Growing meat instead of raising animals for food: A conversation with Eat Just’s Josh Tetrick

| Podcast

In this episode of The Venture, we share a conversation with Josh Tetrick, CEO and cofounder of Eat Just. Founded in 2011, this California-based company produces plant-based eggs using mung beans and meat made from animal cells. It has sold more than 100 million of its egg product, JUST Egg. In 2017, the unicorn expanded into developing cultivated meat, beginning with chicken, which was first approved for sale in Singapore in 2020. Tetrick spoke with McKinsey’s Andrew Roth about his ambitions to transform conventional meat production, his understanding of consumer preferences and purchasing behavior, and getting the timing—and technology—right to reach scale. At the close of the interview, McKinsey’s Tomas Laboutka weighs in.

An edited transcript of the podcast follows. For more conversations on venture building, subscribe to the series on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Podcast transcript

Andrew Roth: From Leap by McKinsey, our business-building practice, I’m Andrew Roth, and welcome to The Venture, a series featuring conversations with legendary venture builders in Asia about how to design, launch, and scale new businesses. In each episode, we cut through the noise to bring practical advice on how leaders can build successful businesses from scratch.

In this episode, I am excited to share a conversation with Josh Tetrick, CEO and cofounder of Eat Just, a California-based company that makes eggs from plants and produces meat from animal cells. The company was founded in 2011 and has sold the equivalent of 100 million eggs via JUST Egg, a plant-based egg substitute made from mung beans. In 2017, the unicorn announced its intention to develop lab-grown meat, and in 2020, Singapore became the first country to approve the sale of cultured chicken. You will hear Josh tell us about his mission to change the nature of meat production, convincing consumers to accept unconventional meat, and the challenges of scaling a new industry.

Welcome, Josh. Great to have you on the show. Before we get into Eat Just and cultured meats, I wanted to take a step back to the moment where you realized you wanted to build Eat Just.

Josh Tetrick: It really started with my best friend, Josh Balk, who’s also the cofounder of the company. He first opened up my eyes to the reality behind the chicken, burgers, and pork chops we’re all eating. And when he told me that behind every piece of meat we eat are billions of animals, with over a third of the world dedicated to planting soy and corn to feed them, I thought he must be wrong.

So I kept eating a lot of chicken, beef, and pork chops, but this stayed with me. Before attending law school, I spent some time in sub-Saharan Africa working for nonprofits, trying to do some good work with kids there. After that experience, I decided I wanted to figure out a way to use capitalism to solve a big, meaningful, urgent problem.

When I moved back to the US, I was lucky enough to have an ex-girlfriend who gave me a couch to sleep on as I sorted out what exactly I wanted to do. I remembered that conversation with my best friend about food and began to ask myself questions like, “What would the world look like if we could find a plant that made a better egg? What would the world look like if we made real meat without the need for a single animal to be slaughtered or tree to be removed?”

I spent about six months trying to sort out these ideas on my ex-girlfriend’s couch, and I eventually presented a rough sketch to Vinod Khosla, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems who has invested in a lot of companies. He took a bet on it and put half a million dollars into the idea, and I was off her couch and off to the races.

Andrew Roth: So you had some personal experiences where you got direct insights into how to answer this question about changing the way food is created. And as you went along the journey, was this a problem consumers expressed or an unknown need or problem that they were trying to solve?

Josh Tetrick: When we started more than nine years ago, very few consumers expressed a need for it. I think when you peel the onion back, you see that human beings want to eat food that tastes really good, makes them feel good, and that they can afford. And the more you provide food that meets those three needs, the more likely they are to buy and bring it into their lives.

Consumers weren’t saying, “I really want a piece of chicken that is real chicken but doesn’t require the slaughter of a chicken. I really want an egg without the need for an animal to be behind it.” But my cofounder and I thought it was really important, because over a third of our planet is used to plant soy and corn to feed all the animals we eat.

Our planet currently has a little over seven billion people, so what will the planet look like when we have eight or nine billion? All those animals and the transportation required would become a much bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

And personally, I don’t think we should be choosing food that harms another living thing. I think we can figure out a way to eat really good chicken, tasty scrambled eggs, and all that stuff without causing any harm. All those things inform why we decided to go after this.

Andrew Roth: It seems like awareness on this topic is increasing since you began your journey more than nine years ago. Humans are experiencing the reality of climate change, and some of the primary purchase drivers for cultured meat is that it’s done without slaughtering animals.

Josh Tetrick: I think there’s a real clear analogy to draw with electric cars here. In Norway, for example, electric cars made up 2 percent of the total cars purchased ten years ago but now make up more than 70 percent. In the United States, it was much less than 1 percent, but this year, it’s going to hit 10 percent.

