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Interview: Ryan Bethencourt, CEO of Wild Earth

If you are interested in learning about how to start a movement this is one interview you need to read! Today I am very excited to share our interview with Ryan Bethencourt. CEO and co-founder of Wild Earth, a startup using cellular agriculture to make sustainable pet food. After this interview you will know:

  1. How the entire space of Cell Agriculture has exploded in the last few years.
  2. What it takes to launch a venture in the space and how to get started
  3. How a single person can help catalyze an entire movement.

Ahmed Khan: Prior to being one of the co-founders of Wild Earth Pet, you were a part of the co-founding team of IndieBio, a SOSV-backed life science accelerator, and Berkeley Biolabs. How did you first get passionate and involved in this field?

Ryan Bethencourt: It actually started with a frustration of mine. Prior to IndieBio, myself and Ron [Shigeta], my other co-founder, founded Berkeley Biolabs, which was a little incubator for science-based startups on the outskirts of Berkeley. It was because of the frustration we had. It was hard to make low-cost science work. When you look all around you, especially in Silicon Valley, you grow frustrated because there are all these tech startups that are being founded but very few science-based startups. Particularly biotech-based startups.

We thought we could make a difference by making it possible to have access to low-cost tools to do science outside of large companies or academia. The reason for that is that you couldn’t innovate in either of those two groups. Either the large company or academia would own your intellectual property. So we had this vision: to help scientists become entrepreneurs.

"Everything we do has be very real and very science-based"

Eventually, what we ended up finding out was that when we started Berkeley BioLabs, I helped start the Biohacker movement, essentially low-cost science-based spaces. The first one I was heavily involved with was Counter Culture labs and then Lab Launch, an LA-based non-profit and incubator for biotech, and Berkeley BioLabs, a for-profit incubator on the outskirts of Berkeley (now in San Francisco).

One of the challenges during the Berkeley Biolabs times was that we needed money. I had this idea: Could we actually raise a small venture fund on top of the incubator and actually fund these early stage entrepreneurs? Because they still had day jobs. They would come evenings and weekends and work on their science when they had the time. They couldn’t focus full-time on it. So the science would move very slowly.

That was my initial vision and I came across a venture firm called SOS Ventures. They made me see it was possible to do an accelerator model off of it, because they had previously run other accelerators.

I spoke about doing it in San Francisco with Sean O'Sullivan, who is the Managing General Partner of SOS Ventures, and Arvind Gupta, who is the San Francisco Partner, and they both liked the idea. That is essentially how IndieBio started. Myself and Ron joined forces with Arvind, who was a representative for Sean O’Sullivan in San Francisco, and we were part of the IndieBio co-founding team.

Ahmed: Following on from that question, quite a few cellular agriculture startups came up through IndieBio: Memphis Meats, Geltor, Finless Foods, and Clara Foods to name a few. Were you personally passionate about sustainable protein before IndieBio and these startups?

Ryan: Yes, 100%. This was inspired by other things that I’ve done. I actually knew Josh Tetrick from Just prior [to IndieBio] and I’m also a vegan. I knew him [Josh] before he raised any money. I knew him because he was walking around getting people to taste his muffin. And I was like ‘Who is this crazy guy walking around getting people to taste his muffin?’

When he raised the first half million from Khosla Ventures, it opened my eyes. Wait a minute, VCs will fund alternative protein companies? That’s really interesting. I knew Josh’s stuff and that was food science, not real biotech. That’s food science innovation. What if we added real biotech? What if, instead of replacing egg protein with plant proteins, what if we replace it with the identical protein made using biotech (like through recombinant yeast or bacteria)? So that became this mission to find people who could do this.

Before IndieBio, I was really interested in lab-grown meat from science fiction. I spoke to Mark Post about his burger and I was frustrated because it’s been 4 years since Mark Post has been talking about his burger and not actually build anything. I actually called Mark Post saying, “Hey, we’ll fund you if you spin out your burger.” And he said, “No, we got a lot of research to do. Not only that, Larry Page said whenever I want money he’ll give me a million bucks.”

