“Synthesizing” and “food” are uncommon word pairings, but the engineered dishes they serve may be an appetizing feast for the senses.
Climate change, a growing global population, and maturation of new biotechnologies are driving the motivation for – and means of – producing more food. Engineering is improving traditional agricultural means for food production, yet, in our conversation with Kate Krueger of Helikon, emerging synthesization techniques are bringing food from the lab to the market, with exciting and healthy results.
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Kate Kreuger 00:00
I think one thing that is important to remember is the price of freedom is uncertainty. And so you kind of venture into that unknown and you’re definitely taking more risks, but you also have more opportunities.
Welcome to Tough Tech Today with Meyen and Miller. This is the premiere show featuring trailblazers who are building technologies today to solve tomorrow’s toughest challenges.
Forrest Meyen 00:30
Welcome to today’s episode of Tough Tech Today. Today, we are very lucky to have Kate Krueger. Kate Kruger is the founder of Helikon Consulting, a boutique firm that specializes in synthetic biology, alternative proteins and high-tech food. She works with foundations and corporations and investors to bring 21st century biotechnology to food innovation. Kate, welcome to the show.
Kate Kreuger 00:57
Hi, it’s great to be here.
Forrest Meyen 00:59
So let’s start off and just give us a taste of what is high-tech food. Our viewers are have probably heard about some of these alternative sorts of… Beyond Meat I’m sure people have heard about, but I’m sure the field is a lot more broader than plant-based meat patties.
Kate Kreuger 01:19
Yeah, definitely. A lot of people have maybe heard about some of the most popular foods in the space. So the Beyond Burger, the Impossible Burger. Those two are super exciting. They’re part of what I like to call this kind of spectrum of new foods. So if you start on one end, you get foods that were invented in the 1960s, 1970s. Things like updated TV dinners, with lots of extrusion tech protein, similar to cheese doodle tech, and essentially a really souped-up version of cheese doodle tech is what’s used in the Beyond Burger. That’s extremely reductive, but it’s a modern update on extrusion technology with some really fun additives.
Forrest Meyen 01:57
What is cheese doodle tech?
Kate Kreuger 01:59
Cheese doodle tech. Yeah.
Forrest Meyen 02:03
Kate Kreuger 02:05
So the cheese doodle is a really pioneering food in its day. Because it was one of the early products to that really involved in washing up ingredients and spitting them out. Really high temperatures in such a way that you get these really nice pieces of protein that have different properties than what they did before. Or in the case of cheese doodle carbs.
Forrest Meyen 02:29
Was this something that people bought at the store? Like a cheese doodle?
Kate Kreuger 02:33
Oh, yeah, these are like cheese doodles.
Forrest Meyen 02:35
That’s a brand, ‘cheese doodle’?
Kate Kreuger 02:40
I think it’s the generic, right. I mean, I read this obit of the guy who invented the cheese doodle, and I think they called it a cheese doodle in the obit, so I was like great.
Forrest Meyen 02:52
Ok, we’ll show a picture.
Kate Kreuger 02:56
No, you’re right, though. I don’t actually know that you’re saying and I’m questioning myself.
Forrest Meyen 03:02
So tell us more about this cheese doodle tech is is now you know, been been repurposed to make meat burgers and billion dollar companies.
Kate Kreuger 03:12
Yeah, essentially. So that essentially tech of new types of protein formulations that are still rather macroscale or are definitely where this kind of new foods be started. And well, that’s really exciting. Some of the newer technologies kind of take things to the next level. So the Impossible Burger is really exciting because it’s got this, like hemoglobin protein in it, which actually has a red color, and it has iron attached to it. And part of the great thing about that is that’s used primarily in these new formulations to give you that high value ingredient that you can’t get elsewhere. And that uses recombinant protein technologies that have been used in the industrial context since the 1990s. But very rarely. So it’s the first time they’ve been used as a bulk ingredient food production. So…
Forrest Meyen 04:06
What’s a recombinant protein technology?
Kate Kreuger 04:09
Yeah, so that’s what’s so exciting about this stuff is you’re essentially sticking a gene from one organism into another organism that’s better at making a particular type of protein that the gene encodes. So, for instance, if you want to make a lot of like hemoglobin, you could take that gene from a species that has all the characteristics you want, put it into another species that can create a lot of that protein, and then you get better what we call expression or amount of that protein. So a nice clean example is in the case of for instance, Perfect Day, which is a company that makes recombinant milk proteins. You can take the gene that encodes for a milk protein, stick it into another organism, say, yeast, for instance, or microflora, and then that organism will create a whole lot of that protein much more cheaply. And through much different production means than you could otherwise.
Is this the similar idea, though, I guess sort of complement to like a Roundup Ready crop that has been a soy that’s been genetically modified to be resistant to a particular type of herbicide. And that’s through the recombinant gene work. And so that’s upstream from sort of the plant-based meat or otherwise, right? But similar sort of under underlying technology?
