“We are here because we want to change the world”

In November, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the first time raised no objection to making a cultured meat meat product available for human consumption. It was a move that gave a boost to the cell-based or cultured meat industry, which has so far only seen approval for the commercial sale of Singaporean lab-grown meat. The FDA told California-based food technology company Upside Foods, formerly known as Memphis Meats, that it could release its products once they have been inspected by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

just food met with Upside Foods COO Amy Chen, a former PepsiCo senior executive, to find out how the talks with the USDA are going and learn their roadmap for the future.

just food: Four months later, how do you now reflect on receiving FDA endorsement?

Amy Chen, COO of Upside Foods: There’s a sense that getting the green light from the FDA in November was a real milestone for the industry.

J.F.: Were you surprised to get FDA approval?

AC: The FDA timing was a bit of a surprise, but the US is always seen as a leader in terms of regulations and food safety, so it was important that you put your bet in the ground and set a high water mark. Worldwide. Singapore is the only other country that has given the green light for this. Cultured meat can play an important role in the US from a food safety perspective.

J.F.: Also needs USDA approval. How is that process going?

AC: We are now in the depths of the process with the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s been very thoughtful, taking the time to understand what we do. It has been a normal process and we do not anticipate any major obstacles along the way. We are waiting for it to be completed so we can launch our initial product with [French] three Michelin star chef Dominique Crenn [from San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn].

J.F.: How long until you can launch a product on the market?

AC: Once USDA has signed off, it will be a matter of weeks or months after that.

J.F.: What will be the launch product?

AC: It will be a cultured chicken product, a full-texture piece of meat. Other companies are working on combo products, but this is as close to 100% [meat] how can you get And we are happy with the participation of chef Crenn. She has removed meat from her restaurant’s menu because she was not happy with it. [the quality of] he.

Upside Foods Cultured Meat
Upside Foods Cultured Meat

J.F.: How important is it to the company that they have gained first-mover advantage through FDA approval?

AC: Our goal is to be first to market and best in the market. When someone approaches a new industry like cultured meat, the first impact with the category is very important. If that first bite is amazing, that will go a long way toward scalability. We think consumers will love that first bite.

J.F.: Will Upside Foods focus primarily on the foodservice channel?

AC: Yes, we will focus on food service. In terms of consumer psychology, you enter a restaurant with the desire to try new things and also, in our case, with the confidence that you are in the hands of a three-star chef.

J.F.: One of the biggest hurdles cultured meat companies have faced is the high cost of culture media needed for the meat development process and what that means for the price of the final product. Where are you with this?

AC: This is something we are focusing on. The medium has 50 to 70 components, including 20 amino acids. The ingredients do not currently exist. [in the market] on the scale you would need. The key to success is to demonstrate a market for these ingredients and then there would be a need for them. [the providers] scalar We need a high-quality and robust supply chain. From a biological perspective, we are also looking at cell lines. How do you feed cells to make them more efficient?

J.F.: Aren’t there companies in the supply chain that combine these ingredients in a more financially viable way?

AC: There are some consolidators. The likes of Merck [&Co] and GE [HealthCare] sell to pharmaceutical companies. They are interested in entering this area.

J.F.: Is it your strategy after final approval to focus on the domestic market or do you have your experience at PepsiCo [Chen was chief marketing officer of the snacks business in Greater China] led you to think that the product has international appeal?

AC: Ultimately, I think cultured meat will play a big role globally. It will create solutions for countries that are not food secure. There is great interest from all over the world. But, in the short term, we will focus on the domestic market.

J.F.: You mentioned bundled products earlier and that may be an easier and faster route to market. Would you consider this option?

AC: In the end, consumers don’t care. We want to provide what consumers want and are therefore independent of this. [hybrid] getting closer. We will find the best way to do this.

J.F.: Worried that sections of the media might label lab-grown meat as ‘Frankenstein food’?

AC: We move forward with hope and optimism. The more people know about cultured meat, the more excited they are, but the initial skepticism and lack of comfort makes sense. Younger consumers are much more receptive to this and I’m sure they will accept it.

J.F.: Upside Foods recently appointed its first chief human resources officer, and your COO position has only existed since 2021. Is growth in the executive team essential at this stage of the company’s development?

AC: It’s about questioning whether we have the right talent in the right roles for the next chapter, the journey to commercialization. We are moving quickly and looking at infrastructure and scale.

J.F.: Having worked for such a large company in the food and beverage sector [PepsiCo]Did you have any reservations about joining a new company in the pre-production stage?

AC: Leaving a company and a team that I loved was definitely a difficult decision, but in hindsight, everything I learned and did there prepared me for my job at Upside. I have always been passionate about social impact through business and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to transform our food system for the better and make a positive impact on a large scale.

J.F.: What strategic insights have you gained from your previous career that will help you in this job?

AC: First of all, having the right team and culture with a growth mindset is the determining factor for success. That’s true across industries, products, and geographies, and it’s even more important when you’re a pioneer in an industry and doing work that’s never been done before. Second, creating a great innovative product is not enough. To truly thrive, you need to build a strong connection with your consumers and customers and understand what inspires and motivates them. At Upside, this starts with producing high-quality, safe, and delicious meat, educating consumers about what cultured meat is and why it’s better for animals, the planet, and human health; and ultimately inviting and inspiring consumers to be a part of changing our food system for the better.

J.F.: Upside Foods has attracted some big-name investors like Tyson Foods and agri-food giant Cargill and raised $400 million in a funding round in April last year. Are those investors pressuring you to speed things up?

AC: We are all aligned. We are all here because we want to change the world and we need to be operating at a level of scale that matters, moving as fast as possible but in a safe and responsible manner. It’s a very thoughtful approach, not speed at all costs by any means.

J.F.: But you still face those three issues of media cost, getting full regulatory approval, and the unknown that is consumer sentiment.

AC: Those are the things we spend all our working hours on. When we solve that trifecta we can conquer the world.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
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