by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 October 2019
Isha Datar is Executive Director of New Harvest, an American Institute spearheading research in cellular agriculture. Her three-year fellowship began in 2016 with a vision of a future where we can farm animal products at scale in a lab, without the need for animals. Even now this is an idea way ahead of its time, but incredibly important. By laying the foundations for a post-animal bioeconomy, there could be enormous benefits for the environment, global nutrition, and animal welfare. This is Isha’s fellowship story.
Isha is from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada. Her educational background is in cell biology - she stayed in Edmonton for her undergraduate degree - but her keen interest in learning inspired her to seek additional knowledge away from the Petri dishes of her usual classes.
“I took a meat science class,” she recalls. “I thought it was a cool thing to do. It was abnormal to take an agriculture class if you were in the Faculty of Science because agriculture was separated from the other sciences - you had to walk across the whole campus to get there. But I thought; you know, this is biology too. This is biology that everyone cares about, as opposed to the enzyme pathways in my other classes.”
“At one of the first classes, I asked my professor to explain the environmental impact of animal agriculture. It completely blew me away, because all this time I thought agriculture was this regenerative, renewable, kind of circular thing. When actually, it wasn’t like that at all. It was quite linear and resembled industries that you think are terrible because so many costs are externalised to the environment and so on.
“So that made me think, ‘oh my gosh, we all need to become vegetarian tomorrow, and that’s the only way we will solve our problems.’ But I realised that was not really possible.
“A few classes later, my professor said that maybe, one day, we can grow meat from cells. And because I had come from this other faculty where we’re learning about growing cell culture for human organ replacements and tissue engineering, I thought it was the most obvious next step for agriculture.”
While evident to Isha, few others seemed engaged with the idea of cultured meat at the time. She discovered an expression of theoretical interest on a single-page website by an organisation called New Harvest, but little in the way of serious research. Regardless, Isha’s path was set. And her act of crossing the faculty divide proved rather metaphorical.
“I could see that this was interdisciplinary,” she explains. “It required people from different fields coming together just to acknowledge it as a question that can be asked.”
Isha’s interest in this new idea - which was yet to become a study subject, let alone a field of research - prompted her to write a paper. Possibilities for an in-vitro meat production system discussed the potential and limitations of the creation of artificially grown meat, and she sent it on to the small community at New Harvest. Its then-CEO Jason Matheny forwarded it to every individual cited in the paper. Almost immediately, there was academic discourse building up around Isha’s work.
“It was amazing,” she says. “I was just an undergrad student, and they were asking me when I was going to publish it. I was also really taken by how welcoming the community was and how little it adhered to this ivory tower mentality that you often find in academia. That was another thing that attracted me to this space.”
It wasn’t long before Isha got to know New Harvest a little better. At the time, it was an evening hobby for Jason, but word got out that the organisation planned to hire an executive director. Fresh out of university, she applied and got the job. The idea was to create a brand new field of research and a whole new industry, but limited funds and few resources pointed to a challenging start.
“It was daunting,” says Isha. “The first year of my work was very much community building, which mostly involved running a Facebook group and talking to tons of people on the phone.”
The next year proved more fruitful. Interest from a venture capital group presented an opportunity to create some synthetic biology companies. It was low-level investment, but it gave Isha the chance to assemble a small group from the New Harvest community and create a company creating real milk without a cow: then called Muufri; now called Perfect Day Foods. Another company, Clara Foods, formed from the New Harvest stable sometime later to make egg proteins. Both were - and still are - hugely successful.
However, Clara Foods was the last commercial endeavour birthed by New Harvest. In 2014, Isha and her small team made a vital strategy decision. Instead of focussing on growing and launching companies, attention turned to pre-competitive research and talent pool building.
“At that point, we already had these startups, but I strongly felt it wasn’t the right strategy. Everyone at the time said we should be an accelerator, and we should do this, or should do that. But I really wanted to focus on this open side of things. I didn’t know it as an open thing; then, I was thinking of it more as pre-competitive. But that’s just semantics.