Kate Kreuger 05:40
It’s really cool that we can do all sorts of different genetic manipulations. So one distinction here is we’re just making lots of protein to harvest. So it’s in a sense of micro-scale version of kind of a genetic modification. So rather than altering an entire plant that you’re going to go put out in the field, you’re altering a smaller microorganism, like a yeast or a microflora, for instance, to just make a lot of protein. But yeah, I mean, these are the wonders of kind of genetic engineering these days. The number of things we can do is is really impressive.
With the growth rates, population of Earth, growing significantly… I mean there’s there are initiatives in a lot of work in trying to figure out how are we going to keep feeding the current population we have, given issues around climate change, etc, and sea-level rise, for example, but also then, the anticipated addition of a billion more people onto our planet. So how does that big, big challenge that we’re facing globally, how does that motivate you to like, how do you see this role really helping to meet that kind of challenge? And I mean, we can’t farm enough meat in the traditional sense now? Is that the primary sort of issue of concern?
Kate Kreuger 07:06
Yeah, I think that’s definitely one thing that’s really top of mind for a lot of people. Also, there are so many things that make things like food security, less certain than we kind of initially think it is. Coronavirus, is a great example, no one expected changes in supply chain distribution. There are other kind of, I think niche cases where we’re seeing some of these concerns crop up even before they will necessarily on a global scale. So places like Singapore, for instance, that are extremely high density, where people would like to be able to make their own food locally. Places that, for instance, have a lot more energy or geothermal than other places like Iceland. So some of these places have these kind of edgier capabilities or wants and needs that kind of make them in essence, kind of early adopters of some of these tech types, because they are subject to different pressures than the rest of the world.
What’s the connection to geothermal, for example?
Kate Kreuger 08:07
Yeah, no, that’s a great question. So there’s some really cool companies in Iceland that are making high value proteins in wheat. Using recombinant protein technology to just create tons of this… what are called growth factors.
Forrest Meyen 08:30
And this is using the wheat itself to grow the growth factors?
Kate Kreuger 08:33
Yeah. Yeah, they’re actually using wheat.
Forrest Meyen 08:35
The growth factor, is this like a hormone type protein?
Kate Kreuger 08:39
Yeah, essentially. So it’s a protein that helps cells grow and divide. And it’s one of the types of proteins that keep cells a little more stem. So they don’t grow up as fast in some cases, or they stay alive longer.
Forrest Meyen 09:00
And is this used in research, or are they feeding this stuff to people?
Kate Kreuger 09:04
They feed this stuff to cells in cellular agriculture sometimes… to muscle cells. Or, right now, it’s kind of application on the market is extremely, extremely expensive cosmetics.
Yeah, I wouldn’t have associated protein. For example, if we think about food, to me, protein’s protein… are you getting from eating an egg, a steak, or lentils, for example? It sounds like there’s a lot of differences in terms of… it’s not, the food group of protein is not just a blanket uniform kind of material. And so, to help us decompose that a bit in terms of why this is such a key issue, because it’s protein is what we need in my understanding. As a slight aside, I understand that there’s the hunter gatherer folks would be out hunting rabbits and hares. But you can actually starve to death… a human can starve to death trying to eat a bunch just strictly rabbit diet, because it’s low protein. Right? But that’s a specific type of protein.
Kate Kreuger 10:15
That’s a great question. I actually don’t know about an all rabbit diet. I’m super curious now.
Forrest Meyen 10:22
Eating only rabbits or eating only what rabbits eat?
Kate Kreuger 10:25
Yeah, that’s the other question. Maybe I misunderstood. Yeah, man, I have so many questions now. That’s fascinating. But to your point, proteins great. And protein is really interesting because, yeah, like you said, you can think about it on a lot of either size scales, nutritive scales, functional scales. And that’s because, you know, when you think about protein we eat. Just for kind of nutrition, you could think about amino acids, essentially, which are the smaller building block of proteins. Every protein’s made out of amino acids. And we need certain numbers of amino acids to live and grow and survive, some our bodies can make, some our bodies can’t make. So for the ones we can’t make, it’s really important that we get it in our diet. And that’s one thing we think about when we think about making sure that people who are vegan, for instance, have complete protein in their diet that they get through different foods. The interesting thing though is, if you zoom in on particular proteins, they do all sorts of different processes in the body. Some of them are structural, some of them keep our skin healthy. Some of them have different functions that cause cells to enter different growth stages or spread messages, or just do all sorts of stuff.
Forrest Meyen 11:58
So like for the different growth phases and stuff, are you alluding back to the protein that was used in the cosmetic… does this wheat-grown cosmetic protein make your skin younger actually or…?