So I thought ‘That sucks.’ There are millions of animals that die every single day and it’s messing up our planet. This is an emergency here. I’m a believer in capitalism. I think that startups and entrepreneurship can do a lot of good. It’s done a lot of bad in the past in some ways, but I think it’s a tool. I believe it can do a lot of good.

"You don't have to have industrial animal agriculture anymore. In the next ten years that will be obsolete"

I met Isha Datar from New Harvest for another startup. Isha basically said, “Hey, I heard of these two guys, one scientist and one new grad named Arturo (Art for short). They would like to make an egg white company.” I thought that was cool and said I’ll talk to them.

She connected me, and I asked them what they want to do. They said that they’re not sure. Art said something like if I don’t do a startup I’m going to go get a job at a bank or something. And I said, “Yeah don’t do that.”

I just started IndieBio and so I offered them a spot at IndieBio to do the egg white thing and I said I’ll help them raise money. At the time, we didn’t have much money. For the first batch of IndieBio, we only had $50,000 for companies. It was like ramen money. So we funded Arturo Elizondo and David Anchel, and they started Clara Foods.

Egg white. Without requiring chickens.

At the time, people thought “You are absolutely insane. Who the hell is going to eat a GMO egg?” This was 4 years ago, and people were really anti-GMO. I was like ‘You know what, technology wins. I’m certain of it.’ There may be resistance, as there always has been with technology, but it will eventually win, and GMOs are an important tool we need for the future. So I’m all in.

I found a couple of other ethical vegans who were ready to put their money where their mouths were, and that’s how we began to raise money for Clara Foods. The first investor in Clara was a vegan guy investing in tech companies. He said “Look, I believe in its mission. I’m going to back Clara with $50,000.” So we went from $50,000 from IndieBio to $100,000. Then we started get momentum.

All of a sudden, the ethical investors that backed Clara gave way for tech investors who were excited about the technology. And they started to invest with bigger checks. We were able to raise a little under $1.5 million for Clara by Demo Day at IndieBio. We went on stage and said “Hey, this is Clara.” Everyone thought this is crazy. One, they made an egg white. Two, they raised all the money they need for their seed round. That blew everyone away.

"The one lesson I've learned with entrepreneurship is that you have to give yourself permission. No one else is going to."

That’s how we started to build this momentum behind what became the cell ag movement for startups. That was definitely not guaranteed. Isha did the same thing. A couple of months later, she said, “Hey, there’s this professor that I know in Minnesota that apparently is trying to grow meat. Can you talk to him?” I picked up the phone and called Uma. Uma Valeti from Memphis Meats.

I said, “Hey, I heard you’re trying to make meat.”

Uma said, “Yes, I’m a vegan, but I’m a professor of cardiology, a head of my department. I’m not leaving to go anywhere.”

I said, “Look, I talked to Mark Post. You have a choice here. This is not about starting a company, this is about highlighting an entire movement. If you’re the first to create a for-profit company that is making lab-grown meat [this is before we had the term clean meat], then we could actually transform the world with it because it is such an inspiring thing.”

I’ve done my research and thought it was scientifically possible. Uma agreed, his co-founder Nick Genovese agreed and [so did] Will Clem. So they all came to IndieBio for the 2nd batch of IndieBio. We were able to fund the first clean meat company.

Cultured meatball by Memphis Meats

Mark Post, you know what happened afterwards? Within 3 or 4 months, he started a company too. Mosa Meat. He did not start it before Memphis Meats, so Memphis Meats catalyzed the technology to be the first to market, and I think that’s great.

Geltor was also Batch 2 at IndieBio. They approached us, and they first wanted to do insulin with bacteria. I said that was really boring. Why don’t you come back to me tomorrow and come back with a food product? Ideally, a food product that replaces an animal product (cause now I had this vibe that we could replace animals).

Nick Ouzounov and Alex Lorestani are both brilliant guys. They were doing their PhDs at Princeton at the time, and they came back to me and said they want to do gelatin and think we can undercut the price of gelatin. After consulting the team, the decision was unanimous. We said "Brilliant, funded!"

It started to gain momentum. People would start to hit me up and say “Hey, you’re the guy funding all these crazy things.”

