Things We Make, Things We Grow

A few months ago I was having breakfast with a mentor and investor of ours, who said something very interesting to me: “When I was young, I used to think there was a distinction between ‘things that are made’ and ‘things that are grown’. I no longer believe in that distinction, which is a profound change.”

As I thought about it, I realized I was the same way, but hadn’t realized it: on my old view, some things were made: paper, plastic, titanium, polyester, etc. And other things were grown: wine, meat, milk. But why? After all, wine is amino acids, ethanol, sulfur dioxide, yeast, and so forth. Similarly, meat is simply a cocktail of amino acids (these are important), carbohydrates, water, triglycerides and other lipids.

Where it gets interesting: to-date, most biotechnology innovation has been considered in the context of drug discovery for pharmaceuticals, and most life science innovation has been exactly what it sounds like: concerned with the design of living organisms: botany, zoology, and so forth. But an amino acid isn’t alive: it is a building block of life, an organic compound (carbon-based) but is not itself alive. What if, instead of growing meat through a womb or an egg, we just grew it in vitro, using organic chemistry? What if, instead of growing elderflower in the ground and grapes on vines, we simply put amino acids, yeast, glucose, and other sugars into a series of chemical processes to make gin and wine?

Our initial investment in Hampton Creek over 3 years ago opened our eyes to the opportunity to use biochemistry to, at comparable and often lower cost, mimic naturally occurring processes in food. They ultimately launched a mayonnaise, cookies, safe cookie dough, and will be introducing a broad line of products which don’t contain processed eggs, but taste just as good because, in fact, the chemical processes have been recreated through pea proteins and other isolates. Since then, we have been fortunate to invest in Modern Meadow, Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Ripple Foods, all of whom have created opportunities to transform the manufacturing, production, and creation process for products that would otherwise have been ‘grown’, into products that are made.

This really matters. The American obsession with cows is destroying our environment. The carbon emissions from red meat are more than our total car usage on an annual basis. The sheer amount of land and water used for grazing fields for cows represents an incredibly inefficient use of our space and energy. And, on top of that, meat is really not that good for you.

It doesn’t stop here; in fact, the story starts here. Organic compounds and the living beings that result from them, will increasingly be made, not grown (or raised). This is an environmental win. In many cases, because of the sheer inefficiency of the natural processes we rely on to get the scale that consumer require, it is also cheaper, and every one of the companies mentioned above is less than a half decade old. It is early days for this space. The food will get ever more delicious, the leather ever more soft, the wines more complex, and our society better.

(There is a singularity, humanoid implication to this train of reasoning, but I’ll save that for next time.)