But a number of things need to come together to make that happen. Technology needs to come together. Risk capital needs to come together. Entrepreneurs who are willing to go for it need to come together. Certain changes in how society thinks about climate change, how we think about our impact, and policy need to come together. So it’s not just a singular thing, and the timing has to be right.

And similar to what we’re seeing with electric cars, I think we’re just at the very beginning of a shift away from eating meat in the way we do. We’re going to look back on the meat we eat now like we look back at horse-drawn buggies today and say, “Well, that used to be a technology that made sense back in the day, but of course, it doesn’t make sense anymore.”

Andrew Roth: I often think about that, too. I think our grandchildren may look back at how we used to consume meat and maybe think it was pretty barbaric and inhumane.

Josh Tetrick: It’s a good question to ask ourselves because we’re always behind on ethics; we’re always catching up. We look back 30 or 50 years ago, whether it’s marriage equality or racial equality, or the right for women to vote, or any number of things, and we ask ourselves, “How could that previous generation have been so ignorant about what was staring them right in the face?” And I do think our grandchildren are going to ask us about how we eat meat now. And hopefully, as they’re asking the question, they’re going to be eating a whole bunch of chicken and beef and pork that doesn’t cause all that harm.

But we can’t ignore the fact that the majority of people won’t be driven by ethics. They’re not going to be driven by morality. They want good-tasting food just like they want a fast and safe car. And if we can figure out a way to do it that happens to be better for animals and the environment, tastes better, and is more affordable, consumers are going to move toward it, whether they care about ethics or not. And I think that’s where you get the real shift.

Andrew Roth: Let’s key in on that a little bit. Because aside from having a valuable problem to solve when you’re starting a business, the other shift venture builders sometimes face is understanding when you have product-market fit. And it sounds like cultured meat is experiencing some positive timing right now. How do you talk internally about this topic of product-market fit? Is there a metric? I’ve heard your research in Singapore found 80 percent of consumers who tried cultured chicken indicated they would make it a meat option.

Josh Tetrick: For us, it really starts off with a few basic truths that we build products around. First off, all things being equal, consumers will choose a food product that tastes better than other food products. Second, assuming taste is equal, consumers are going to choose food that makes them feel better, and that could be an actual physical “I feel and am healthier when I eat it,” or it could be an emotional feeling. The third factor is accessibility and cost. If more people can afford it, it’s going to have greater ubiquity. So we think about those three things. We’re starting with chicken, and then we’re going to move on to making beef and then pork.

We’re betting that if we can figure out a way to make our products taste better, make consumers feel good, and ultimately cost the same or less, people will go for it. We’ve got a lot of data out there backing it up. You cited one of the studies where we asked more than 2,000 consumers if cultured meat met those characteristics, would they switch? And 80 percent said yes. Even plant-based consumers said they would switch. We also polled over 100 restaurants, and 70 percent said they would not only put cultured meat on the menu but also remove conventional meat entirely.

I’ll use another analogy—streaming music. A friend of mine at one of the big streaming services told me that 20 years ago, a poll of US consumers found that only 2 percent of them would consider streaming instead of buying music. And now, 80 percent of the songs listened to in North America are streamed, not purchased. The point being, consumers change.

Now most of our initial customers are definitely folks who care deeply about biodiversity and animals, and they want their purchase to reflect their commitment to help mitigate climate change. But our hope is, as it continues to scale, we’ll attract folks like my dad, who is more in the taste and cost camp.

Andrew Roth: I think you’re hitting on one of the most important topics around sustainability, which is the approach to targeting the masses. Do you come at them with altruistic messages? Some brands do it through clinical content, through fear. And it sounds like what you’re saying is you’re falling more on the side of value, to just make the product taste better. Share a little bit more about how you’re going to make this shift to the masses.

Josh Tetrick: I think it’s about recognizing different phases. Phase one right now is acknowledging that we’re not cheaper than chicken and we’re not cheaper than beef. That’s the reality we have to live with right now. And thus, you’re not going to get everyone to purchase it, and that’s fine. So you start with a smaller group of people who are college educated, make over $100,000 a year, are a little bit more aware of these issues, and care about their personal or planetary health. And you speak more directly to them.

That is where you start. That doesn’t allow you to achieve the mission, but it does allow you to build a foundation. And then, ultimately, as you grow the different verticals that you’re reaching out to, you need to have a proposition that’s compelling from a taste and cost perspective. And if you can include the fact that it’s good for the world, too, that’s the cherry on top. But I do really think the main driver needs to be “This thing just tastes so much better, this is more affordable, and I feel better about it,” because most people are too busy to think about climate and animal welfare as the primary elements in their purchasing decision.