Ahmed: After spending all that time supporting startups through IndieBio, you’re now running one! Was this something you always envisioned yourself doing?

Ryan: I think so. I gave myself permission. The same way people thought it was crazy to leave IndieBio. They were saying, “It’s so successful, you’re going to be able to keep funding all these incredible companies.”

At IndieBio, I learned how to build companies that really resonated with investors and were feasible and practical. Where I was struggling was how I could now help these companies after their seed rounds? When they start scaling, when they start producing commercial products, how do I help these companies? I didn’t have a good answer because I believe to help someone, you always need to be a practitioner. I could help companies all day in the early stages of ‘I have an idea’ to ‘I have a prototype’. But I couldn’t help them with the scaleup process because I haven’t done it yet myself.

Alongside my co-founder Ron and other team and co-founders, Florian, who is a serial entrepreneur, and Abril, who is very interested in this type of company, I was kind of inspired to figure it out myself and learn and continue to help build companies. I was lucky enough to get an offer from Babel Ventures to continue to help invest in companies in the growth stages while I build my company, Wild Earth.

Ahmed: Wild Earth uses alternatives to conventional animal protein for pet food. How did you and your team first come up with the idea for Wild Earth, and why pet foods?

Ryan: I spent a lot of time thinking about plant-based food, cultured-meat based foods, cellular agriculture, acellular agricultureOne of my big frustrations is the cost and how long to market it actually was. 

I’m also an animal lover. I’ve had many pets growing up. I actually currently foster dogs. They’re super cute little rascals. The thing is, every time I’d open a can of food or Kibble, this does not look like good food to me. The more I looked into it, the worse it turned out to be.

In the human food space, if you have a nice bit of steak, you mostly know it’s good quality and where it comes from. In the pet food space, there are euthanasia drugs in pet food because there is contaminated meat sometimes that have been recalled. There’s plastics that are known carcinogens.

We are trying to improve the quality of food in the human food space, which I’m very passionate about, but what about our pets? They are eating stuff that is toxic and could cause cancer. Not even the meat side. It’s the contaminants in the food. I was wondering, how could we make things better for them? I started to think about clean meat, and we are so many years from being at a competitive price point for clean meat. For pets – it’s cellular agriculture.

For pets - it's cellular agriculture

Ron, one of my co-founders, over the years, was always driving me crazy with growing koji. He is a third-generation Japanese-American and he makes his own sauces and marinades out of koji.

Koji is used to make miso soup, soy sauce, and saki. It’s an ancient fermentation technique in ancient fungi. And he was driving me nuts because he always had plates of koji in the refrigerator. Koji grows really quickly, and it can overwhelm bacterial plates and animal cell plates. If it gets onto one [plate], it’ll just take up the whole plate and you won’t have bacterial cells or animal cells.

I was wrapping my brain around how we get to a competitive price point with cell ag out of a clean protein source and, for some reason, it just connected in my mind. My God, the answer was staring at me in the face the whole time! We need to use fungi because we can grow fungi and can do it at a competitive price point in the near future. I’m not talking about 5 years or 10 years, I’m talking about 2 years. That’s what really inspired it.

"I eat our dog food. I will eat it in front of you because I know what it is. It's super clean."

The more I looked into it, the more I was shocked. Animals eat so much meat! 1/3 of the meat we eat in the US is actually pets eating that meat. It’s crazy! It’s not just all animal waste. It’s animals that are grown and killed for pet food.

It’s something no one is talking about. As countries get richer, they eat more meat and guess what else they do? They get more pets. No one is doing the populations.

Like China, for example. What if China comes anywhere near the pet ownership that the US has (the US has a 65% pet ownership)? China currently has 2-3% pet ownership. If they get to 50% pet ownership, we’re talking about another 500 million dogs and cats. That would be over 2X the number of dogs and cats in the US. That would be like creating an entirely new US. There are a few hundred million people in the US, 180 million dogs and cats. That’s about the population that we would be adding in terms of meat consumption. Just for pets [in China]. And pets eat more meat than the average American because they eat meat twice a day.

