Interview: Olivia Fox Cabane, CEO of The Alternative Protein Show

Olivia Fox Cabane is the former Director of Innovative Leadership for Stanford StartX, the current Chair of the International Alliance for Alternative Protein, and the author of the The Charisma Myth. She is now organizing The Alternative Protein Show in San Francisco on January 15th- 17th. The show will feature over 50 companies from all over the world with the opportunity to meet leading investors in the future of food. We had the opportunity to speak to her and learn more about her event and how she first got involved in alternative protein.

Ahmed Khan: You have a background working with startups at Stanford University as well as being a charisma leader and coach. How did your background shift your interest towards cellular agriculture and alternative proteins?

Olivia Fox Cabane: The shift really came from a simple realization that we've got a planet to save, frankly. We've got a global protein crisis coming, and someone's got to do something about that and, thankfully, a lot of us are. Having made the shift to “OMG, we need to fix this”, it was a simple matter to realize that the exact same classes I used to give to my entrepreneurs at StartX would be just as valuable to plant-based and clean meat entrepreneurs.

The only difference is that I, of course, give them for free as long as those companies were working on saving the planet.

Ahmed: From the very beginning you created and have constantly been updating the Alternative Protein Landscape, including cellular agriculture, plant-based meats, and other alternatives to animal products. How do you first get started with?

Olivia: I was looking for a landscape because I assumed someone must have made one. When clearly no one had, I figured well, just so I can understand the field, why don't I?

So I make a basic one.

Now, you must understand that my skills with design are possibly even better than my math skills. The last time that I drew a horse, people thought it was a porcupine. The very first map was really just a rinky-dinky, little PowerPoint where I was just trying to figure out the field. And the dang thing went viral.

People first wanted additions and updates, and then people started sending me their logos. What I thought was going to be a one-time, little PowerPoint turned out to be a once every two weeks map because the amount of logos that I was receiving was just overwhelming.

These days, I'm trying to update it only once a month. After the show, it'll probably speed up again and have a map every two weeks or sometimes even every week.

The Alternative Protein Landscape

Ahmed: Having updated the landscape constantly and see all these new companies and categories, what is something you've learned about the space overall from the landscapes?

Olivia: I’m in the heart of Silicon Valley. My biggest clients are Google, Airbnb, etc. and, even from here, I have never seen an industry grow as fast as the alternative protein industry is growing. Never.

The most dramatic learning for me is that there are at least 2 to 1, if not 3 to 1, funders to startups, meaning that there are at least two or three more VCs trying to fund companies as their companies to fund.

Ahmed: Has been much contact and communication between you and VCs looking for companies in this space?

Olivia: Huge, huge.

We put out feelers to VCs and startups, and we were flooded with interest from VCs. We didn’t have enough entrepreneurs who even wanted the money!

It's nuts. Name another field where they're twice as many people trying to give money as there are people accepting it.

It's really remarkable. I'm telling all the would-be entrepreneurs to screw social media. I mean, you go to social media and it is a red ocean. You’re going to be competing with sixteen other social media apps. You go into alternative protein, and there are VCs that are going to be fighting to talk to you.

Ahmed: You're now the chair of the International Alliance for Alternative Protein (IAAP). Can you tell us more about the organization, and how that's different from other nonprofits in the space?

Olivia: I think the main difference is that the IAAP is built as an international alliance from the start. I think one of the reasons for this international aspect is that, of the founding team, only two of us are born in the US. The rest is all over the world.

The reason I wanted to be international is that most organizations at the moment that are focused on either animal welfare or alternative protein with a focus on the business side revolve around their one country. It's not their fault. They naturally started in one country and grew from there. It's harder to have an international perspective when, for example, it was started by Americans, employs mainly Americans, and the events are all hosted in the US. So the first difference with the IAAP is that it’s international

The other difference is that it seeks to bring together all no-kill forms of protein. Plant-based, cell-based, you name it. As long as no life is lost, that form of protein is welcome to us.

Ahmed: What are your goals for the International Alliance, and what do you envision it becoming?

Olivia: We're looking at this as not a 501(c)3, which in the US is a classic nonprofit, but rather a (C)6, which in the US (and their similar forms abroad) are trade and lobbying organizations.

The goal of the IAAP is to have a career fair, job center, have different divisions per sector for industry.

There will also be, for example, matchmaking for technical problems and technical solutions. One of the most frequent technical problems in plant-based or in cell-based meats is a need for specific scaffolding to create a specific mouthfeel or texture. It turns out that, for example, mycelia might have the answer. Or you could look at Solar Foods who are extracting single-cell protein from, well, essentially car exhaust. That kind of matchmaking is personally what has me most excited.

Ahmed: And now you're organizing the Alternative Protein Show in San Francisco this January! What is the event, and what should we expect from it?

Olivia: It was originally supposed to be a one-day expo and only an expo. That was our original aim. And then, just like with the maps, it grew.

