Words by Alexandra Ilyashov
Photographs by Rich Gilligan
Compared to other science fields, biology attracts the greatest numbers of women in grad school and academia: There’s a 50/50 split between male and female biology grad students and 40 percent of biology post-docs are female, per a 2014 MIT study. (However, that same study shows that representation in teaching is a very different story: Academic biology faculty members are far more likely to be men. Just 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors are women.) One biology-adjacent field that seems to be attracting a strong presence of women pioneers is cellular agriculture (cell ag to those in the know). For those unfamiliar, this rapidly developing area of science is dedicated to creating so-called clean or cultured meat—a process that involves taking cells from an animal and culturing them outside the animal’s body so that they divide in a controlled environment, for example large bioreactors, akin to fermentation tanks that brew beer. Then, the cultured cells are turned into processed or ground meat products, like burgers and nuggets, or synthesized into muscle tissue for bacon or steak (the latter is more challenging and requires more R&D before becoming a reality). Yes, in the not so distant future, omnivores will be able to enjoy familiar proteins—beef burgers, pork sausages, chicken nuggets, bacon—and, eventually, less familiar and exotic meats—like woolly mammoth, panda, and zebra—that did not derive from a slaughtered animal.
Women cellular agriculture researchers and engineers are plentiful—and the field is a great place for women to thrive as compared to other sciences, says Marianne Ellis, associate dean of Biochemical Engineering at the University of Bath in the U.K. and chief technology officer of biotech company Cellesce. “I’ve probably met more female engineers [in cell ag] than I know all together in every other discipline—it’s one of the most open, friendly, non-judgmental fields, almost because of that lack of tradition,” Ellis explains. “The field represents the world as it should be, social equality.”
Yet, akin to how gender ratios in biology shift from student to professor roles, women’s presence in cellular agriculture tapers as you move up the hierarchy to start-up founders. “The gender ratios in my world of research are fairly even,” explains Jess Krieger, a PhD student and current research fellow with New Harvest, cell ag’s oldest nonprofit, founded in 2004. “I work with many women on a day-to-day basis; however, most, if not all, of cellular agriculture companies are founded by men.” Memphis Meats, Mosa Meat, Impossible Foods, and Beyond Meat all have male founders and, in most cases, male top execs. (Major investors of these start-ups tend to be men as well, like Richard Branson and Bill Gates.)
Despite this, many women are already doing trailblazing cellular agriculture work, and they should be recognized as pioneers in the science, technology, and history of these novel (yes, still futuristic) foods. Cutting-edge researchers in academia and at start-ups are evolving the science behind ethical, environmental impact-free animal proteins. Fundraising dynamos are deftly navigating uncharted legal and policy matters and properly communicating with the public about these edible innovations. Women founders, CEOs, and investors of start-ups in the field are also incredibly instrumental: There ought to be more, but the talents already making waves deserve to be known. Ahead, meet a variety of exceptionally talented women leading the charge for food that’s infinitely kinder to animals and the planet.
Using Engineering to Revolutionize Food
As associate dean of Biochemical Engineering at the University of Bath in the U.K., Marianne Ellis’s work has focused on expanding the capacities of cellular agriculture. She’s also the CTO of biotech company Cellesce, which uses bioprocessing to scale up organoids for drug discovery. With a degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in biochemical engineering and tissue engineering, Ellis spent a decade in regenerative medicine and bioreactive design, replicating the in-body environment so as to grow cells outside the body. In 2011, Ellis transitioned to cultured meat after a serendipitous encounter at a conference with Hanna Tuomisto, an early trailblazer in the cultured-meat industry, who introduced her to New Harvest founder Isha Datar. “I was like, Well, that’s a bit weird, eating cultured muscle cells; we don’t need to do that. But it didn’t take long for me to see that this has huge potential to diversify food, and for me, it’s really about food security,” Ellis says. “I quickly realized it’s a really worthy use of my skill set. I still do regen med and drug discovery work, but I’ve been focusing more on cellular agriculture for the past 18 months.”
