Joshua March of SciFi Foods
In this Future Food Show interview, Joshua March, the founder of SciFi Foods, discusses the company’s vision, innovative products, and potential impact on the food industry. SciFi Foods focuses on creating cell-based, sustainable, and nutritious foods blended with plant-based ingredients. March emphasizes the importance of taste, affordability, and convenience to encourage widespread adoption of meat alternatives. He also touches on the potential for customizing food products, such as altering their nutritional content or texture, to cater to individual needs or preferences.
Alex Shirazi (00:00):
Thanks for joining us on the Cultured Meat and Future Food Show. On this episode, we’re excited to have Joshua March. Joshua is the co-founder and CEO of Sci-Fi Foods, the startup creating transformational products by combining cultivated meat with plant-based ingredients to make burgers shockingly close to the taste of conventional beef. A cereal entrepreneur with two exits to his name, Joshua, is previously the co-founder of Conversocial, a digital care platform for messaging that integrates with many of the world’s leading brands. Joshua has a passion for all things food, science, environmental sustainability, and believes of the potential of synthetic biology to create superior products for the growing world. Originally from England and now based in San Francisco. I had a great conversation with Joshua that I’m excited to share with you. Joshua, I’d like to welcome you to the Future Food Show.
Joshua March (00:53):
Hi. Thanks Alex. Really happy to be on.
Alex Shirazi (00:56):
Josh, tell us a little bit about your background
Joshua March (01:00):
Here. I have been founding and running venture back startups for, for my whole career. Before founding sci-fi foods, I was mainly in the software space. Actually founded a couple of different companies that both exited in that space. So, you know, learned a lot about building great companies and great teams. But I, I’d actually been dreaming about kind of cultivated meat since reading about the idea in a science fiction book 15 years ago. And you know, it always just seemed obvious to me that that was the, the future we had to build. And it was kind of this obsession of mine and always a dream that, that I wanted to help make possible really for a long time now.
Alex Shirazi (01:48):
Cool. And do you remember what that science fiction book was?
Joshua March (01:51):
Yeah, it was Player of Games by e and m Banks. He’s one of my, my favorite sci-fi authors. I’m a big sci-fi fan in general. And you know, he actually kind of mentioned it in passing in a number of his books. You know, it wasn’t like a main focus, but it was just this thing about this futuristic society and you know, how that he commented on the fact that they’re, you know, cultivating meat instead of growing animals. And it just immediately struck me as soon as I read that, even as it kind of throwaway line that, you know, again, that that had to be the future that, that we made happen. And, you know, I do eat meat. I really love burgers, but you know, I’ve always been very aware of especially just the huge environmental toll that, that meat takes, and especially beef. And so, and it just seemed obvious to me that as we think about building the future, we’ve gotta build a future, which doesn’t involve just cutting down more of the rainforest and throwing billions more animals into the factory farming machine. But yeah, I’m a big fan of looking to sci-fi for ideas about how to you know, build the future and make the world better place.
Alex Shirazi (03:03):
That’s cool. And I definitely think of Dr. Yuki from Integra culture when I think of sci-fi inspired, cultivated meat companies. Yeah. But that’s really cool. Yeah. really cool to know that that’s how you got started too. I wanted to ask you, you know, when you were working in the software space, were you thinking about going into this food or, or cultivated meat or cultured meat food space before you finished up your software work?
Joshua March (03:30):
Yeah, it, it was always in my mind as something that I wanted to help make happen at some point. And, you know, in 2016, I ended up getting connected with New Harvest and yeah, went to that conference in 2016, which I think was one of the first cultivated meat conferences in the world, and started spending time with scientists and entrepreneurs in the field. And I did a little bit of advising and investing and, you know, I wasn’t sure at first whether I was actually gonna go start a company or would I just be a kind of supporter on the sidelines. But over a number of years and, and learning more and more about the space, I kind of came to the conclusion that I, I thought that was a big opportunity to, to start a, a company and do things a little differently.
Alex Shirazi (04:16):
That’s cool. And I think, you know, we’ve actually briefly met at in Morich at IS S C C M. And that must have been maybe 2018, 2019, maybe just when you were about to get, or I think you had already started by then, but we’ll skip over kind of the origin story of, of, I guess Artemis, but, and jump right into, you know, the new branding, which is sci-fi foods. You know, I, I wanted to ask about that because sci-fi is a little bit out there, no pun intended mm-hmm. <Affirmative> and a lot of companies trying to normalize the technology. I do love the branding, but what was the rationale behind calling it sci-fi foods?
