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Interview: Matt Gibson, CEO of New Culture Foods

Today I am very excited to share our interview with Matt Gibson. Matt is the CEO and co-founder of New Culture Foods, a startup that uses cellular agriculture to make dairy cheese without requiring cows. New Culture Foods is currently a part of the IndieBio, a leading life science program that helped commercialize the entire field. We had the opportunity to speak to Matt ahead of IndieBio’s Class 8 Demo Day to learn more about New Culture and their plans moving forward to change the future of food. After this interview, you will know:

  1. How to get started and involved in the space, even if you’re far away in New Zealand
  2. How to find a passionate co-founder on another side of the world
  3. How the right accelerator can push your team to make more progress than you imagined

Ahmed Khan: How did you get passionate about cellular agriculture? And how did that lead to meeting your cofounder and starting New Culture Foods?

Matt Gibson: I'm from New Zealand originally. It was about six or seven years ago when I first heard about this crazy thing called lab-grown meat, and that was Mark Post’s project that was funded by Sergey Brin from Google. Around this time, I went vegan and started to look at sustainability. I remember seeing this lab-grown meat and thinking how amazing it would be and how many problems it would alleviate once it would get to scale.

I have a scientific background, so I understood the technology. I remember running around New Zealand asking anyone and everyone ‘Who’s working on this in New Zealand and where can I join?’ Of course, New Zealand is a small country, and no one was working on it. No one is still working on it in New Zealand.

I had to sit back on the sidelines for a while and watch the space blossom and watch so many new and innovative companies come out of cellular agriculture, from Clara FoodsPerfect DayMemphis Meats, and now New Age Meats.

About a year and a half ago, I thought ‘You know, I'm sick of sitting on the sidelines. I really want to do this, and I'm going to do it. I know technology. I know how it works. And I want to get involved and do my part.’

The first thing I looked at was why are there so many companies working on cell-based meat and so few companies looking on the other side of the coin, which is dairy. And I've never really gotten a good answer to why that is.

“We’re driving towards this mission of revolutionizing the dairy industry”

It’s not like dairy is a small space. Being from New Zealand, where dairy is our biggest export, I’ve been around it my whole life and seen the damage it can cause to the environment as well. And so that was the big reason why I got into dairy.

I chose cheese because, being a vegan for the last almost ten years, I’ve never enjoyed eating vegan cheese, and there’s a large gap in quality between dairy cheese and vegan cheese. As cheese is harmful for the environment, it is a problem that needs to be addressed. There needs to be a more sustainable cheese on the market for people to switch to a more sustainable lifestyle. So that’s why we chose cheese.

I remember talking to Benjamina [Bollag] from Higher Steaks when I was looking for a co-founder. I asked her how she found her co-founder, and her advice was to become a recruiter and buy Linkedin Premium. Know exactly who you’re looking for, have a business plan ready to present, and go out and recruit people. That’s exactly what I did.

I spent a good 4-6 months finding people on Linkedin and pitching my idea to see if they had the right vision, the right passion, and the right expertise. After a long time, I found Inja [Radman], my co-founder. We shared the same passion, she’s a fantastic scientist, and we gelled quickly. She’s been a massive advocate for sustainability her whole life, and it’s really been an incredible partnership.

Ahmed: Are you working to develop any specific type of cheese?

Matt: Our first focus is mozzarella for a few reasons. When we think about the type of cheese we want to develop, the key to what we want to do is iterate very quickly. Mozzarella is a very quick cheese to make. You can make it from milk in 20 minutes. And you can eat it right away. There’s no aging involved, which means we can iterate our development very quickly. If we were choosing another cheese, like parmesan, we’d be waiting 6-12 months, because you’d have to age it. If we chose brie, we’d be waiting 6 weeks.

Another big reason is that mozzarella is the most consumed cheese in the United States. We wanted to tackle the biggest market first.

The last reason is that there is no good vegan substitute for a fresh ball of mozzarella. That’s what we’re making: a fresh, hand-made ball of mozzarella that people can serve on salads, on pizzas, or by itself.

Ahmed: Can you briefly explain the scientific process you go through to make your animal-free mozzarella cheese?

Matt: We discovered early on that the key to make a good cheese is dairy proteins. Specifically, you need casein proteins, which are unique to mammals. You can’t find anything like them in the plant-based world.

Instead of having the cow produce these proteins, we’re using microbes. We know the DNA that encodes these casein proteins. We simply introduce that DNA into a microbe, and we grow the microbes in a fermentation tank. As the microbes grows, they start to produce our casein proteins, which we collect. We incorporate the casein proteins with plant-based fats, plant-based sugars, and minerals, and we follow the standard cheese-making process from there.