Now it is a three-day event. The first day [January 15th] is a fundraising workshop specifically geared towards international entrepreneurs, although there will be something for everyone. I'll be giving them a very accelerated version of the curriculum I used to give my Stanford kids. Same thing. For example, the American handshake, it seems simple. It's not. It's actually a whole complex of moving parts, and you have to get every single piece right. So that’s the first day [January 15th].

The 16th is the actual conference day. But only the ground floor is going to be the expo, with the top floor being breakout sessions, four of which can be running concurrently throughout the day. That means that during the day, at any given time, you can choose one of four breakout sessions on very different topics. Or you can wander around the expo that covers over two floors, and, of course, there is going to be a whole amount of food sampling. Improved Nature is going to be our lunch.

We’re also running our technical solution and technical problem matchmaking. We're going to have companies like Ecovative presenting what mycelia can do for scaffolding. DSM, which has phenomenal science and research in all kinds of nutrients, will be presenting a couple solutions they've come up with.

On the 17th is when Silicon Valley VCs have committed to blocking off between one hour and six hours on their schedules specifically for alternate protein show attendees. We'll be setting up meetings for attendees with the VCs in the Valley. So it's going to be essentially a VC tour.

Ahmed: That sounds like a full plan! From your experience in the cellular agriculture and alternative protein space, what has been the most exciting development for you in organizing this event?

Olivia: I think that the sheer diversity of alternative protein sources is probably the single most exciting thing. You go into it knowing that, of course, you can extract protein from légume [Apologies, I can’t pronounce it the American way], but then you learn that you could extract protein from algae, like spirulina, which is one of the main protein sources for Algama. They have a 70% protein bioavailability.

So you have légume, you have algae. None of that is too surprising. Then you find out that you can extract protein from food waste, from car exhaust, water, aerial electricity. It's pretty remarkable. An incredible diversity of protein sources.

And then the other piece that's exciting is the surprising amount of forward-thinking traditional protein producers. Not just Tyson, but even the traditional farmers who are looking at what exactly they can do to either minimize their environmental impact or who are already simply thinking about the time ahead.

Ahmed: What should people who want to learn more about the IAAP and the Alternative Protein Show do to get more involved?

Olivia: For the IAAP, right now, LinkedIn is probably the place where we have the most information, but you can also go to our website The Alternate Protein Show has taken over the entirety of the website, so it won't be until February that we start putting out more information out about our other plans.

Ahmed: After the Alternative Protein Show in January in San Francisco, do you have any other plans for 2019? Should we expect another show anytime soon?

Olivia: We're putting out the conference book. It will be an actual book. A real-life book written for and by the attendees. It’s going to have chapters, everything from really technical scientific challenges to how to exactly do plant-based factory farming [that's what they're calling it], to how does it affect the industry of a region?

For example, if you look at Beyond Meat, who has opened a big new facility in Missouri, what impact does that have? There's going to be articles on taxation. There will be others on shelf-life extenders. So every possible topic that has to do with alternative protein will be welcomed in the conference book.

Then we start preparing the Sustainable Innovation Summit (SIS) in Paris. The Alternative Protein Show, in future editions, is going to open up to non-food items. So lab-grown rhino horns, lab-grown leather. The SIS is going to happen twice per year, once in Paris, in September, and once in San Francisco, in January every year until we solve this crisis. So, you know, just a couple years.

Ahmed: How do you see the future of food?

Olivia: Well, I’m a little bit of an Isaac Asimov fangirl. The way I see it, Asimov had described our entire food system 50 years ago when he described cities that would be constructed under domes, with humans still not having mastered the climate. If you look at how things are going, there's an increasing body of scientists saying, ‘Listen, we're screwed’. The only thing we'll be able to do is protect against the climate.

That's one aspect. The other is that Isaac Asimov described alternative protein being 3D-printed 50 years ago. That, I think, is where we're heading. The 3D-printing of personalized nutrition is a no brainer, and the move towards alt protein is increasing with each generation.

We thought that millennials were the most vegan generation we’d have, then Gen Z came and blew them out of the water. Each successive generation is more and more for alternative protein.

Ahmed: With your background working with startups at Stanford, what advice would you have for something trying to enter the cellular agriculture or alternative protein space?

Olivia: Well, first of all, congratulations. You're clearly a smart person because this is the field where you should be in. And second, there’s so much information out there, but more than that, there's so much generosity and willingness to share the information.

I think that CAS, the Cellular Agriculture Society, is a great place to start and then GFI [the Good Food Institute]. Those two have a lot of resources for people who want to start in this field. But I think the biggest thing is to just pat yourself on the shoulder because you're going to be in business for the rest of your life.

The number one issue that clean meat startups are facing is lack of technical talent. Everyone's going to be fighting over a tissue culture scientist. Fighting over all the engineers that are needed for this and succeed.

Ahmed: Thank you very much for your time. Is there anything else you would like to add about the Alternative Protein Show?

Olivia: We really wanted the Alternative Protein Show to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, so we've made student tickets just $50.

If you have any interest in the field, and if you can't afford $50 dollars, you know what? Contact us. We'll find a way to make it work. We're looking to make this as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.