CEO, Wild Earth/Co-Founder, IndieBio & Partner, Babel Ventures
I am one of the founders of the biohacker movement, a biotech entrepreneur, and biotech investor. I have years of experience leading, building, and advising more than 80 startups. I co-founded IndieBio, the world’s leading biotech accelerator. I was head of life sciences for the XPRIZE Foundation and I’m currently a partner at Babel Ventures, a consumer biotech fund. I am also CEO of Wild Earth, a biotech startup bringing clean cultured protein to the 30 billion-dollar pet food industry. I believe using biology as a technology, applied across all industries, will solve some of the world’s most intractable problems, especially where science, food, and business intersect.
I am a biohacker, biotech industry pioneer, animal lover, and vegan, working on saving billions of animals each year through biotech innovation.
I have advanced degrees in bioscience and worked in human medical and clinical research settings. But it wasn’t until around 2012 that I began seeing biotech being used in the food space, which is something I dreamed of reading science fiction as a kid. I was part of a wave of citizen science groups where people were taking equipment from bankrupt Silicon Valley biotech companies and setting up labs in their garages. I helped start organizations like Counter Culture Labs, Berkeley Biolabs, and IndieBio, which was backed by a venture capital seed fund to nurture these scientists, create jobs, build startups, and help them scale. Dozens and dozens of plant-based and cellular agriculture food companies have come out of these incubators or accelerators and we attracted attention from other investors, so much so the business press at the time called us a “vegan mafia” secretly funding food companies to positively transform the world.
IndieBio was a way to explore the future of food for humans. Wild Earth is the future of food for our pets.
Pet food business trends tend to mirror or trail human food trends. That may be an interest in raw foods, in superfoods, or functional ingredients, farm-to-table, or fresh home delivery. Vegan is a trend in human food and it’s entering the pet space too. A recent study showed that even though the total population of vegans in the U.S. is only around two percent, fully 35 percent are open to feeding their pets a vegan diet. Veganism and flexitarianism in Millennial demographics are booming, and that’s also a group that loves pets. Most people understand that vegan diets are healthy for human beings, so it’s not a surprise that we are increasingly accepting this as healthy for our best friends too.
There tends to be a lot of “explaining” to do. That a lot of people are willing to feed their pets a vegan diet is really good news. But first, they need to know that it’s safe for their pets, that it’s healthy, that their veterinarian thinks it’s OK, and so on. I truly believe alternative proteins not from animals, not from plants, but from fungi, these miraculous organisms that efficiently and economically produce and grow clean protein, are the way to feed pets and probably people too, eventually. But before we can get there, our challenge is, and will be, communicating that our products can supply all their dog’s nutritional needs, safely, and more sustainably than the way we’re doing it now.
We’re going to need a better way to feed 10 billion people expected to be living on this planet by 2050, and their billions of pets. That’s the challenge, and the opportunity too, of building a more sustainable and ethical food system. At the moment less than eight percent of people in China have pets, but that still adds up to about 100 million pets, compared to our 160-plus million in the U.S. The thing is, as China’s prosperity increases, and people are interested in living a more Western lifestyle, guess what, they’re more interested in having pets. What if China adds another 500 million pets in the next few years? It would be like creating an entirely new country larger than the United States in terms of meat consumption.
I have had dogs and cats most of my life, and I foster for a rescue called Rocket Dog in Oakland. It always bothered me that what I fed them wasn’t aligned with my own values. Even though I was involved with many startups coming up with novel ways to get farmed animals out of the food system, none of them were working on the pet food problem.
I want to see change in the world, and I think startups are the way to get there. I tried multiple times to give away this idea, but I couldn’t rope anyone else into starting the company, so I had to do it because I felt so passionate about better food for all the animals’ sakes.!.
We’re getting close to releasing the dry kibble formula for dogs. We introduced a line of treats last fall, but the whole thrust of our company has been to replace the meat our pets eat with a new protein, so the food is critical. Treats are an occasional thing, but what we feed our pets twice a day, every day, is where the real impact will be made.
Most people don’t know that all pet foods on the market have been tested on laboratory animals, often dogs. Because the foundation of our company is to treat animals ethically, we had to find a way around animal testing and still get approval from AAFCO, the pet food industry standards board. So our food is being tested using a protocol we developed, with advice from PETA, that meets AAFCO guidelines, is conducted by volunteers and their dogs, and administered by a university. It’s a little more complicated but it’s humane and non-invasive, and we think the results are more accurate because it’s the real world, it’s not a lab setting.
It’s ironic that the food came from a laboratory, but it’s not being tested on animals enslaved in laboratories.
