. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Lejjy Gafour (26:32):
Yes. So Open Cell Ag is really motivation on the ecosystem side about being able to make as many materials, techniques and information as available as possible to everyone in the space and beyond. And that really does mean everything. No matter how many times I do something or meet with someone or talk with something, it is always a mistake to assume that there is such a thing as something that is too basic. So the goal really is to be able to provide information all the way from the most beginning things like at a high level what might you need to fundraise functionally as a new startup to resources for people that are looking to get involved in the space as a scientist of what questions they need to ask if they’re switching through a different domain to more complex initiatives such as trying to build out a cell bank, which is a very long project and very expensive to be able to provide those first starting materials for new companies in an affordable way without predatory contracts in an accessible way with strong backing information about those materials.
Lejjy Gafour (27:56):
And this really is about both accelerating the ecosystem as a whole on one hand, but then also attempting to make it more equitable across the board. You’ll often still see new companies, especially if they started somewhere else. So let’s say outside of North America, outside where it’s like a major city and maybe somebody found this idea and they were really into it, they know how to do it and they just started a company, there’s a very high chance that they will repeat the first three years that all these other companies of space may have already went through. But there’s no way for them to know that and there’s no way for them to necessarily get that information either so that they don’t have to go through the same steps. If IA companies come towards us that are already seem like they’re two years ahead, that’s perfect for me on the investment side. And then at the same time it is really about maximizing resources that people can get to make this a reality. You can’t win, I think, in any new really technical space or with industry in general without being able to include as many people, disciplines and ideas as possible. And making that open is really about what open Cell egg is all about.
Alex Shirazi (29:32):
Great. I love it. And I think you do hear about companies getting started where even after it takes time for them to acquire equipment, which can be a challenge within itself. Some of that basic kind of research takes a while and a lot of people ends up repeating, doing the same thing. So I think this is a great initiative. This has been great. You know, you could learn more about cult food science at www.cultfoodscience.com. You can get in touch with Lejjy on LinkedIn Lejjy. Do you have any last insights for our listeners today?
Lejjy Gafour (30:05):
I would say that if anyone is listening and they’re not involved in this space now is the perfect time to do it. The, I will say hype cycle has not really kicked off yet. So now is the perfect time to join. Well, it’s still early. And then if anyone has any questions yeah, feel free to reach out to me and happy to answer.
Alex Shirazi (30:28):
Excellent Lejjy, thank you so much for being on the show.
Lejjy Gafour (30:31):
Thank you very much.
Alex Shirazi (30:33):
This your host Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on the next episode.