Kate Kreuger 12:14
Some people claim that. I don’t… I personally have not looked into this data. But it might. I’m not ruling that out because growth factors are really, they’re really interesting, powerful proteins that in cell culture do keep cells alive and thriving in a way that’s been shown through many, many decades of experiments.
That reminds me of almost like a lightweight version of a stem cell… Stem cells are great. It’s a little bit tricky to get them but so if we can maybe use growth factor as a way to help get some of those benefits of having them appliable to a cell, I guess. In my sense, a mechanism to help promote what we like, then it’s a benefit.
Kate Kreuger 13:04
Exactly. Yeah, and that’s the interesting thing, too, that’s so hard about, like cell ag is you do need to make these things like growth factors to exactly, to your point, keep different types of cells growing and productive to the extent that you can grow various tissues out of them. So that’s a big challenge right now is figuring out how to grow these growth factors in an economical way. Things usually hit cosmetic grade pricing before they hit food grade pricing, because you can charge so much more for cosmetic than you can for food. So we’ve hit the point where people can productively sell growth factors in a cosmetic context and make money. But we haven’t yet hit the point where they can sell them in a price context where you can use them in food production cost effectively. So that’s essentially in a nutshell, the biggest problem that faces cellular agriculture right now is figuring out how to make cell growth media, particularly the growth factors inside cell growth media cost effective enough that you can produce large amounts of meat. Usually, I start this explanation in the other direction, but you guys are really cool. And we kind of dove headfirst into the hardest part of the science before we even got the service level. So my apologies. I feel like I went backwards on you guys. So we can start all over.
Forrest Meyen 13:07
Yeah, it’s just so interesting. This is so fascinating.
Kate Kreuger 13:13
I’m sorry, I just started monologuing on you guys so…
Forrest Meyen 14:39
No, okay, take us back to the beginning.
Kate Kreuger 14:42
Yeah, cool. Yeah, sure. So, let’s see, where should we start? So yeah, I mean, you guys asked some great questions about different types of protein tech. So we have a more straightforward re-mushed version of plant protein essentially to protein that’s made through some interesting genetic tricks to give us higher levels of protein expression that we can use in a final product. So that would be things like putting a gene from a cow that makes milk into microflora or yeast, creating a ton of that milk protein, and then using that protein to make a food product, and that would be one kind of straightforward example. And then, like the whole next frontier that we haven’t even hit yet is how do you grow a steak in a lab essentially?
Forrest Meyen 15:37
Yeah, that’s cool. That’s what I’m waiting for when, once they’re growing steaks in labs but as long as there’s good flavor.
Kate Kreuger 15:47
Forrest Meyen 15:47
I’ll be eating that every day.
Kate Kreuger 15:49
Yeah. So that’s the hard stuff.
Something to establish here is that there is… And I don’t know this part. I like your clarification on that… is it generally accepted now that a meat-based diet and the broad sort of vegetarianism — at least in the US is probably on the order of maybe 5% of the population — that a majority of folks in the US are omnivores, I’d say. And I think meat consumption is tied to negative effects on climate change, right, or as a driver of climate change? They would probably be one point I’d like to have your assessment on, and then beyond that, is the politicization of food. And I think that’s a that’s a bigger thing, I think that we could explore. But first, is eating meat bad for the environment? And why or why not? And how can we change that?
Kate Kreuger 16:50
Yeah, so is eating meat bad for the environment? It definitely has a bigger water footprint than a lot of other types of food that people can consume for the same portion size. And it definitely has a larger land footprint. So when it comes to land footprint and water footprint, it’s almost certain that some other type of land based facility production would very most likely be better. When it comes to things like energy consumption, it’s a little harder to say until we actually scale any kind of production. And that’s kind of a big open question. I think a lot of people who look into this question, use lifecycle assessments to kind of validate whether or not these things work. So a lifecycle assessment is essentially you put in a ton of data about a facility, and then kind of spit out some numbers essentially, at the end as to how much energy is spent, whether or not this is better than standard manufacturer, etc. But the problem is, those models, of course, are only as good as the data you put in. And since we don’t have really any real data to put in yet, the results are very hard to interpret, in terms of any real meaning. So it’s hard
Forrest Meyen 18:15
Yeah, I imagine lab-grown meat, right? It’s in this big lab, all these lights and scientists and they’re feeding it… the carbon impact of that lab-grown meat has to be pretty big, at least at this point, right?
Kate Kreuger 18:33
Totally. Yeah. I mean, it’s like knitting something at home, right? I mean, that obviously takes way more time and resources than some industrial factory where we’re churning out sweaters or something. We’re still a little bit closer to an at-home, low-quantity manufacturer than we are to having any kind of industrial-grade situation.
Forrest Meyen 18:56
What’s the biggest synthetic steak that’s been made so far?