Ellis estimates that the earliest products could be consumer-ready is 2023 and that they won’t be an “everyday option”—widely distributed and competitively priced with traditional meat—until 2026 to 2028. “We’re very much still in a research era from everything I can see and know,” she explains. The cellular science used to create cultured meat is already sophisticated, due to the overlaps with regenerative medicine, but there’s no precedent for the kind of scaling up necessary to fill supermarket shelves. “There’s a risk in this industry of too much hype and not enough [meat] produced with the quality and safety we’d expect as consumers,” Ellis says. Social media plays a role, too: “People pick up on things and run with it in 140 characters, and that’s something we need to deal with,” she points out. The ideal messaging, per Ellis? “This has great potential, but just be a bit patient. The disruption could be huge, but no one product is going to solve food security, and we need to recognize that.”
Creating Fish in New Forms
Jennifer Tung is a senior cell biologist at Finless Foods, a start-up focused on lab-created Bluefin tuna—plus other seafood species threatened by predatory fishing practices. “Changes in the global environmental outlook and national environmental regulations motivated me to turn that passion into more of a career priority rather than just a very intense hobby,” says Tung. Finless Foods caught her attention. “Few, if any, companies were focusing on fish meat at that time, even though seafood is arguably one of the less sustainable meat production industries,” Tung notes. “The nascent clean-meat industry seemed like a perfect avenue for me to leverage my technical training in pursuit of solutions to our environmental sustainability problems, so here I am.”
Finless Foods could bring fish to inland areas, create fish sans contaminants like mercury and microplastics, and also possibly fend against overfishing. “A lot of the tuna fished for consumption haven’t had a chance to reproduce yet, which means they weren’t able to leave replacements before they were eaten,” explains Tung. Cultured fish production also avoids destructive practices of traditional aquatic farming that can destroy other species, like bottom trawling. “The idea of being the first, or even one of the firsts, to do something, especially something that could impact the world in such a positive and empirical way, is exciting to me,” Tung enthuses.
Cell Ag’s Longtime Advocate and Connector
“Considering this is such a new field, there are scientific disciplines in cellular agriculture that don’t normally talk to one another—for example, meat scientists crossing paths with tissue engineers,” explains Isha Datar, executive director at New Harvest. It’s her job to liaise between these parties and to support them by facilitating fundraising, community building, outreach, and more. Datar’s been in the industry from the beginning of her career, starting with a meat science class taken on a whim in 2009 while studying cellular and molecular biology at the University of Alberta. “I was completely shocked animal agriculture was as resource intensive and bad for the environment as it is,” Datar says. “A few classes later, I learned you could grow meat from cells and was blown away by how amazing and obvious that seemed, like clearly the next step for food technology.” Her interest was piqued for good about the topic, which was called in-vitro meat at the time. The term “cellular agriculture” wasn’t widely used to describe the industry until recently, and Datar and New Harvest began using it in 2013. “No one had really brought together the idea that all kinds of agriculture products could be produced from cell cultures instead of from whole plants or animals,” Datar explains.
“The most explosive growth has been in the past year, but it’s been coming for a little while now. There are so many companies in this space and the ecosystem’s strength is in numbers. It’s a very fragile field, so it’s actually crucial we have many players getting involved early.” She personally helped to cultivate some of these players: In 2014, Datar connected the founders of Perfect Day (previously Muufri), a cultured milk start-up, and Clara Foods, which makes cultured eggs. “Once people saw companies producing animal products not from animals, I think a lightbulb went off: Of course this is possible, we’ve made technological advances that makes this not science fiction,” Datar says.
New Harvest could eventually help create academic framework to further expand the cellular agriculture community, by consulting myriad members of the field “and developing materials that create a clear pathway for a student from undergrad into the industry.” As Datar explains, cell ag needs fresh talent. There’s a general misconception that “a huge population of scientists work on [cell ag] day in and day out, in the same way there’s a big cancer research population—and there just isn’t,” she says. “It’s a really, really small scientific community. For biotech, it’s pretty unusual to be seeing so much work happening in the private sector. That’s essentially why New Harvest’s mission is to create more of an academic community, because we find it very neglected and also very crucial to continuing innovation in the space.” Underscoring the importance of the science rather than commercial potential, she continues, “Cellular agriculture is not product-based, it’s innovation-based.”
Private Research for The Nonprofit Sector
“When I first got involved, in early 2016, there were only a few companies in the space, most under 15 employees, with very few researchers involved,” says Kate Krueger, New Harvest’s research director, estimating that over 100 scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs currently devote themselves full-time to the industry. Isha Datar led Krueger to a Perfect Day internship, doing everything from patent writing to working with food scientists. “Biotech start-ups really foster an environment of a brain trust. It’s a beautiful thing and gives me a lot of faith in the future,” Krueger says. Her work at New Harvest involves overseeing technical operations and academic programs, like seed grant and postdoctoral fellowship programs.
