One of the major themes on which we focus at GFI-India is the idea of “leapfrogging” —skipping a long-drawn technological evolution process and moving directly to advanced, superior systems. The plant-based and cultivated meat industry wouldn’t be the first to “leapfrog” legacy systems in India: much of the country famously skipped landline phones and directly adopted cell phones, enabling internet connectivity and access to services for millions. We believe that a similar transformation is possible and indeed underway for the food system.
India can skip straight to solutions
As Western countries focus on reducing meat consumption in the wake of clarion calls like the EAT-Lancet Report or the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, India’s path to sustainable protein may be more accelerated. Our food system must rapidly adopt and advance technology to leapfrog industrial animal agriculture entirely, creating a protein supply that is fundamentally more sustainable, healthy, and just.
But what will it take to get there? The diffusion of technology to new markets like India involves infrastructure, talent, funding, and distribution mechanisms—but first, it requires trailblazers willing to advocate for and support that diffusion. Over the next decades, we predict that India’s historic “brain drain,” the loss of world-class talent to opportunity-laden Western countries, will work to our enormous advantage. Indian immigrants sympathetic to the country’s potential have been at the forefront of technological progress all over the world, and the cultivated meat sector is no different. Dr. Uma Valeti, who co-founded the world’s first cultivated meat company, US-based UPSIDE Foods, is the perfect case in point.
Innovators help light the way
A Mayo Clinic cardiologist by training, Uma has served in numerous leadership roles at the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology and co-founded or invested in several medical device and food tech startups. He has also rescued several people in cardiac arrest. At one point in his fellowship at the Mayo Clinic as early as 2005, Uma realized he could do much greater good using stem cell technology to create meat, than saving lives one at a time as a cardiologist. In his words, “If I continued as a cardiologist, maybe I would save 2,000 or 3,000 lives over the next 30 years. But if I focus on [cell-based meat], I have the potential to save billions of human lives and trillions of animal lives.” He’s well on his way to doing just that.
From establishing the commercial cultivated meat industry in 2015 to creating the world’s first cultivated meatball in 2016 and conducting a tasting of cultivated duck and fried chicken a year later, UPSIDE Foods has gone from strength to strength. The company has attracted investment not only from visionaries like Bill Gates and Richard Branson, but also agribusiness and meat giants Cargill and Tyson Foods—signaling that the meat industry wants in. Dr. Valeti himself was on the cover of Inc. Magazine by 2017—talking about his childhood in Vijayawada in India, where his father was a veterinarian and his mother, a physics teacher.
Spurring public investment in the future of protein
In addition to his role spearheading UPSIDE Foods, Dr. Valeti has also worked with GFI India to advance the cultivated meat industry in India. In coordination with GFI-India managing director Varun Deshpande, Uma engaged with academia and government to build the sector. He spoke at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad to focus Indian scientists’ attention to the industry and emphasized India’s potential role in spearheading research in this field. He also met with key political leaders and underlined the urgency of building a better food system. After all, diversifying protein sources for countries like India is one of the world’s foremost challenges over the next decades. Uma’s impassioned encouragement and GFI-India’s partnership have played a significant role in spurring academia and the government to invest in the sector. In early 2019, CCMB received $640,000 from the Department of Biotechnology for cultivated meat research—one of the largest grants ever made to the sector by a government body.
Over the next years and decades, as we look to build the plant-based and cultivated meat sector in India, we will continue to look to trailblazers like Uma to support that transformation in ever-increasing ways. Entrepreneurs in emerging markets like India will need all the help they can get to harness technology, hire the best talent, and access the distribution channels needed to provide consumers with delicious, nutritious, affordable protein. With the growth in population and protein demand expected in these emerging markets over the next decades, it’s crucial that we support these entrepreneurs to meet these challenges head-on. Global industry leaders advocating for the growth of the sector, licensing technology, and sharing knowledge could make all the difference. There’s a long way to go yet, but leapfrogging is far easier when you have pathbreaking innovators in your corner.