Ahmed: You recently published a white paper showing the safety and nutritious value of Koji-based dog food in terms of nutritional value, digestibility and protein levels. Why was that important for you and Wild Earth to do?

Ryan: We really believe we need to come from a science-based approach. Everything that we do has to be very real and very science-based. That’s where we think the future of food is going. We really want to understand the quality of the food and we would never feed low-quality food to our pets or, you know, to humans.

One of the biggest challenges in pet food is actually the low-quality of the protein itself. We want to make sure that we are not just a vegan dog food company. We are a clean protein company that makes clean protein for pets. We really want to be the leader in clean protein for pet food.

Ultimately, what do pet craves? They crave protein. Whether it’s animal-derived protein or fungi-derived protein or plant-derived protein, as long as you have the right mix of amino acids they require to be healthy and nutritious, it doesn’t really matter. But you need to have the right consistency of amino acids.

With koji, we know we have the 10 essential amino acids that dogs require from their food. We know. That’s why we’re confident saying that we’re a great protein source. It has everything dogs require from their food. Whether it’s koji-derived or meat-derived. It doesn’t have the negatives that are the contaminants currently in pet foods.

Ahmed: What are your plans for Wild Earth for the rest of 2018? Can we expect to see a product on the market soon? If so, what would it exactly be?

Ryan: As of July, we’re going to be doing some limited releases. We will be launching commercially in October. So as of October, anyone can buy treats from our website. We think we’re going to be one of the fastest cellular agriculture to launch a product, a commercially viable product. Within about a year of launch, we’re going to launch an actual commercial product.

Ahmed: Have there been any challenges so far in launching this business?

Ryan: Definitely. I would say scaling is a huge challenge. Going from interesting data in the lab to a commercially-scaled product where you can sell thousands of units has tons of challenges. I would say everything from production of koji all the way through to scaling that production and making it consistent all the way through to packaging our product and labeling our product and making sure we have the appropriate regulatory labeling and procedures in place, which we do. That has been challenging.

Ahmed: It’s great that Wild Earth’s products will be in the market soon. However, there are some concerns that people may not find cultured meat or other cellular agriculture products that appealing or appetizing if one of the first products on the market is designed for pets. Have you and your team considered this?

Ryan: A lot of people said “Don’t do pet food first because it’ll give people a bad idea that alternative protein are just for pets and not for humans.” And I don’t resonate with that message.

I think that people want better products for themselves and for their pets. The fact that we can bring a product to market first, first in the pet space, is pretty transformational. I think it would get people open to the idea of having alternative proteins for themselves.

I eat our dog food. I will eat it in front of you because I know what it is. It’s super clean. I would never eat dog food. It changes the concept behind dog food. It’s just clean food for pets. In all of our cultures, in the West, we tend to think of pet food as not real food for humans. It’s not clean food. But we can change that. I think Wild Earth is going to be one of the first companies to really show that you can make clean protein for pets. Clean enough that I believe it enough to eat it myself. And I’ve eaten a lot of it.

"We had this vision: to help scientists become entrepreneurs"

Ahmed: What advice would you have for someone trying to do their own startup or get involved in the cellular agriculture space?

Ryan: There are few different ways. There are plenty of cell ag companies which are starting to emerge and starting to hire. One, you could try to join one of these companies. Two, you could actually get involved like how you are doing it by trying to understand the space and seeing where there are opportunities.

There are always opportunities to build something new. We are at the beginning of cellular agriculture, not at the end. For me, I view the beginning of the cell ag as the same time period as the shift from horse and buggy to automobiles. So transformational. We’ve moved from literally using horses for transportation to actually using machines for transportation. We’re going through that same shift. You don’t have to have industrial animal agriculture anymore. In the next ten years that will become obsolete.

You’re probably going to see a boom like the shift from horse and buggy to automobiles. You literally saw hundreds of automobile startups emerge. I think we’re going to see the same thing in cellular agriculture. This is just the beginning. We’ve got maybe 20-30 cell ag companies. Imagine when we have 300 to 400 companies.

The one lesson I’ve learned with entrepreneurship is that you have to give yourself permission. No one else is going to.

We want to thank Ryan again for taking out the time to give us this deep dive into how this space actually got started!

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