Perception shifts in the science community have led to increased interest in cell ag: “People are increasingly giving themselves license to be serious in the space,” Krueger says. “Scientists are beginning to realize we’re conducting some really interesting research–and that this is a great space to innovate.” She also points to the possibility of miracle meats that aren’t just better for climate and conscience, but potentially superior to the real thing. “I love the idea of getting food groups and nutrients from meat that we normally get from other foods, such as veggies,” she muses. “I think a high fiber or high omega-3 fatty acid meat product would be amazing.”
The Fundraising Powerhouse
The nonprofit Good Food Institute (GFI) differs from New Harvest in its focus on cultured and plant-based meat research and industry. “We like to say we’re meat agnostic: Whichever of these tracks generates the most potential, that’s what we want to pursue,” says Clare Bland, GFI’s director of development. GFI also addresses issues around commercialization, including regulation and policy matters. “We’re very interested in potential barriers we can help overcome as soon as possible in terms of regulatory framework: How can clean meat, dairy, and egg products be introduced into the marketplace?” Bland says. She’s a matchmaker of sorts for scientists and start-ups working on alternative meats and their future investors. Donors’ motivations include “animal protection and how animals are treated in the industrialized farming industry globally, the impact on the environment, or food scarcity and security issues, since the current system isn’t going to enable us to sustain a global population of close to 10 billion people by 2050,” Bland explains.
GFI focuses on unrestricted funds, used for policy, corporate engagement, international engagement, and sci-tech and/or innovation. “As a newer, younger nonprofit, it’s terrific to have that flexibility in funding, so you’re not overly dedicating funds to one particular area when you’re trying to grow all of these at once,” Bland says. “We can be nimble and flexible when opportunities present themselves because we’re basically a start-up, too.” Supporters have begun to be able to underwrite specific programs. GFI recently received a $1 million gift to launch a plant-based protein research grant program and began accepting applications at its inaugural conference in Berkeley, CA in September. The aim is to explore plant-based proteins that aren’t wheat- or soy-based, which are basically waste products of the bread/pasta and soybean/soy oil industries, respectively. “Nobody’s really looked into which crops we should be seeking to transform into really fantastic plant-based meats that are analogous to animal meats—and not as byproducts,” she says, listing examples like peas, lentils, oats, lupines. Bland feels optimistic about how quickly products will come to market: “It’s encouraging that people are thinking about hybrids of plant-based and clean proteins, like a 50/50 mix of pea protein and clean meat—which may be how to reach price parity with traditional animal agriculture more swiftly.”
Regulatory and Policy Maven
As Good Food Institute’s director of policy, Jessica Almy works on legal reform in the food space, “to make sure that plant-based and clean-meat companies are able to compete on a level playing field,” Almy explains—meaning that they are treated equally in terms of regulation, labeling, and marketing, at federal as well as state levels. “I’m also encouraging the U.S. government to fund more research on plant proteins and clean-meat science,” she adds. “I had long been interested in issues related to animals and working at CSPI led me to realize that systemic reform of our food system is more effective than individual behavior change.” She continues, “Plant-based and clean meat are market-based solutions to what I see as the biggest challenge in food policy today: how to feed a growing world population sustainably and humanely. Best of all, they let people keep eating meat while doing their part to create a better future for the planet, animals, and public health.”
The most pressing legal considerations largely revolve around the field’s sheer newness—and the precedent that’ll be set by cell ag policies. “Regulators are working to define the path to market for clean meat, based on existing laws,” Almy says. “It’s important they work with companies in this space to establish a clear, fair, and straightforward regulatory path for clean meat—both in the U.S. and other countries.” Creating that path will likely involve changing perceptions about the production process. “Plant-based meats are being produced at facilities like many other food processing plants and, at scale, clean meat will be produced in a clean facility similar to a brewery,” Almy explains. “All processed food begins in a food lab, but of course, we don’t call Cheerios ‘lab-created Cheerios,’ nor are plant-based or clean meats really ‘lab-created foods.’”