Kate Kreuger 19:00
Ha, that’s a good question. So to my knowledge, there’s a company called Wildtype that’s done very small structured bits of salmon. I think on the size kind of scale of sashimi, they may have been bigger, but to my knowledge, sashimi is about the biggest they’ve done. And that’s a pretty big deal so yeah…
Forrest Meyen 19:21
Those are actual salmon cells?
Kate Kreuger 19:24
To my knowledge. I have not eaten this, but yeah, salmon cells so…
Forrest Meyen 19:37
I’m just curious how it tastes, but I mean, you probably wouldn’t know that. Maybe you’ve talked to someone that’s eaten it?
Kate Kreuger 19:41
So generation one, like the very first products, people tended to say they tasted like dog treats because they were all muscle cells and cell growth media. Before the space got really interested in fats and doing fat cells or getting good fat tech… so this current generation, I think, has got a better handle on that, but fat’s been a problem. So fat tech is the up and coming area. Fat’s really hot right now on the alt-food space.
Let’s look at the politicization component that I had mentioned earlier, where there’s for accuracy or inaccuracy… and vegetarianism… and the advocacy for weaning folks off of predominantly a meat-based diet, I’d venture to say is, tend to be perceived more as like a maybe a elitist, or left leftist kind of approach or liberal, maybe, let’s say, and so how is that a sort of a disservice or inaccurate kind of proposition? Is it accurate? And then, and then why is it tied just to put to the liberal whatever’s and not part of the general?
Kate Kreuger 21:02
So why is meat even eating tied with environmental sustainability concerns?
Yes, and particularly the politics around that, because when we politicize anything, it seems like it causes… we start to instantly see a polarization and it makes it really hard to find that center line of rationality and moving forward progress. And, and it’s not every place, you can find… you know, even an Impossible Burger is not everywhere, and they’re working as a company to, you know, change that. But then even consumers, like literally folks eating it are not necessarily being swayed from eating their steaks, etc. And so I say, as a food industry food, especially to the high-tech food, it’s not quite yet at the level of being better than the current, to the baseline, which is an old-fashioned cow, grow it, slaughter it, prepare it… it’s hard to beat that, or at least the perceived quality of a good angus.
Kate Kreuger 22:12
Yeah, to break that down a couple ways. Definitely, the environmental impact of plant-based burgers, including the Beyond, and the Impossible Burger is certainly better than your average, whole animal cow burger production from a sustainability standpoint. From a taste standpoint, yeah, there’s, there’s still some more work to be done. I think we’re not quite there yet. I think the hope is that some of these more animal cell based products will hopefully be more delicious. I think there’s quite a bit of promise there, just in terms of the ingredients that you can feed these cells. So you can the cell growth media is extremely tunable, you can put more fat in there less fat in there. Interesting ingredients, you can…
Forrest Meyen 22:58
You can grow pre-seasoned meat?
Kate Kreuger 23:00
Yeah, totally. I think there’s so much… the other thing, too, is if you’ve already gone to the trouble of growing these cells and culture and genetically manipulating them, there’s no reason why you can’t genetically manipulate them in all sorts of extra fun ways. Right? Like, add some capsaicin in production or, like, you know, make it a little bit hot and spicy, or add some fun colors, or I know someone who’s worked on some health pathways. So you can think about making essentially golden meat where you get more antioxidants in your meat product. So yeah, I mean, I think the sky’s the limit. So the trick is going to be hopefully that these new products will transcend traditional meat production. Because you kind of topped out at like wagyu, right? In theory, if you get, you know, like a hand-massaged cow from a special genetic lineage, it’s very delicious, but very expensive. So, I mean, ideally, if you could do something even better than that, that’d be pretty cool. So that’s the dream.
Forrest Meyen 24:04
Grow something tastier than wagyu.
Kate Kreuger 24:06
Yes, that’s the dream.
Forrest Meyen 24:09
I mean, I think that would convince a lot of people to start buying it, right.
Kate Kreuger 24:13
I mean, food scientists are super gifted. I mean, back to cheese doodles. It’s hard to do much better than a cheese doodle. So you know.
Forrest Meyen 24:21
So I did look up a cheese doodle. And that’s basically a Cheeto, right? Like, it’s the same process?
Kate Kreuger 24:29
Yes, I should have said that initially, my apologies.
Forrest Meyen 24:32
For our listeners, basically a cheeto… or a cheese puff or something.
So, Kate, you’ve worked with the who’s who of organizations… in terms of… on your consulting side of things as sort of the frontier tech consulting some of those organizations and consultancies being, like MilliporeSigma, IndieBio, XPRIZE, SynBioBeta, the list goes on… So walk us through, how do you go down that path of vetting the science? Looking for who’s going to pay for this kind of new venture concept… the technologies behind it? How do you think about end to end the value creation and value capture of high tech food? Because that sounds to be… I don’t understand… how do we decompose that kind of problem set?