Andrew Roth: If you can’t get the believers out there, the people who have already bought into the vision, then you can’t really expect to make the shift to the masses. I’m curious about the process of manufacturing cultured meat, because you’ve said in the past that you want to make it boring, that you’re trying to normalize the process and make it sound less lab oriented. Can you share a little more on how you’re going to do that?

Josh Tetrick: Let’s start off by talking about how chicken is produced. Chicken is far and away the most consumed animal meat today, which is one reason we’re doing it first. There are billions of chickens all around the world. Typically, they’re in these warehouses, with 100,000 to 200,000 of them all crammed together. They live in warehouses for about 45 days until they’re slaughtered and turned into chicken breasts, nuggets, strips, and wings. And they’re fed a ton of soy and corn to quickly bulk up. But that requires land, which is often an incredibly biodiverse rainforest, full of abundant life, that is bulldozed to grow these crops. All these steps are part of the reason why industrial animal agriculture—as opposed to family farms—is more carbon intensive than transportation.

So how do we do it? We start with a cell. And we can get that cell from an egg, from a fresh piece of meat, or from a biopsy of an animal, so we don’t need billions of farmed animals anymore. Then we identify nutrients to feed the cell, since we need our own version of feed. And it’s not that different. It’s amino acids, vitamins, and minerals—stuff that enables our cell to grow. And then we scale up and manufacture it in a stainless-steel vessel called a bioreactor that looks like something you’d see in a microbrewery. And that’s how we make meat. That’s the process we used to make meat that’s served in Singapore today. That’s the process that we’ll be using as we build out larger facilities in North America, Singapore, and elsewhere. It’s cleaner, so there is little to no risk of salmonella, E. coli, fecal contamination, or other zoonotic diseases. Ultimately, we think it will be more efficient. The goal is to get below the cost of conventionally produced chicken.

Andrew Roth: The science is fascinating. We could have an entire discussion just on the lab itself. But going back to your points on the consumers, the connection between what you’re just describing around the science and how you normalize it, it seems like the unlock will be when you achieve pricing parity or lower cost than conventional meat. Any thoughts on the timing of the pricing parity?

Josh Tetrick: Again, I think you have to look at where electric cars are today. You’ve got some countries where they make up the majority of the purchases. You’ve got the US, which is at 10 percent. And you’ve got all these auto manufacturers who used to protest the rise of the electric car and now say, “We’re only going to be making electric cars.” But today, even though electric cars remain more expensive than gasoline-powered ones, we’ve hit a tipping point. It doesn’t feel like we’re going back. I think it would surprise everyone if sales of gasoline-powered cars were still growing five years from now. That’s where I want to get to with cultivated meat.

And I think to get to that point, we’ve got to achieve much more scale. We need to build facilities, and other companies need to also, so we can supply all the major grocery stores, and all of Singapore, not just a few restaurants. We need to be in the tier-one cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul, where we can supply tens of millions of people, so they can try it and have it be part of their daily food habit, not just something they eat a few times a year when they find a rare restaurant that serves it. Getting to that place is going to require a ton of investment capital, many hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s also going to require a lot of consumer education and regulatory approval. And that’s our next goal, which the team is working really hard to make happen.

Andrew Roth: And on that point, you learn so much when you go through that second or third phase of scaling, from manufacturing to marketing. And it sounds like, since the beginning, you’ve achieved a certain amount of traction and are starting to scale. Are there any critical things you’re trying to prove during the initial scaling, or things you’ve learned since you’ve started to scale?

Josh Tetrick: A few things. We were fortunate to be the first company to achieve regulatory approval to sell real meat that didn’t require slaughter, which is called cultivated meat or cultured meat. We launched it in Singapore, and from that experience, we’ve learned that there’s a pretty big gap between younger people and older people in how they think about this. If you’re under 30, you really don’t mind your meat being made in a stainless-steel vessel. If you’re over 30, you’ve got a lot of questions. Where’s this vessel? What does it look like? What’s inside it? Who made this vessel? How do you know it’s safe? All very fair questions, but you get a lot of them. It’s funny to see younger people’s reactions. They shrug their shoulders, almost like, “Why would I care that my meat is made in a stainless-steel vessel? Why would that even be an issue?” So that’s been interesting to see.

Andrew Roth: That’s a very positive sign.

Josh Tetrick: It’s definitely a positive sign. We’ve had a lot of vegans come to our trial dinners to just observe. They didn’t even want to try the chicken; they only wanted to see it. I think they were excited that other people wanted it, but it really wasn’t for them.