While most women interviewed underscore the field’s infancy and likely lengthy timeline to get product to market, Almy foresees a much speedier turnaround. “The biggest misconception is that clean meat is somewhere in the distant future,” she says. “The reality is that the U.S. is home to at least five clean-meat companies working to commercialize clean meat and bring the cost down so it’s price competitive with other kinds of meat. Worldwide, there are more than a dozen companies working on this challenge and governments are investing in this space. It won’t be long until we can buy clean meat in a neighborhood supermarket or favorite restaurant.”
Playing Nice with “Big Meat”
But cutting-edge research, ambitious fundraising, and savvy start-ups aren’t enough. Also instrumental in making cultured meat a reality, widely available at competitive price points? Working with meat-producing powerhouses, not against them. “The more I learned about the food system, the more I realized how important it is to improve access to food that is more sustainable and better for public health,” says Alison Rabschnuk, Good Food Institute’s director of corporate engagement. “Producing better meat in better ways is clearly the way to do this.” She builds relationships with behemoth meat (and plant-based protein) manufacturers, chain restaurants, grocery stores, and foodservice operators “to maximize the availability, quality, quantity, and promotion of plant-based—and eventually clean-meat—alternatives,” by sharing an overview of both alt-protein sectors, plus “specific ways for them to get involved.”
Corporate engagement is an important part of the conversation about the future of food. “Despite what people may say motivates them, survey after survey shows the vast majority of people’s food purchases are determined by taste, price, and convenience,” Rabschnuk says. While traditional meat purveyors’ interests and livelihood seem diametrically at odds with cultured meat, big animal product corporations seem very interested. “Tyson is clearly a standout: They’re the largest producer of meat in the U.S., but they recognize the future is going to be different,” she says. The poultry powerhouse has twice invested in plant-based protein brand Beyond Meat and has also supported clean-meat pioneer Memphis Meats, Rabschnuk notes. More recently, Tyson also invested in Israeli clean-meat start-up Future Meat Technologies.
Plant-based meat products tend to “generate great interest” from Whole Foods to TGI Friday’s and White Castle; however, “with regards to clean meat, there is mostly curiosity.” But big corporations have their own ideas about how fast the cultured/clean-meat industry will grow: “In my world, though, the companies I deal with are interested in shorter time horizons than clean meat’s timetable.”
Compassionate Next-Gen Research Star
Marie Gibbons, a current research fellow at the esteemed George Church lab at Harvard University, spent 10 years working in the veterinary industry, mostly with companion animals, including a stint with a spay/neuter clinic, as well as working with zoo animals: “It was really rewarding to directly apply my passion for science to making animals feel better,” she says. “That all changed when I worked for a farm-animal vet and realized they’re not treated at all like zoo or companion animals; they’re treated like objects or products.” Gibbons was disgusted at watching fully conscious pigs get neutered, sans anesthesia, pain meds, or monitoring of vitals. Visiting a cattle farm, she was horrified by forceful impregnation methods, “getting involved in what I would argue would be rape,” she says. “The breaking point for me was when I had to spend two hours restraining a completely conscious cow while she had her eye cut out of her head, as two farmers cracked jokes about making hamburgers,” Gibbons says. “It really clicked for me: No matter how many videos are out there or stories are told, there will still be people that don’t get it, don’t care, or it’s not real or in their face enough to change their diets.” Knowing it’d be impossible for everyone to experience what Gibbons saw (“I wouldn’t want that!”), she declined vet school admission and applied for a cultured-meat research grant.
Gibbons has worked extensively with cultured turkey cells, as well as working on coculturing techniques, “which involves growing two cell types together to feed off of each other.” She’s found her peers enter cell ag “for ethical reasons, be it animal welfare, environmental concerns, public safety—or maybe their mom or dad died from heart disease, and they see the relationship between that and eating too much meat. I think the field’s pioneers were people that quit their jobs to jump on board,” she says. “You have to be doing this for very passionate reasons, because two or three years ago, it was really risky to get involved with something like this, as it wasn’t that mainstream yet.” Now, it’s a completely different, possibly lucrative landscape, with various companies seeking researchers, “so more people are getting into it for purely scientific reasons,” per Gibbons. “The industry has exploded,” she says, estimating there are “at least a dozen companies working on seed rounds that have gone public that they exist and another dozen are still in the pipeline, working on seed rounds.” The start-ups in the space that haven’t gone public yet are focused on the familiar (pork, lamb), the exotic (zebra, panda), or even extinct (woolly mammoth).