“I remember thinking if we wanted to fund any research at universities, they would want to own a piece. It seemed so messy. The only way that we could do this is if we opened up our own Institute and had our own brick and mortar place to do academic research.”
Isha applied to the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2016 with an intriguing proposal. Food insecurity is one of the most significant challenges of our time, and food manufacturing is a massive contributor to environmental issues. We can choose between the devil and the deep blue sea, or we can seek out new ideas that feed the human population while limiting the damage of production.
Cellular agriculture offers an exciting new thread to the conversations we have around nutrition, sustainability, and - eventually - affordability. However, we are still some distance away from picking up lab-grown beef cuts from the local supermarket. Funding in this field is minimal in comparison to investment in the alternatives; the low-hanging fruit of plant-based meat substitutes is far less risky and offers far more opportunity to make a quick return in the eyes of VCs.
But lack of attention does not equate to a lack of potential. It just limits opportunity. Isha’s idea was to apply openness to the creation of cell cultures used to grow meat in labs. With more available resources, researchers would have the chance to speed up their work, test new ideas, and take the field into all manner of new territories. She was fully committed to her vision, too: her decision to give up personal equity in the successful companies spawned by New Harvest is the very essence of ‘skin in the game’. Isha became a Shuttleworth Fellow in September 2016.
“Originally we were going to build a lab,” she explains. “That was the proposal in my application - it was one of the first I had ever written, and I didn’t think it would go anywhere. But when we got the money, I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, now we have to create this thing!’
“I dug quite deep into making that happen. I found a place, investigated it and then started crunching the numbers. And I felt it was probably the riskiest way to spend the money, and didn’t even know if it will turn anything out at the end. It was a lot of weight: I didn’t want to get into a real estate purchase or become a lab manager or hire someone who would have a lot of pressure riding on them. It seemed to me that a much more useful way to spend the money was through regranting.”
Isha’s new plan was to use the Foundation’s funding to support researchers at several different universities and start the process of building a new scientific community. It made a lot of sense. Focussing on developing the field as a whole distributed the risk, and also gave an additional capacity for growth. Each researcher would take on undergraduates and find collaborators of their own, with the potential of extending the work into new territory.
“That was one of the hardest things about the fellowship,” says Isha. “I had all this support early on, and now I had to source the bravery to tell them everything I had initially proposed was a bad idea, and there was a whole new thing we have to do. But I was met with ‘Oh, that sounds great!’ There was such trust for me as a fellow and that experience was quite transformative.”
That moment was pivotal for Isha’s fellowship in more ways than one. It showed an emerging cellular agriculture community that New Harvest was agile and adaptable, but most of all, Isha and her team had absolute faith in the mission. Broadening the focus from fundamental tools into fundamental research meant an extended structure of support for the field.
Isha was incredibly thoughtful in choosing the right targets for New Harvest funding, and has grown the pool of research significantly - importantly, this was not only under the New Harvest banner. Funded projects have ranged from building a scalable, modular bioreactor prototype to a study scaling up the sizing and thickness of in vitro pork. Recent funding efforts have gone towards cell behaviour management - which could prove crucial in making the mass production of cultured meat a reality - and the development of plant-based scaffolds for marbling cultured beef. Looking at these projects in combination, and you can see the direction of travel: large scale production and consumer choice could result with new items added to shopping lists of the future.
“Another highlight of the fellowship was hiring our research director,” says Isha. “Kate [Krueger] knows a lot more about research in academia than I do, and has taken the research programme much further than the skeletal structure I had initially envisaged.
“We’ve actually based the programme on my Shuttleworth Fellowship experience. I wanted to marry its person-driven focus to funding in an academic setting. It really spoke to Kate, because she sees there are so many problems with how research is incentivised, and how funds are given out. She’s been delighted to run with it.”