It’s also notable that people have a lot more questions about the process than I expected. We thought we did a relatively in-depth overview of how it’s made when we first launched. But people just want to know more. Generally, they’re just curious about why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, and how long it’s going to take. And we’ve now tried to unpack that a little bit more for people.

The point is to get to a world where the vast majority of meat consumed doesn’t require the need to slaughter an animal, cut down a tree, use antibiotics, or accelerate zoonotic disease. We’ve got to get to that world. And we’re only going to get to that world when we figure out a way to manufacture at scale.

Josh Tetrick

The single biggest thing that we need to do in order to make this happen is to design and engineer a stainless-steel bioreactor that can handle 200,000 liters. And there are a lot of engineering and technical challenges in doing that. Bioreactors are used for vaccine or drug production by big biopharma companies, but bioreactors at the scale that we need, at that 200,000-liter size, don’t exist. So even if I had $5 billion or $100 billion in our company bank account, there’s no company I can call to ask, “Hey, can I please have ten delivered?” Because no one’s ever thought of it at this scale.

So we’re designing them from scratch, and we found a world-class partner that specializes in this sort of thing. And that is far and away the single most important activity that we’re doing right now: the investment and the engineering to do the design, engineering, and, ultimately, the installation of a huge bioreactor. If we can figure out a way to do that, we radically increase the probability that we’ll be able to succeed. If we can’t, we’ll have invested a lot of money and tried really hard but won’t have a lot to show for it.

Because as proud as I am about launching with a handful of restaurants, that’s not the point. The point is to get to a world where the vast majority of meat consumed doesn’t require the need to slaughter an animal, cut down a tree, use antibiotics, or accelerate zoonotic disease. We’ve got to get to that world. And we’re only going to get to that world when we figure out a way to manufacture at scale. And we’re only going to get to scale when we figure out how to engineer this unprecedented bioreactor. And that’s why we’re putting so much energy into figuring it out.

Andrew Roth: As you face these huge challenges, you’re going to have to engender a culture where people really feel tied to the vision and mission. And one of the things we’ve seen in McKinsey research on this topic is that teams need to have a massive sense of belonging to the organization. And because we’re now working in a world where people are spread out across different regions, I was curious about the routines and rituals your organization employs to keep that culture, that sense of belonging, so you can tackle this enormous challenge in front of you.

Josh Tetrick: It always starts with sharing and reminding people all the time what this is all about. I didn’t cofound this company to be valued at X billion dollars, or because it will feel good to be publicly traded. Those are things that happen as we go along for this ride.

The meaning behind this company is that the food we eat doesn’t represent our values, and we should change that, because it really matters. It matters for us, it matters for our families, and it matters for the great-grandkids who we haven’t met yet and who will be in our lives one day. And I think it matters knowing that you’re a part of a team where the most important question we ask ourselves every day is, “What can we do today to increase the probability of that world happening?” This includes which meetings should we attend, or which meetings should we cancel? What should we speak out about? What should we think more creatively about? What will increase the probability, in our lifetime, of living in a world where the majority of meat doesn’t require the slaughter of an animal?

That’s our North Star as a company, and reminding our people about it again and again, that’s one thing that helps sustain us despite the reality that this is going to be really hard. There’s no getting around that. Succeeding is not inevitable, but we can increase the likelihood of it happening, and it’s made more likely by decisions that our people make today. I think that helps to create a culture that’s focused and that we’re all proud to be a part of.

Andrew Roth: You have an exciting vision and mission, and definitely, as you say, a challenge, where success is not inevitable. Looking forward to hearing more as you scale up and achieve your next milestones. I really thank you for your time, and I look forward to talking again soon.

Andrew Roth: Now comes a segment where we invite founders and experts from McKinsey to provide more context and to draw practical insights. I’m joined by Tomas Laboutka from Leap by McKinsey. Tomas, good to see you.

I want to start with Josh’s perspective on his vision/mission and the customer. His vision around alternative protein and cultured meat is a very altruistic one. He’s doing something huge, yet he knows that he has to appeal to the customer’s tastes first. So his approach to pioneering a sustainable lifestyle is not by going straight at the consumer with some altruistic message, but rather by solving the customer’s natural problem.

I wanted to get your perspective on that, because we see clients that get tempted to take the vision/mission approach versus the customer approach.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s an interesting observation. I find it absolutely inspiring that he’s able to strike this balance. He has the mission to change the way we produce and consume meat. He sees the planet burning—literally—highlighting how the amount of greenhouse gas emissions we produce from all transportation combined doesn’t add up to the amount from traditional protein production. So there’s an urgent mission.