While product-specific start-ups are exciting, the academic sector is also important. “We need driven, motivated students, willing to push these projects forward,” Gibbons emphasizes. “There’s such crossover between what I’m doing and what regenerative medicine scientists and stem cell biologists are doing: I’m growing meat, they’re growing organs.” Cultured-meat scientists come from various disciplines and backgrounds, but for the moment, there’s barely any academic coursework aimed at more directly ushering students into the field, according to Gibbons. Additional seasoned scientists are also needed: “The real problem is getting stem cell and regenerative medicine scientists, tissue engineers, bioprocessors, people that’ve spent 15 to 20 years in related fields, to jump on board and apply what they know to this field. We already have several, but the more we have, the faster this will happen.”
It’s been a hugely gratifying career shift for Gibbons. “Being in the lab, doing this completely novel research, taking information from literature and connecting it together—spending hours diving into how cellular biology, and life, works in general—has been extremely fascinating,” she says. “I’m able to apply my interest in cellular biology toward ending animal agriculture, and I cannot imagine a better job than that.”
New Harvest fellow Natalie Rubio, who’s researching whole cuts of cultured meat (chicken breasts, steak, bacon), instead of the current cultured ground meat prototypes, at Tufts University, hopes cell ag’s newness can be advantageous for establishing gender parity. “Many fields in our country are associated with one gender or another,” Rubio says, such as male-dominated industries like finance and sports or traditionally female-filled fields like teaching and nursing. “Cellular agriculture is such a young industry, I hope we are aware of discrimination in the early days so our field can be associated with inclusion and diversity.”
Industry role models matter, too. “I hope more women will be inspired enough by the pioneers of our generation to become pioneers themselves,” says Finless Foods’ Jennifer Tung, citing Sylvia Earle as her “personal pioneering heroine in the marine conservation field.” But broader changes are needed for women so that they don’t just enter science fields, but are also able to stick around and thrive. “I hope the structure and atmosphere of scientific training will change to become more fair and encouraging for women embarking on a scientific career,” Tung adds, noting how gender ratios for PhD candidates and recipients in biology and biomedical research are equal (even favoring women in certain specialties), but then skew towards men after a PhD is obtained. “The mentoring process for women could be better…there are many factors women scientists must consider that aren’t really taught by the overwhelming abundance of male mentors, such as balancing childbirth or pregnancy with a fragile and nascent scientific career or coping with something like imposter syndrome, which more females than males get during their training,” she says.
Researcher Marie Gibbons has personally endured gender discrimination in the field. “I’ve definitely had some hard experiences being a woman, being in uncomfortable situations,” she says. Gibbons left a previous research role due to ethical differences with her research group leader. “I don’t know if it was because I’m a woman, or was a new graduate student, or because I was arguing to treat an animal ethically in the poultry science department—it might’ve been a combination of all three—but it was a pretty awful situation, and I could’ve possibly fought harder, which I’m never going to forgive myself for. I’ll never make that mistake in the future.” Half the women Gibbons has shared her interests and hardships with have been “extremely supportive and have wanted to do everything they can to help and create more women scientists. Most people in this field are very aware of the hardships women face in science and are not interested in participating in those hardships,” she says. “I’ve also had quite the opposite: One of the other reasons I left my previous lab was due to sexual assault, and when I got into details about that, the [female] department head continuously rolled her eyes every single time I brought it up. She was extremely unsupportive, argumentative, and didn’t feel the situation was ‘worth making a big deal out of.’”
New Age Meats’ Andra Necula has had mostly positive experiences as a female cofounder in the space: “I’ve received an incredible amount of support and have been lucky to work with very professional people—but I think it’s important to discuss the bias that still exists in research,” she says. “There have definitely been times as a researcher where I’ve seen a bias against women. The academia environment is very old-school in many ways. Many of the people in it have experienced a cultural shift throughout their careers and had a hard time adapting.”
As these women prove, there’s clearly room (and a need) for more talents to get involved with the field—from trailblazing research to navigating uncharted policy waters. “I hope more people get involved in this work, including more women: Research has shown that more diverse teams come up with more creative and better solutions,” explains Good Food Institute’s Jessica Almy.
“Plant-based and clean meat need to advance as quickly as possible—and women have a critical role to play in making that happen.”