At the demo day for Y Combinator’s summer batch of startups, most of the companies are, unsurprisingly, focused on digital tech–like Bot M.D., an AI assistant for doctors working in developing countries, or Shelf Engine, a startup that uses demand forecasting to help grocery stores eliminate waste. But the roster also includes a startup nonprofit that is working to grow the burgeoning market for “clean meat”–animal protein grown in vats from stem cells, so that it can avoid the problems inherent in producing meat from animals.
Good Food Institute, founded two and a half years ago, is working on building that larger ecosystem. It works with universities to recruit young scientists and entrepreneurs to the new field of clean meat. It performed market research to land on the phrase “clean meat” for the industry (rather than “lab-grown meat,” or “cultured meat,” or “animal-free meat”; “clean meat” is meant to contrast with the pollution and antibiotic use in conventional meat production). It lobbies policymakers and meets with traditional meat companies, such as Tyson, to convince them to fund plant-based and clean meat startups. It funds open-source research on plant-based and clean meat, so startups don’t continually repeat the same basic research, and will soon release a startup manual that walks companies through basic steps like how to find lawyers or a contract manufacturer, so founders can focus on their own product and business plan. It has also launched three startups directly itself.
GFI caught the interest of Y Combinator, the accelerator for early-stage startups known for funding Airbnb and Dropbox, which recently added “cellular agriculture and clean meat” to its list of funding priorities. “The reason we did that is that we actually believe that clean meat could replace nearly all animal meat at some point,” says Gustaf Alstromer, a partner at Y Combinator. “YC got interested in it because of the innovation in this industry. We think that if it works this will revolutionize the entire meat industry and we think that it will probably be entrepreneurs and startups that build the companies that produce that meat.”
Since it is a nonprofit, YC’s money is a donation, rather than Y Combinator’s model: startup investment in exchange for a stake in a company; GFI is one of three nonprofits in the entire summer batch.”We need more than just founders,” says Alstromer. “We need an entire ecosystem.”
For GFI, being part of the accelerator–not a common place for a nonprofit to put its energy–was an opportunity to think differently about its work. “It’s helping us think more strategically,” says cofounder and executive director Bruce Friedrich, who previously worked with animal protection nonprofits. “If we try something and it doesn’t work, that’s still extraordinarily valuable, which is not about most nonprofits think about their activity. It’s not a failure because we’ve learned critical lessons and we can refocus in a more impactful direction.” The organization was already well-connected in Silicon Valley, but its new connection to Y Combinator has also helped bring in new attention from venture capitalists who want to learn about the startups that GFI supports.
The summer batch of 132 startups includes related companies such as Seattle Food Tech, which is working on a plant-based chicken nugget, Spero Foods, which makes plant-based cheese and eggs, and Cytera CellWorks, which can help labs automate making cell cultures for clean meat. (A fourth company, Mylk Guys, is a vegan grocery delivery startup.)
GFI first launched after observing companies like Impossible Foods, known for its meat-like, bleeding veggie burger, and realizing that just educating meat-eaters about the challenges of meat wasn’t changing habits. “People have been pretty clear on the inefficiencies, the environmental harm, the harm to our health, the harm to animals of industrial animal agriculture for almost half a century,” says Friedrich. “The average American ate more meat in 2017 than ever before. The solution doesn’t seem to be education. The solution seems to be creating products that can compete with the products of industrial animal agriculture on their own terms.” GFI launched to try to create a more competitive market for plant-based meat–and a new market for clean meat, which is just emerging now and may be available, in a limited way, by the end of this year.
Y Combinator is seeing the landscape change. “No one was talking about clean meat or anything like this even three or four years ago,” says Alstromer. “Now we’ve seen a very large number of people applying as companies . . . There’s a wave of interest coming right now, and we see that in our applications.”