So we’re using the standard cheese-making process as much as possible. The technology we use is called recombinant protein production, which has been used for decades. We’re leveraging that technology for dairy proteins to make our cheese.

“If I thought I could make a fantastic plant-based cheese, I’d do that. It’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier to do.”

Ahmed: Compared to how we conventional dairy products like cheese, what advantages are there with your production process and method?

Matt: There are quite a few.

For nutrition, our cheese will have no lactose. Those 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant will be able to try our cheese. Our cheese also has no cholesterol, so it’s healthier. Our cheese will have less saturated fats, less sugar, and there will be no traces of antibiotics or growth hormones that are used in the dairy industry.

If we’re talking about the environmental point of view, it’ll use less water and emit less greenhouse gases. We’ll use less land compared to conventional dairy practices.

Ahmed: From starting New Culture Foods, how has your journey been up to this point? Were you always planning on being a part of the IndieBio program?

Matt: When first starting, my entire focus was to get into IndieBio. I was aware of all the fantastic cell ag startups that came from it. They have such a good track record with the food startups. So that was my dream.

I began communicating with IndieBio a year before I applied, updating them with what I was doing from New Zealand, [and] where I was at. Fortunately, we got in.

Since then, it’s almost been like a roller coaster. We’ve just been working all day everyday, but it doesn’t feel like work. We’re driving towards this mission of revolutionizing the dairy industry. It’s been an absolute blast so far.

IndieBio has this quote, “Do science in 4 months”, which seems impossible if you come from a science background. But, somehow, they make you do it. We came to IndieBio with three key goals and we achieved them, which is amazing. So it’s been a wonderful experience. I can’t recommend them enough for any cell ag startup that wants to accelerate quickly when they first start out.

“There needs to be a more sustainable cheese on the market for people to switch to a more sustainable lifestyle.”

Ahmed: Have there been many challenges that you’ve seen so far in the cellular agriculture space? What are some of the obstacles ahead for New Culture Foods and the field?

Matt: I think scale is going to be a big challenge for everyone in the space. We’re fortunate on the protein side. What we’re doing isn’t entirely new. There’s already precedence for using microbes to produce recombinant protein at massive scales. It’s still a big hurdle to scale to massive quantities to be a viable, mainstream food option.

The second hurdle is regulation [and] getting FDA approval for our cheese. Will we even be allowed to call what we’re producing cheese? Legally, according to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), we can’t.

That’s another great thing about being in this space. All these regulatory hurdles are something that the entire cell ag field can work together on with the FDA and update labelling. As technology progresses, that’s something that will need to happen.

Ahmed: One obstacle many companies have in this field is addressing public perception. Do you have any plans yet to address any concerns people may have about dairy products, like cheese, that do not involve cows in the production process?

Matt: We’re fortunate that cheese is already quite a processed product. The people we’ve spoken to are not opposed to what we’re doing. I think the key is being extremely transparent and open. I’m not trying to hide anything away about how it’s made or what it’s made from. I think it’s also important to show what we’re doing has been used for many years in different food products as enzymatic reagents.

What we’re doing is already being used in the cheese industry. The key part of making cheese from milk is forming coagulating milk to form curds, which is what cheese is made from. Currently, people use chymosin to make curd. Most chymosin comes from the same technology that we’re using. It comes from microbes engineered to produce this enzyme. In that sense, what we’re doing is no different than what is already done in the cheese industry. We just use it for protein instead of only for chymosin.

“Being from New Zealand, where dairy is our biggest export, I’ve been around it my whole life and seen the damage it can cause to the environment as well”

Ahmed: Demo Day is coming up! Along with that, what are your plans for the rest of 2019?

Matt: Basically, to continue the momentum of what we’re currently doing. We’re moving very quickly. We’ve got a fantastic team of 3 employees that have come along this journey with us. We’re looking to stay in San Francisco after Demo Day, find some good lab space, hire some new people, and work towards revolutionizing the dairy industry. That’s going to be our focus for the rest of this year and the next few years to come.

Ahmed: When do you plan to have a product to market?

Matt: Our product to market probably won’t happen for about 4 years. We’ll be having tastings before then, periodically. There will be plenty of opportunities to try our cheese in the next 6-12 months!

Ahmed: How do you think the future of food will look like?

Matt: It depends what time frame you’re talking about!

We know it’s changing very quickly. We just need to look at the consumption of dairy milk compared to plant-based milk. The consumption of dairy milk has dropped tremendously over the last 4 years with the rise of plant-based milks.

Things are going to accelerate quickly. In 10 years, it’s going to be an entirely different landscape. I’m excited for what the future holds. We know that there is a demand for sustainable, ethical food options. We’re just waiting for the technology to catch up with the demand. It’s going to be a fantastic environment to be a part of!

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