Kate Kreuger 25:27
Yeah, great question. So I’m not sure I’m going to answer it quite the way you’re looking for. So let me know if we need to back up and add some more kind of thoughts or different angles. So first of all, I think one thing that’s really exciting about this space is so many people are really interested. So at this time, for early stage ventures, a fair amount of startup based R&D, and other kind of early pursuits, there’s so much interest and so much enthusiasm, and so much hope. Quite grounded in many cases, that there are many investment dollars. So money isn’t really a pain point in the startup context, when it comes to pretty competitive university-side research, it definitely is a pain point, we don’t currently have established mechanisms to get that university level funding. So that is one of the challenges is innovation in this space exists almost solely in startup context. That said, one of the things about the startup context is you can only hire so many people at a certain time. And an early team is going to have somewhere between two, five, maybe eight people. And so you can only get so many really skill sets represented. And also, the space is very siloed. So in general, because intellectual property protection is so important, ople can’t really talk about what they’re doing very much, and everyone’s just working really hard on getting these patents filed, so there’s not a whole lot of centralized knowledge in the space outside of the two nonprofits in the field, which are the Good Food Institute and New Harvest. And that’s part of the reason that I’m able to have a little bit more of a global view in this field is because I come from a traditional science background, PhD in cell biology, heavy background in biochemistry, biophysics, followed by some time at Perfect Day, and then New Harvest. And New Harvest is the oldest nonprofit in the space. I was research director there for three years and only PhD on staff. So because of that, most of the people who were interested in this space and had technical questions would come to me. So I got this really global understanding of what was going on in the space. Also, the New Harvest research fellows are amazing folks at universities around the world, doing a lot of that cutting edge lab-based research. So in growing that program, and developing that program, I got a really good finger on the pulse of the academic side of the cell-based meat space. So I’m really fortunate in that I kind of have this, I’d say slightly more global view of the cellular agriculture space than a lot of people can get. And there’s a whole lot going on. I mean, I think that’s the exciting thing about this space is just the wide variety of tech that’s involved. It’s everything from really academic side biology, stem-cell biology, biochemistry… really, really fundamental work all the way to really applied work, chemical engineering, more engineering, when it comes to kind of scale up and such… that it’s just very easy to be able to plug in some of the spots that might not be so intuitive if you’re only looking at one part of the picture.
Forrest Meyen 28:54
So that’s a broad perspective is a big thing that you bring to customers as part of Helikon is that you are one of the few people that have actually been across all these different silos.
Kate Kreuger 29:10
Yeah, exactly. And it’s the zoom-in zoom-out to because I think people with science or technical training, learn how to ask questions a certain way and learn how to kind of dig into things a certain way. So that kind of depth and breadth is, I think, really helpful. So it’s kind of a non answer, because it’s a little bit high level, but yeah.
Forrest Meyen 29:31
Yeah, you be even more specific, let’s say like, like, I’m a customer of yours, like, what are the types of things that that I’m going to be asking you?
Kate Kreuger 29:39
Yeah, it depends what you want to do. So often times, people will come to me from I’d say, one of three places. One is maybe you’re an investor or company who wants to get into this space, and you have a company you’re looking into, and maybe you have an expertise in one part of science. Say for instance, you’re deep tech firm, but you tend to focus on more physics or different parts of deep tech innovation. Or you might have finance backgrounds, we might have a food background, and you want to know more how the science works in the space, but there’s just a ton of biology going on, then people come to me and they essentially have me work with them a bit on the kind of back end of understanding how these companies work, in some case, mentoring these companies and coming up with reasonable milestones for investors to support these companies appropriately. That’s one context. Sometimes people come to me with their big, very exciting biological dreams. So they want to do something cool and new, it hasn’t been done before. They want to make a new kind of product line or a new facility or just something crazy and fun and exciting. And I’m kind of fortunate enough to be in this position where people come to me with their wild biotech dreams. So then we go from there. That’s, that’s one of the things I really love is helping people break these things down. And there are a lot of really talented people out there. And you know, if you kind of have a sense for what people can do, and where things can fit… that’s a large role I can play as helping people figure out what technical execution around some of these larger, more frontier tech projects could look like.
Forrest Meyen 31:29
So listeners if you have a wild biological dream, contact Kate, and she’ll help you make it happen. I have a question, you talked about, like, all of the potential of this technology, you could almost do anything with it is… is there anything that kind of scares you aboutFranken food, or these these other things, people have called these genetically modified foods. Is there some potential to do damage or harm with this technology?
Kate Kreuger 32:06
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, there’s all this potential to do things that we don’t expect to do. I mean, I don’t know that people really thought too hard about health consequences around Twinkies. But you know, I really trust the FDA and USDA, a whole lot. They’re really good at regulation. So they’re currently working on a regulatory framework around some of this. And yeah, I really don’t worry too much I trust our government to do a good job.