We’re producing protein from Koji, which is a member of the fungus kingdom so it’s a relative of a mushroom, and we’re developing meats cultured from animal cells, the so-called lab meats. When we started the company to produce clean protein for pets, I got pushback from the community that I helped build – the community of scientists and advocates who want to create slaughter-free protein. In that market there’s what’s called the “ick factor” associated with cultured meat, and there was a concern that if this technology is available for pets first, will it make this worse, make people less likely to eat it. I understand the concerns. But hearing them from my peers was an eye-opener.
Right now 25 percent of the environmental damage done by producing meat is attributed to pet food. To put that a different way, that’s like one out of every four farm animals killed for pet food. If dogs and cats in the United States formed their own separate country, they would be the fifth largest consumer of meat on the planet.
So I am firm that changing how we feed our pets is an extremely important part of ending animal agriculture.
One of our favorite customer experiences was at a pet trade show in New York City where we got to meet a lot of “influencer dogs” and give them Wild Earth treats. These are dogs with hundreds of thousands of social media followers. One dog loved the treats so much his mom set up a taste test: our vegan treats versus bacon. She put two plates in front of him, and he went for our treat first, every time. When a dog likes our products better than meat, that’s my ideal.
It starts with hiring mission–motivated people., Everyone we’ve hired comes to work for us because they see the broader vision of making better food for all animals. This means that from the start, my team’s motivation comes from within. That’s not something that can be forced or instilled, in my opinion. You can help people become more effective and focused with the right tools and training, but I believe within all of us, the most powerful force is when your work and your passion/mission are one. That makes people unstoppable, and that’s what I try to foster – do you burn with the need to make an impact and change nutrition for all animals, saving lives on both sides of the food industry? And if so, I invite people to join our mission and unleash their potential.
We do hold people to account for results. Success is action plus results and I’m very up–front with people we hire. We expect you to give our shared mission your all, we expect hard work, understand some failures as long as you learn from them, and we create an ownership culture to get results.
When I was in the early stages of building biotech incubators and finding investors for the companies we were trying to get off the ground, I wasn’t yet working at it full-time. Something was holding me back. My girlfriend at the time said “What are you waiting for? No one’s going to give you permission.” I hadn’t given myself permission yet, was the thing. You have to give yourself permission.
In this world we’re taught we have to ask permission for everything. Do you mind if I sit here? Park here? Can I use your bathroom? But you have to give yourself permission, and that’s something that runs counter to what most of us have been told our whole lives. This is especially true in a science-based venture where we’re dealing in ideas. If you believe in your vision enough, you should give yourself permission to pursue it, regardless of the outcome!
Turn science fiction into science fact, and turn science fact into products.
Having a meditation practice, a spiritual practice, keeps me centered. I suppose it’s somewhat unusual in the scientific space, but I believe a spiritual practice can be combined with a science practice. It helps me see much more clearly when it comes to the more philosophical aspects of life.
We are beings that have somehow ended up evolving on a planet circling a fiery ball of plasma on the outskirts of the Milky Way, surrounded by billions and billions of stars with their own solar systems. We have become sentient beings, we’re aware of ourselves, and we don’t even understand how that is. It’s such an incredible gift to exist, even for such a short time, to experience life and the universe. I give thanks just for having the opportunity to exist but also remind myself I have a limited time here. My personal mission is to make life better for all of those that exist today, and all of those that will ideally exist in the future, through the tools of science and biotechnology that our ancestors gave to us.
Personal: To help humanity evolve away from scarcity and toward a more abundant, kinder world.
Business: To usher in a slaughter-free world through food science and biotechnology.
I’m most proud of helping create and fund the first cell-based meat company in the world, Memphis Meats. We proved that meat without slaughter is possible.
When I left IndieBio, the biotech accelerator I co-created, to start Wild Earth. I walked away from a very successful accelerator to start a company from scratch. It was an enormously scary decision, the most difficult one I’ve ever made to date. In order to make that decision, I reminded myself of my own impermanence. If I looked back on my life as an 90–year–old man, would I regret never trying? And I knew I would, so I took the plunge!
“Memento Mori:” remember that you too shall die. Whenever I have moments of indecision, I remember that I shall die. I remember that in the end, I’ll die, none of this will matter. This isn’t to seem morbid, it’s empowering. Not only does it help me sit with hard decisions, it encourages me to take a risk. Remembering this makes risk seem less…risky. Why not do the risky thing? Eventually I shall die, as we all will. Reminding myself of this means I am more than willing to absorb my own impermanence, to take the risk of making mistakes and looking foolish, even risk losing everything, as in the end, we all will, so why not have fun and try to make a positive impact on the journey?
I recently read Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin and I’m now in awe of Lincoln because of his methods of working with his political opponents. He wanted the best people for the job, even if that meant surrounding himself with enemies.