Joshua March (04:56):
Yeah. And look, there’s a lot of, a lot of thinking where behind it, but fundamentally, when we think about who’s gonna eat cultivated meat, there is a minority of people who are just super excited to eat this novel and new technology and this new food, right? And they’re excited because of the novelty of it, and they know that it’s scientific and they know that it’s called lab meat, but like, they’re excited to try it. And, you know, those people fundamentally aren’t, you know, don’t really care too much about what it’s called, right? They, they kind of know the details for the majority of consumers, there are a lot of people who are gonna be concerned by the scientific nature, right? Is it weird? Is it too sci-fi? And the fact here is like, it is scientific, all of the journalists, all of the media, the, the, the press still call it lab brown meat, right?
Joshua March (05:51):
You could, we could call our brand whatever we want, we could call it nothing to see here foods, right? And try and make it, it sound as natural as possible. It’s not gonna change the fact that everyone’s still gonna call it lab grown meat. And people are still gonna have that question in their minds of, you know, do I feel comfortable eating this? Is it safe eating this? So big part of our strategy is to just tackle that head on and, you know, face the elephant in the room. Don’t try and hide it under the table and say, yeah, this is, it is scientific. It is sci-fi. You know what? It’s actually amazing that we can grow real meat without the animal, and we should use the brand and the product to make that cool and make it fun and make it safe and not be scared of just being authentic and bold about it. And I think that, you know, especially with, you know, gen Z and kind of young millennial audience, right? These are people who really value authenticity and transparency, and this kind of just like puts us clear stake in the ground of saying, yeah, we’re, we’re bold and authentic and transparent, and we’re happy talking about what we do. We’re happy talking about the science, happy talking about why it’s safe and, and use that to make it cool instead of scary.
Alex Shirazi (06:59):
I like that. And I also like that it’s a nod to how you first heard about it through the science fiction book. So <laugh>. Yeah. cool. So you mentioned burgers, and I see that you guys are working on beef. Tell me about what you guys are working on and how it’s unique from maybe other companies in the space.
Joshua March (07:18):
Yeah, you know, beef is really the kind of ultimate goal, right? And eventually we’ll do, we’ll do more things as well. But, but beef is just so important. I mean, from a, obviously from a climate change perspective, beef has an extremely negative climate impact you know, significantly ahead of, of any other meat or any other food that, that people consume on earth. And, you know, your audience, I’m sure will be familiar with, with all the reasons for that. And so it’s really the ultimate prize is to be able to replace meat consumption from a business perspective. It’s also, you know, the biggest market from a revenue perspective has the highest price per pound of any ground meat products. And the biggest consumer demand for meat alternatives. So, you know, we are, we are really focused on beef. You know, we are working on blended products, so products that combine plant-based ingredients with cultivated cells.
Joshua March (08:20):
You know, I think that all of the first products to actually hit the market in any meaningful way will be blended products kind of by necessity. And I think there’s just a huge opportunity for cultivating meats to, you know, drastically improve the flavor and experience of meat alternatives enabling us to just significantly increase consumer adoption, right? I think that’s one of the biggest challenges in plant-based meat today is that it still doesn’t actually taste like, like meat. And, you know, fundamentally people aren’t prepared, or the vast majority of people are not prepared to spend more money for a product that doesn’t taste as good, even if they philosophically agree and intellectually agree that, that they should be doing that. Yeah, food is an emotional decision and like, when it comes down to it, most people just aren’t prepared to do that.
Joshua March (09:08):
And so I think cultivated meat has the potential to really transform meal alternatives and, and actually create products that, that taste amazing and actually taste like conventional meat because, you know, fundamentally they are, it is, they are real meat. That blended approach also goes a lot long, a big part of the way to solving a lot of the taste sorry, the, the cost and the scale issues which we can delve into. Now we we don’t think that’s enough. You know, if you really want to create affordable products that can scale with, you know, minimal risk we also do quite strongly believe that bioengineering is, is necessary. And that’s a kind of core part of our strategy as well. We use CRISPR and other similar technologies to make, you know, tiny changes to ourselves so that we can solve a lot of the cost and scale issues. And we think that is another necessary component.
Alex Shirazi (10:05):
I think that you know, mentioning that it is a blended approach kind of also fits with the transparency. Are you working on both fat and muscle tissue?
Joshua March (10:15):
Yeah. You know, one benefit of that blended approach is that, you know, we’re really using our beef cells for flavor, right? We want those beef cells to ha bring in the proteins and the fats that actually create that flavor and experience of meat. And we don’t need to worry too much about, you know, how we’re not trying to structure that into like muscle tissue or fat tissue, right? So it’s more just a really tasty beef cell. So it’s a, it’s a, you know, it is a cell that was biopsied from a cow muscle. There are multiple different cell types, so that can be, and, and, you know, our goal is really just to create the most, the best tasting beef cell that, that that’s possible.