The New Harvest fellowship programme grew from strength to strength over the three years. When Isha applied in 2016, there was a single research fellow in a pilot scheme, who dropped out very early - far from the perfect scenario. But by the end of 2019, there will be 16 fellows and three alumni. Isha has also managed to start an annual conference where researchers convene to discuss new developments and ideas, bringing the international movement into the same room.
There has been both resilience and flexibility to her thinking in terms of how this nascent industry can develop. This is not about creating a dominant organisation or aggressively pursuing a market share land grab. It’s more about an organisation that seeds - and fertilizes - healthy, ongoing, sustainable progress. Not just for the field, but also New Harvest.
Isha and the New Harvest team are in an excellent position for the foreseeable future. Their fellowship programme is growing, and the current goal is to draw in many others to share their thinking and seed it elsewhere. It seems to be working. A new funder has offered a generous grant that promises another three years pushing the boundaries of what is possible with cellular agriculture. Not only does this provide a secure long-term future, but it also allows the team to grow as leaders.
“We will have to expand the team a little bit,” says Isha. “So we will be working on leadership growth, and also trying to find things that I can do very specifically while delegating the rest. That has been a huge lesson for me. The growth from turning a one-person show into a team has been challenging. It’s like a lot of muscle memory is having to be relearned, but I’m really excited and passionate about it and want to do better and learn more.
“So, the new funding was a huge success,” she smiles. “They really bought into our vision of supporting people, being flexible and remaining effective and are a perfect follow-on from the Shuttleworth Foundation. They have the same kind of spirit of philanthropy and want to take us on for the next three years on an accelerated growth path. I know the cliff edge that comes after Shuttleworth funding is daunting and hard for everybody - there is a lot of luck involved - so this has been huge.
“I don’t think we could have built the things that impressed this funder without the Foundation. Without Shuttleworth support, I don’t think we could have been so bold about this thing we cared so much about, because previous funders have requested all kinds of highly specific things that compromised our work and our mission. As an example, one donor said they would only give me money if I became vegan…”
Isha has been a phenomenally successful fellow. It is likely that she will become even more so as she takes New Harvest to the next stage. Everything she has done has been wedded to a well thought out strategy, and she quickly recognised the need to pivot where others might have continued on the same path.
It is wonderful that she has embraced the concepts and thinking behind the Shuttleworth Foundation, and shared the open structures and models of our community with hers. In doing so, she gives people agency and wants them to collaborate, learn, and communicate the results, further advancing the field. Isha’s ability to convene and get the right people around the table is one of her biggest strengths, and while there has been mixed success with introducing open into this field, she has raised some interesting questions that are ripe for exploration in the future. She is a valuable member of the Shuttleworth community, offering tough yet kind advice and guidance to anyone that needs it, while being fully committed to our processes.
“I’ve seen so many fellows talk about how this community is better than any other community they’ve been a part of,” reflects Isha. “I take that very seriously. Many fellows are involved with a lot of communities and have several types of funding experiences in the past. So that’s a very credible piece of data.
“The other thing is that everyone is so personable and friendly. They are willing to talk about anything, and open to talking about anything. But also open to relaxing. One thing I really liked about the gatherings is that people are not just working every opportunity. If I wanted to take walks, sit by the pool and do these other very relaxing things, I could. That spoke a lot to me because it’s something that I value and identify with, but sometimes don’t always feel is culturally supported.
“I think that the community is as much a part of the Shuttleworth Foundation as the staff, and I continue to be amazed at how much unity there is in terms of values, and how we speak to one another. Clearly, that comes from being pretty selective and doing a great job selecting the fellows, but also, they are always actively cultivating this community.
“I will always keep in touch with the Foundation. Karien Bezuidenhout remains a board member of New Harvest, and I consider the fellowship an important resource. I take the fellow forever thing very seriously, and I’m so glad that it’s been set up that way.”