Forrest Meyen 32:51
Okay, so like the FDA will do like human trials are on it before these new products are released?
Kate Kreuger 32:59
So I’m not sure about human trials, but what they’ll do is they’ll regulate the process what’s called pre-harvest. So whatever is in tanks growing will be FDA and then post-harvest is USDA. The closest kind of regulatory framework to all this that’s used for the protein production I talked about earlier is this process called GRAS, which is generally respected as safe. And GRAS is a process has been around since the ’90s. It was used for industrial enzymes we use in detergents. And in many cases, it does involve some animal testing. So the Impossible Burger has a GRAS filing, and people can look at if they’re interested. But because that process is so well known, that’s kind of something we think of as possibly on the template spectrum for these meat products. This is the closest we know because this is going to be kind of a new whole cloth sort of pursuit, but you know, people are working really hard on the safety around this tech so it’s definitely a challenge I think people are going to have to make sure things are potentially cooked really well or labeled really well or… but I mean meats not exactly the most… I mean I definitely wouldn’t want to eat a lot of raw meat or stick raw meat on a wound for instance, or I mean it’s kind of dangerous stuff, if you think about it, so within certain parameters.
Forrest Meyen 34:33
So we will still have to cook our synthetic burgers?
Kate Kreuger 34:39
I suspect but I mean sashimi someday, right? I mean, it’s got to happen.
On the microbiome side of things, and so this would be sort of the non-cooked foods where if I’m plucking out like a sugar snap pea like right off from where it’s growing, it’s going to have this kind of different kind of biology going on in it not just the pea itself… that’s a living thing. It’s a plant. But also all the kind of the bugs etc. that are within there at the micro level. And so is this something that we would be unfortunately missing out on with the more of the sort of lab grown foods that we as the folks eating it, we’d be missing out on the richness, that biodiversity that occurred when we eat something right off the vine, versus a very curated almost like literally sterile kind of environment? And that could that be doing a…. maybe you could go so far as saying a disservice to the longer term parts of humanity in a way our microbiomes work, where we thrive off having that kind of stimulating variety of different kinds of flora and fauna kind of going into us?
Kate Kreuger 36:05
Yeah, I love that question, actually. Because it kind of starts from a place that I think is easy to forget, which is cell cultures really sterile. It has to be. So these products, by nature have been so much cleaner than I think a lot of us might initially think because that’s how you have to make something in a lab setting. Otherwise, you can’t get growth at the scale that you need. But to your point, yeah, it would be different. definitely wouldn’t have the same microbes around it or anything like that. You know, kind of goes on the list of the many border-synth foods we eat like ethylene-gas tomatoes, for instance. You know, that’s how we get tomatoes to be red on our plates, right as they’re picked green, so they don’t bruise and then in the either groceries or in the truck leading to the groceries, they’re treated with this gas called ethylene that makes them ripen really nicely turn red.
Forrest Meyen 37:09
I didn’t know that. Actually, yeah, it sounds kind of scary.
Kate Kreuger 37:16
Yeah, so actually, I heard this from folks at NASA as they were talking about doing all these like experiments with seedlings, you know, at space trying to get these seedlings to sprout, but the seedlings weren’t sprouting that well. And they realized this because there was excess ethylene floating around the space station. And once they scrubbed the ethylene out of there, the little seedlings could grow no trouble. So yeah, because ethylene impairs plant growth. It’s like a death kind of signal so.
Wow, now I’m kind of feeling like instead of going from being an omnivore to a vegetarian, I might as well just go being full on fast, like all the time, just skip food, or maybe eat Oreos. I sometimes go on an Oreo binge.
Kate Kreuger 38:04
No definitely, food is so weird.
Yes. Well, take us back. Take us back a little bit of time to kid Kate. What was she seeing and experiencing that eventually led to where you are today as being an expert on high-tech food?
Kate Kreuger 38:26
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think I’m in one of the fortunate positions where I couldn’t have dreamed about being where I am today, earlier in my life. And that’s an extremely fortunate thing, because it’s a really exciting place to be.
Forrest Meyen 38:43
What are you dreaming about as a kid?
Kate Kreuger 38:45
Yeah, that’s a good question. So let’s see. I kind of wanted to be everything I really got into paleontology. I like the idea of digging up bones. Every really liked the idea of being a cement truck driver. I really liked cement trucks… pretty small back then. But you know, they they’re just really cool. Yeah, I mean, I kind of wanted to do a little bit of everything. Eventually, I kind of thought, Well, you know, it fell in love with actually Latin and Greek in high school. And it’s like, oh, man, I want to go to do classics. But it’s just, you know, on a kind of a whim, I thought, well I’ll cover my bases and make sure I take pre med requirements just because it’s always good to have job plans, and lo and behold, I really, really liked biology and chemistry, way more than I expected. So I ended up being a biochem major working in a lab a whole lot. Science is just such a beautiful and fascinating thing. So it’s kind of all gone from there.