Alex Shirazi (10:56):
I’m assuming this is gonna be a, a consumer product where people might be able to go into the retail store and buy like a sci-fi foods product. Is that right?
Joshua March (11:04):
Exactly. That’s exactly correct. Now to start with, we will most likely be going out by a food service and restaurants. But retail will definitely be an eventual goal.
Alex Shirazi (11:14):
Now you mentioned cost and scale, and, and I’d love to talk to you about scale, but first I, I really wanna ask you about what the process of building a team was like, because it seems like you guys were moving really fast and have built out a, a pretty robust team very quickly. What were some of the challenges when it came to, to building a team and, and maybe, you know, what were, what are some of the, the ways you guys were able to leverage your, your background or expertise to building the team?
Joshua March (11:43):
Yeah, you know, right now we’re largely r and d and you know, I was really lucky that, you know, my co-founder, Dr. Kasha Agora is she’d spent six years at, at Simonin and multiple years before that in the symbio industry, Simonin were, you know, had, were one of the darlings of the symbio industry in the Bay Area. Now, now ran in some troubling times in more recent more recent years. But yeah, had that company had scaled from kind of 18 to like 900 people or something at one point and was really a pioneer in the symbio industry. And so because of that experience cashier had an amazing network of, of scientists and advisors and, and experts who we were able to, to tap into, to very quickly build out our team of, of, you know, both scientists and, and scientific leaders.
Joshua March (12:38):
So, so that’s really been a major part in, in our ability to hire great talent. You, you know, I, because of my experience as well, you know, scaling companies up, you know, we were really able from the get go to implement a number of, you know, hiring processes and management processes that allowed us to run really quickly and, you know, hire great people very quickly. We, we also, we raised a series A, you know, led by Andreesen Horowitz and, you know, they’ve got such an amazing reputation in Silicon Valley as an investor that that also gave us a lot of credibility, especially for hiring more senior talent which is really helpful.
Alex Shirazi (13:19):
I’d like to talk about that because I think that was pretty pivotal for the industry, seeing a, a Sandhill Road VC back a cultivated meat company when you were pitching them or introduced the idea, I take it they were probably pretty well versed before you approached them, is that right?
Joshua March (13:38):
Yeah, that is right. Yeah. They’d done a lot of work to, to understand the industry. You know, and, and fundamentally they, they came to essentially the same conclusion as us, which is that, you know, cultivated meat is, is a massive opportunity to, to transform how meat is produced. But the first products, you know, kind of have to by necessity be blended. And they also had strong conviction that, you know, the best, the, the fastest and most reliable way to get the cost and the scale to solve those costs and scale challenges on top of blending would be to take a bioengineering or sim bio approach. And fundamentally that’s something which is pretty unique to us in terms of how we’re, how we’re doing that which is why they have been such a great partner.
Alex Shirazi (14:26):
Cool. And I see actually Dana is is on your team now on the team. I just saw that. So Dana, if you’re listening, quick shout out. I’ve run into her many times at, at different cultured meat events.
Joshua March (14:38):
Cool. Yeah, she’s awesome.
Alex Shirazi (14:40):
So cost and scale. So you mentioned cost and scale and maybe what you guys are doing to lower that cost, but maybe I want to phrase the question in terms of what you, you guys are thinking in terms of building out, and I know that we won’t be able to give me too much, but we are starting to see companies build out pilot plants, plans for even larger scale manufacturing. Where are you guys at in the process and are you guys approaching it any differently?
Joshua March (15:08):
Yeah, so yeah, we’re, we’re getting ready to stop building our own pilot plants as well. You know, that’s pretty well, well trodden path as we’re scaling up and needing to build facilities that can go through, you know, FDA and U S D A approval. So that’s a very, very important step that, that we are working on. You know, core to our strategy is we want to be able to scale up with the least amount of technical risk possible. You know, we’re big believers in having a very simple biomanufacturing process minimizing the complexity of that, minimizing the, the cost of that scale up. And we think the best way to do that is to use pretty standard established hardware, right? At least to start. So focusing on using, you know, the simple stainless steel stir tank battery reactors that are well known and have been scaled up many times before. And creating, using our bioengineering and some bio approach, creating animal cell lines that can be, you know, grown cheaply in those processes.
Alex Shirazi (16:13):
Great. And it seems like the first product might be some sort of, you know, beef burger or patty or anything like that. We’ve seen some other companies have tastings, maybe a little bit, not necessarily public tastings, but a little bit marketed or have some press around it. Have you guys done any tastings that have had any press or do you plan to do that in the future?