And yet he goes straight to the customer and deep into understanding customer preferences. He’s very clear on what levers he has to pull in order to win over the customer for alternative protein: the taste, the feeling it provides, the identity behind it, and the price. This framing is really powerful. He is very systematic, and I love how he’s approaching it, because you can really see that each lever that he pulls gets him closer. To make it very clear: the customers will decide the progression. He’s not handing down a solution from day one. He’s actually really trying to understand customers’ decision making very deeply.

Andrew Roth: And from a go-to-market perspective, I liked his framing around solving for taste, then accessibility, then cost. Whereas in the corporate-venture world, you and I see that it’s very tempting to solve for cost or the P&L first, and then try to solve for the customer’s desires. I wanted to get your thoughts on his go-to-market strategy of building a community of people who have bought into the idea and then solving for taste.

Tomas Laboutka: I think it’s an interesting strategy. And I think it also depends a bit on Josh really understanding where he stands in terms of the products’ maturity and the market’s maturity.

We heard quite a bit about cultivated meat throughout the interview. To take a step back, there are three types of alternative protein. There’s cultivated meat, which is, to put it one way, the most scientific. It’s the one furthest from maturity in the market. But we also have fermented meat and plant-based meat, and the maturity of each technology is different.

So the go-to-market strategy mirrors that. What we see with plant-based meat is that the taste is what you’re really trying to crack. It’s not always very close to traditional meat, though you have new technologies that are trying to get it there, such as fat extrusion to make it really juicy and meaty. With cultivated meat, the taste is, by design, relatively close to that of conventional meat. So what you’re trying to see is how to get to the customer who doesn’t mind the price, who doesn’t mind the taste (because it’s already there), but is able to tolerate the price premium and has a bit of a conviction. So Josh is building a community of these early adopters. And then he says, “Look, once I have the foundation, I can keep building.” At the same time, the foundation also gives him a bit of a time lag to reach scalability and make sure that cultivated-meat production is able to reach price parity with traditionally produced meat.

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Andrew Roth: On the topic of scale, he ends with a big challenge that he has set for himself: in order to really scale the cultured-meat side of the business, he needs a certain type of bioreactor that doesn’t even exist yet. And that was compelling to me, because he is doing something brave in the face of extreme uncertainty. That’s another point of reflection for our corporate venture builders. Large organizations are often operating in a mode of solving complex problems and getting to a high level of certainty. Whereas in business building like this, you have to be very comfortable with uncertainty. And I think he is expressing that well. I wanted to get your thoughts on how corporate venture builders can take some inspiration from this.

Tomas Laboutka: That’s such a good point. And you can really see he’s thriving; he is in his element. I think in terms of the business building, he’s really betting on his own success. He is facing a reality where, even if he had $5 billion, even if he had $100 billion, nobody can bring him what he needs today. It’s quite crazy how daring you have to be to succeed. If you look at the projections for cultivated meat, the most optimistic ones tell us we’re going to reach $25 billion in market value by 2030, and yet, there are still no bioreactors available to get us to scale.

And this is really inspiring, I think, for many of us who are building ventures—to seek discomfort and uncertainty. Combine that with the need to not only understand the customers and figure out how to bring the product to market but also figure out the whole mechanism for scaling it, figure out the price—and figure out the bioreactor. And this dilemma is something that has to be resolved as he goes along. It’s the notion behind R&D, and in many of these businesses, it’s the notion of testing and iterating and not having the full product in place, which I think is important to internalize as we build new ventures.

Andrew Roth: I’ll close with just one other observation: Josh has had to face uncertainty, first of all, with solving for taste first versus coming to the consumer with a message on sustainability as the forefront of the brand. He’s really trying to solve for taste and doing so in the face of extreme uncertainty. And then from a production or scale perspective, he’s got another major hurdle to overcome with these bioreactors, and yet he’s still persevering.

I think our corporate venture builders can learn some lessons from that—about being brave enough to ask for the right team, the right amount of capital, to execute their plans for business building. I think we need to get away from pilots and prototypes and minimum viable products and hackathons, and move more toward these bigger questions and ambitions to solve the big problems.

Tomas Laboutka: Absolutely. And frankly, I’m inspired by the mission and the business building here as well. This is not about building just another app. This is a huge mission, and it’s incredibly important. And I think a few years from now, we’ll be seeing a massively larger multiple of companies from corporate venture building in this space and focused on solving the climate crisis. So that is definitely something to take away here.

Andrew Roth: I know this is a topic core to you and what you’re doing with Leap by McKinsey. It will be exciting to see what Josh continues to do. Thanks for joining, Tomas.

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