Forrest Meyen 39:50
Wow, so you just kind of discovered it along your way?
Kate Kreuger 39:54
Yeah. Yeah, I give a lot of credit to my undergrad. It really kind of pushed me that way.
Forrest Meyen 40:01
And how did you get to the point of starting consulting company in this space? Like, what, you know, how did you get into that business?
Kate Kreuger 40:11
Yeah, it’s a good question. So I was finishing up my PhD, and I essentially went down the world’s deepest internet, rabbit hole, came up with cell ag. Started out this whole process of getting into a brand new field. And it’s really just grown. I mean, the needs for technical consulting, I’d say really showed up pretty recently, as more mainstream investors, mainstream corporations, companies got involved in this space. It’s gone from being this super niche kind of thing that very few people knew about, it was kind of like Impossible. And that was about it, a handful of companies, very little funding to just being this huge kind of force that’s happening today. So yeah, there was a need for it. And I kind of jumped off on it and started doing it. So it’s been an exciting ride.
I think that’s something that for a variety of our audience members, some of them come from high academic pedigree PhDs from schools at Yale, etc. and love the STEM components and the research. And they, but there’s always that presentation of academia versus industry. And sometimes, and maybe it’s for lack of exposure, maybe it depends on the program or school or environment or, in the academic bubble, it can look really scary out in industry. Maybe it actually is kind of scary, in some ways. But nevertheless, there can be sometimes a perception of maybe a push or resistance, that it is one or the other. And now, in a sense, you have definitely sort of… in industry in terms of the kind of consulting that you’re doing, these implications, but there’s a strong academic component to this. Right. I mean, from from your background, but also to the kinds of folks that you’re working with. So could you help us understand some of the experiences you’ve had in terms of working with these interdisciplinary kinds of teams, sometimes being the only PhD on a team, or other times working with folks who are super good and accredited on what they’re doing, but may not have this broader perspective that someone like you can can bring to the table of having worked in the industry and balancing those aspects?
Kate Kreuger 42:50
Yeah, I mean, I really like that question from a whole lot of angles. Because I think this is something that a lot of us from kind of more traditional academic backgrounds do struggle with a lot is, I think a lot of us have gotten really good at doing certain things, we’ve spent a really, really long time gaining certain skill sets, we’re used in a certain sense, at least I was to kind of, you know, you finish year four of grad school, you go on to year five, you have committee meetings on a schedule. That doesn’t make it easy, but it makes it known. And I think a lot of us, at least, on some level, I appreciated that on some level, I hated it. But on some level, it does give you kind of a certainty in your mind. But I think one thing that is important to remember is the price of freedom is uncertainty. And so you kind of venture into that unknown, and you’re definitely taking more risks, but you also have more opportunities. So which can be scary and can be great. And I think one of the things I’ve realized that’s really interesting is… woah how do I say this… yeah, there’s definitely value in both sides of things. And I think one thing that I really noticed is sometimes it’s really hard for people who are extremely good at a certain skill set, to be able to come into contact with people that could really benefit from that skill set. And so that’s, that’s essentially where I see myself playing a whole lot is because because of my deep technical background and ability to kind of understand these problems in such a way that I can work with people who are extremely adept at solving these problems, on the one hand, and on the other, know enough about the macro-sense, the landscape, and also kind of working in the startup environment that are a little bit quicker and dirtier. So I’ve learned how to break down problems in certain ways that I don’t think is necessarily something that a person acquires in many contexts. So it’s interesting, it’s really cool to kind of see, now that I’ve worked with people from more backgrounds and kind of that come from more places what, what you kind of do in different environments to tune things. One thing I have really enjoyed in my last kind of… now that I’m doing consulting again, I really like working with technical people, and it’s been so gratifying to work with more technical people. And it’s a really interesting kind of cross-training exercise to work with people from just so many different backgrounds. It’s really fun and interesting, and it’s always something new.
Forrest Meyen 45:40
Alright, so what we’ll do some rapid fire. Let’s see, the first one. If you could have any flavor of synthetic meat, what flavor would that be?
Kate Kreuger 45:52
Forrest Meyen 45:56
All right, we’ll do another one. When do you think what year do you think I’ll be able to buy a synthetic steak from the grocery store?
Kate Kreuger 46:05
Oh man, such a hard question. 2025?
Forrest Meyen 46:10
Kate Kreuger 46:11
Maybe more like 2035?
Forrest Meyen 46:14
That’s not too far. Do you have a quick one, Jmill? I’m still thinking about the banana flavored meat.