Bali, specifically the surrounding waters. Underwater there is another world, alien to us land animals. Bali was where I first learned to scuba dive and where I got certified. It’s the place where I recognized that sea life is stunning for its beauty and intelligence. Sadly it’s also the place I recognized how much damage we were doing to the oceans. Most of us only see sea life on ice at the grocery store, but we need to realize these are smart, beautiful, social animals who are being lost because of current practices. Those experiences inspire me to work harder to bring about change.
I’m not too attached to material things. I don’t know if this counts, and it might be a bit controversial, but my answer is psychedelic mushrooms. First, I’m obviously a big fan of fungus. Second, it’s another example of an ancient tradition that is being seen through a new lens with modern scientific research into their benefits and effects. I see a big opportunity for a futuristic, progressive shift with psychedelic mushrooms, and so do influential thinkers and authors today.
They’re a powerful tool to expand the human mind and learn to see beyond ourselves. They can take you to good places, they can take you to dark places. The current research shows they can change your brain, change the way you frame things. They can transform your personal awareness. They can change your future. They can change our collective future.
Reading. I’m dyslexic so I’ve always been a slow reader, but I’ve become a true fan of audio books. They’ve dramatically increased the number of books I can get through in a month. I tend to go to audio books to absorb and learn, and physical books, not Kindle, when I’m reading for pleasure. Reading was a struggle for me when I was a kid and it was my mother who hit on the idea of giving me science fiction. Because I loved those stories of the future, other planets, other worlds, my reading developed plus I became interested in science as a career. Thanks, mom!
To move a couple of projects forward, move them from ideas to systems. And make time to work out and meditate!
Today I’m thinking about the truth of the statement that ‘almost anything is possible if you can imagine it.’ The startup trajectory is mind-blowing, from the idea to the first steps to the actuality. The human mind creates this potential, and the impossible becomes possible. When you start you can only usually see a few steps ahead, so it’s important to always walk forward, even if you can’t see your whole path there yet.
Focus relentlessly. Moving even one product to market is incredibly hard, and I need to focus relentlessly. It’s unfortunate but sometimes I have to clear everything on the calendar to be able to focus.
I try to call one friend or family member every day to check in, to give them well-wishes about something they’re doing, to congratulate them, appreciate them, compliment them. Just reach out to one person once a day. It’s harder than it sounds sometimes!
As I had to learn: give yourself permission. No one will, you have to give it to yourself!
A Day in My Life:
What do you love most about Your City?
I live in Oakland, in the California Bay Area. I love the food innovation happening here, of course, and the urban art. It’s a wonderful, diverse, creative city, in every way.
Favorite breakfast meal & restaurant?
I love brunch at Souley Vegan. Their waffles are crazy delicious.
What are you doing at:
6:00 AM –
Usually still sleeping or starting the day with meditation and some reading. Right now I’m reading The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully by Frank Ostaseski. It’s brilliantly full of life lessons and wisdom from experiences of people at the end of their lives.
10:00 AM –
By this time I’m at the office, I’ve usually gone through all my emails, talked to my team, and drinking my second cup of coffee.
12:00 PM – Favorite Lunch spot/meal?
I really do try to have a healthy salad for lunch. So I go to Berkeley Bowl and often that means a healthy salad plus some chocolate.
7:00 PM –
I’m leaving the office, and either going out for a meal or going to the gym.
11:00 PM –
Usually getting ready for bed and of course reading. I’m also currently reading Hypercompetition by Richard D’aveni, which is from the mid 90s but is helping me better understand the dynamics of the consumer goods markets.
What drink do you need to get through the day and at the end (and how many)?
I drink 3-4 cups of coffee during a typical workday. I don’t drink much alcohol, except a drink or two at a social occasion.
Most used App/Favorite Instagram Account?
App: I’m enjoying Zero, a fasting tracker that gamifies fasting. I’ve become aware of the health benefits of intermittent fasting so I sometimes challenge myself to a 24- to 48-hour fast of only water, coffee, and tea. With the app I can track how long I’ve been fasting and it makes it fun. A close second is Headspace for meditation.
Instagram: I know I should say @wildearthpets but honestly it’s @sweetpotatohippo, Christian the rescued pit bull, who is adorable. He is a foster dad to puppies and kittens, and he’s so great.
What should everyone try at least once?
Where do you enjoy getting lost?
I love getting lost in big cities and seeing the complex relationships there between everything and everyone. Tokyo is a great city to get lost in. So is Shanghai. Here in the U.S., New York or L.A.
My Pic of the Day:
Here is a picture from our early days when we were testing various strains. These are proteins grown in our bioreactor, and it is one of those moments when what we’d set out to do became very real.