Joshua March (16:38):
Yeah, I mean, you always have to be a little careful with tastings, right? Cuz you can’t do tastings for consumers until you’ve gone through regulatory approval. That said, we have done we have done tastings with journalists. Some of those have been live on tv. I was on, on Kron four local Bay Area AV TV channel a couple months ago. And b Anchor ADA Berger live on air, which was super fun. She, she loved it. And we have done tastings with some other journalists as well. Some of that coverage is upcoming, so you, at some point if you wanna come around and and taste a burger, we’d be happy to host you.
Alex Shirazi (17:13):
That’s cool. That would be awesome. And actually, I just looked it up Theron four piece and so I’ll link that in the show notes. Very cool. I wanna take a step back a little bit and, and ask you about how the industry is evolving. We’re starting to see a lot more players from the startup side start new companies. We’re also seeing a lot more, kind of more incumbents in the, in the space so to speak, want to get involved. So generally speaking, how do you see the industry evolving? Do you think that the number of companies will continue to pop up? What do you think will be changing over the next few years?
Joshua March (17:52):
Yeah, I mean, look, we have just, we’re kind of entering the headache phase of what has been some of the biggest boom years of a long time, right? And in some ways that’s been great cuz a lot of money has come into the space. That’s made it easy for new companies. It’s also made it easier for existing companies to raise a lot of money. And you know, now over the next few years, those capital markets are gonna be much drier, right? It’s gonna be much more challenging to, to raise money. And so now we’re entering the kind of, you know, this is where the rubber really meets the road. You know, people there are a number of companies building out facilities. They’re gonna have to show that they can actually get those, those production facilities up and running. Can they actually produce it at real scale and meaningful cost? And if they can’t, then it’s gonna be very challenging to continue raising large sums of money. So there’s gonna be a lot, a lot less fundraising just on hope over the next few years. And companies are really, investors are really want to gonna wanna see real results. And so I think it’s gonna be, you know an exciting but also scary and, and and more challenging time for a lot of companies in the space.
Alex Shirazi (19:02):
Will you keep operations in the San Francisco area or do you have plans on maybe going somewhere where the rent might be a little bit cheaper?
Joshua March (19:12):
No, yeah, we’re based in the East Bay, we’re in San Leandro or glamorous San Leandro, as I like to call it. Which you know, is, is pretty low cost as far as the Bay Area goes. Certainly a lot cheaper than being up the road in Emeryville or Berkeley. And we have a, a 16,000 square foot facility here r and d facility. We will likely be building our first pilot facility in the area as well. So no plans to move out just yet. You know, later on, once we actually start building a lot more larger scale production facilities, they’re very unlikely to be in the Bay Area. And so those, those will be for further afield. But for now r and d and pilot scale will be, we’ll be staying in the
Alex Shirazi (19:53):
Bay. Before you started Sci-Fi Foods, were you based in New York and did you make the move out to California for this endeavor?
Joshua March (20:01):
I did, yeah. I was, I was in New York for, for eight years and you know, as I was working on founding sci-fi, thinking about where, where it made sense to be you know, it really felt like California was just like a perfect location, you know, in terms of being at the intersection of both like food tech and biotech. And, you know, it helped that my, my wife was from California <laugh> and kind of wanted to move back as well, so that definitely played a part. But it all kind of culminated and we decided to, to base the company here and yeah, being super happy.
Alex Shirazi (20:35):
I wanted to kind of ask you, what’s next for Sci-fi foods? Are you currently hiring for any roles and what’s really the best way for somebody to get in touch?
Joshua March (20:45):
Yeah, we are hiring across a number of different roles, but certainly bio a number of bioprocess roles. I think we have some cell line engineering roles open as well. You can certainly check all of them out on our website which is just sci-fi foods.com. And you know, of course you can always follow me and interact with me on Twitter. I’m just at @joshuamarch.
Alex Shirazi (21:07):
Great. And for those listening that might be in their research programs, graduate programs and thinking about getting into this industry, do you have any insights for them?
Joshua March (21:18):
You know, I think there’s, there’s a lot of great public resources. You know, g f I have such a lot of great material, new Harvest has a lot of great material. I would recommend that people, you know, start going to those conferences, go to those events, go to your own conference and start to get, get to know people in the industry. I think it’s a super exciting time to be joining and, you know, there’s some real skillsets that are needed espe, especially in like Bioprocessing and Chemical Engineering, which are kind of you know, underrepresented right now.
Alex Shirazi (21:48):
Cool. Well, Josh, thanks so much for the quick intro to Sci-Fi Foods and, and for being a guest on the show.
Joshua March (21:55):
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.
Alex Shirazi (21:57):
This is your host, Alex, and we look forward to seeing you on our next episode.