That’s a weird one to me. I don’t know… that would make King Kong proud maybe? But should we make foods that look like one thing and taste like something different? Would this be a fad? Or are there good psychological reasons for us to do that for example? Kind of like how if you put food on a small plate, it intentionally keeps our portions a little bit smaller, because we like to eat what’s on our plate. So make the plate small, eat less. Is there a way to do that with food by making it taste different? Or have different health qualities than what it looks like?
Kate Kreuger 47:07
Sure. I mean, I think this is another interesting potential thing. One thing I think is cool is the idea of increasing the fiber content of meat products. So you get that juicy kind of meat situation potentially on like, what they talked about are these materials called scaffolds, which you grow cells on top of, so that the cells can get a nice perfusion of nutrients while they’re growing. But if you think of a scaffold that same made out of mushrooms, or asparagus, or celery, or any sort of kind of vegetable, it’s pretty exciting. So you can hide my broccoli in my steak? Yeah, totally. It could be a brocco-steak, I mean you wouldn’t have to choose. Yeah, I mean, I think that stuff is really interesting. So we’ll see what happens. Can I ask you guys some rapid fire?
Forrest Meyen 47:59
Yeah, ask us some rapid fire questions.
Kate Kreuger 48:02
Okay, what do you guys think is the hardest part of making lab grown meat? Like from your background? Where would you see the biggest challenges?
Forrest Meyen 48:10
I think probably getting all the cells to stick together, but in a nice texture. I mean, I don’t know. I’m an aerospace engineer so.
Kate Kreuger 48:21
Yeah, no, that’s actually what I’m curious about. Like what engineering challenges would you see? Or is that just like too far afield to be even interesting?
Forrest Meyen 48:29
I mean, I imagine like scaling, it would be, you know, that the biggest challenge, right? Like, how do you create a meat factory? Like I understand how, you can make bioreactors but you know, scaling something to the point where you’re popping out realistic steaks, I think that would be a big challenge.
Kate Kreuger 48:50
Yeah, that’s the one I can’t wrap my head around.
For me, it would seem like cell-based meat… a challenge, the big one is how to get it to that’s a heterogeneous mix of stuff. Because, to me, at least for me, like if I look at a piece of steak, that’s not a monocellular construct. So I don’t have the foggiest idea how we’d effectively be able to blend in these kinds of different cells and have them all like Forrest said, have them stick together. But really have them be happy together and in taste great doing that. Because I think taste is a big important part of this and I’d rather not be eating stuff that’s as artificially flavored and covered with like red 40 and blue 20 and stuff. Yeah, my perception of processed food… Yeah, I mean, processed food before the coloring and flavoring is sort of like brownish off-white puree or something. So maybe the cheese doodles come out a little more like they should until you sprinkle neon orange on them.
Kate Kreuger 49:56
Yeah I mean, that’s the question too, what the appeal is going to be like for two different people. But yeah, actually, there’s some super interesting research around things like fat marbling and stuff going on at UCLA. So yeah… Dr. Amy Rowat’s lab actually should be really interesting if you’re interested in getting more into the meat concept?
And how do you keep sort of smart on the space? Because this is the intersection of a couple of different industries? Or is it a small group of people that that are like lightning rods for the advancement?
Kate Kreuger 50:29
It used to be a small group of people, and I think they’re still key players. I mean, there are a couple labs that are really at the top of the field, I’d say, but yeah, it’s just absolutely ballooning. It used to be that, you know, when a paper came out at New Harvest, almost certainly, we’d know who the authors were just as a given. And nowadays, new stuff comes out all the time. And it’s, it’s really exciting. So yeah, it’s hard to keep up with these days. It’s kind of at the level now, where you just kind of do what you can and there’s some really, there’s new stuff all the time.
Forrest Meyen 51:07
Well, we’ll have to get back together. Once we get that, you know, those lab ground steaks off the line from the supermarket and have a podcast where we do a taste test together. It’d be a lot of fun. We’d like to really thank you for being on the show today. Appreciate it. And I guess we’d like to give our guests one last moment to give any parting words of either, I don’t know, advice to people watching the show that are maybe interested in getting involved in this new food-tech industry.
Kate Kreuger 51:42
Yeah, I mean, especially for people who are finishing up PhDs in any kind of bioscience, or I guess even in some senses engineering, too. There’s just so many jobs in this space right now, especially this last year. The hiring has been pretty intense. So if you’re interested, a good Slack channel to get on as gf ideas, people post jobs there all the time. Take a look on LinkedIn. See who’s raised another round. Yeah, it’s a great time to get in the space on the science side. Hi, I’m Kate Krieger of Helikon Consulting, stay tough.
Forrest Meyen 52:17
Well, thanks for joining us for this episode of Tough Tech Today. If you enjoyed the show, please like the video, subscribe, leave a comment, we’ll answer all of your comments. And if you’re listening on a podcast leave us a five star review. In two weeks, we will be talking with Matt Goldstein. He’s the managing director of M12, that’s a venture fund backed solely by Microsoft.