We talked to Derin Alemli of New Age Meats about new age of meat eating and meat without slaughter.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Derin Alemli: Fortunately, everyone in my family and near nexus has been fine in these times. From a selfish perspective, I’m definitely glad to be in the San Francisco area, which has done a reasonably good job of managing through this crisis, with plenty of outdoor activities available.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded New Age Meats.
Derin Alemli: I did not found New Age Meats, but I got involved at an extremely auspicious moment. I had previously founded a foodtech startup focused on the retail side, a technology-enabled fast-casual restaurant that allowed consumers of all diets to customize our healthy menu with transparency. Unfortunately, it only survived about four years, but at the conclusion of that project, I knew I wanted to stay in something mission-driven, and staying within foodtech seemed like a natural idea. At that same time, New Age Meats had just raised their seed capital and were moving into the new HQ, and were needing someone to spearhead all the business needs of a growing company. With my previous founder experience and financial background, it was a natural fit, and I joined at the beginning of 2020 as the fifth employee.
Prior to all of that, I moved away from a hedge fund career in 2012 to start my first mission-driven startup, DownBeats, a brand of high fidelity earplugs for concerts. That was a big shift as I had specialized in investment finance initially, earning an MBA from the University of Chicago as well as a Chartered Financial Analyst charter, but that data-driven tool kit has proven to be invaluable in the startup world.
How does New Age Meats innovate?
Derin Alemli: We’re creating an entirely novel product and process with our cultivated pork. We’ve taken cells from a living pig, enabled them to grow, and then multiplied them in bioreactors and integrated them with spices, plants, and flavors to create a sausage product. This is an entirely nascent technology, so innovation is happening daily as we chart this new frontier.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Derin Alemli: We’re a physical science company, so being physically present is vital to making progress on our science. As such, we shut down to minimum operations for about two months at the start of the pandemic. They were times of uncertainty for everyone, and we were no different. However, as we learned more about the virus and how to deal with the threat, we were able to return to work with adaptations. Masks are required in our facility, we have temperature checks at the door, and we have HEPA filters throughout the space. Gone are our weekly in-person lunches and our “NAM Jam” happy hour, but as with all meetings, those are virtual now, so we can still have some camaraderie where we can. Life will return eventually, but for now, especially in a startup, it’s adapt or die.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Derin Alemli: Fortunately, we were somewhat insulated from the problems that many companies face. We had a couple of months where we weren’t sure what would happen, but we had a runway, and being pre-market, we didn’t have the customer demand shock that a launched product might have. I don’t think there were any notable lessons learned besides learning to be flexible when life demands it.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and New Age Meats in the future?
Derin Alemli: From an evergreen perspective, exercise and sleep are key to my functioning. Making a routine around those things makes everything else flow for me. If I’m well-rested and my body is in shape, my mind will be ready to tackle anything.
From a crisis perspective, my approach is always to work the problem and try to take emotions out of it. That last part can be very hard, I know! Keep working on the problem and try to find pathways towards success, and always try to understand other people’s motivations. Getting to the “why” of things is key to getting past those crises, and it’s important to keep interrogating my understanding of problems until I’ve figured that out.
Our company’s goals are lofty, but we really think we can transform the world of meat with our technology. We are interrogating our own ideas internally all the time, and I really do love our company’s culture because of that. The best ideas win over, and there isn’t an ego around it because we’re a team working together. Many startups talk about changing the world. This is the rare opportunity that really does have the potential to positively impact our planet for generations to come.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Derin Alemli: We are making meat for meat-eaters, so our competition is conventional meat and consumers’ perceptions of that. We can’t just make cells. Those cells have to taste great for consumers to want them. Consumers want sustainable products, but they’re not willing to sacrifice quality. Fortunately, the way our science works, we are able to take on that challenge. The real question over time is getting to price-competitive levels, but we are in the early stages of this industry’s development, and I believe there is a path to get costs to a level that we can.
I should mention, though, that we view them as competitors in no way do we expect to supplant that industry. Conventional farming and agriculture will always be a part of our food production portfolio, but with growing demands, new solutions need to be created to keep our planet safe with more humans eating more meat.
Your final thoughts?
Derin Alemli: We’re just so very excited to be able to bring this technology to fruition. The sustainability of our planet is paramount to survival, and by working on our mission, we can be a major force of positivity. There is still a long way to go, but it’s feeling less and less like a moonshot with every passing day. The future is here, and so is cultivated meat!