Celebrating the 10th anniversary of August Man A-Listers, we’re unveiling the next evolution of the series with the unveiling of August Mentors. These Captains of Industry will discuss topics of stewardship, resilience and sustainability, shaping the next generation of A-Listers
Life isn’t without challenges and what separates high achievers from the rest of us is an ephemeral attribute that few of us rarely cultivate with determined intentionality: resilience. Defined as the ability to recover easily and quickly from illness, hardship, or setbacks, Psychology Today describes it as “that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes.”
Indeed, social entrepreneur and CEO of Eat Just Josh Tetrick can be counted among that “some people”. An award-winning varsity football player at West Virginia University, Tetrick pivoted from a potential football career after some serious personal revelations came to light, working on social campaigns and initiatives like teaching street children across Africa.
August Man was privileged to spend a morning with the irrepressible entrepreneur, discussing the world’s most pressing problems and his indomitable drive to solve its most immediate problem: the global food supply.
You were a star football player at West Virginia University but later diagnosed with a heart condition. Most would have gone to pieces, but you picked yourself up, how on earth did you accomplish this?
You know I stopped playing football because I realised that I wasn’t good enough. I actually found out about the heart condition later and you know, I needed to find something else in my life when I realised that football wasn’t going to be a thing. I had a lot of energy to do something. I wanted something that was going to be challenging to me that was meaningful that you know can really allow me to grow into the kind of person I want to be and at first that was doing some work in Sub Saharan Africa and then it became what I do every day to try to make the food system better.
How does one pivot from a potential athletic career to teaching street children in Nigeria and South Africa?
I started getting into sociology and policy and just more deeply understanding what’s happening all around us. I decided that because I had never been outside the United States and because I am looking at urgent problems around the world like 67 million kids who are living in cardboard boxes instead of having the right or the opportunity to go to school, it just felt like the right place to be.
That ended up with me, over the course of a number of years, working with United Nations Development Program and doing some work to help kids and in working with the Liberian government.
When I was there, what eventually lead to what we do right now is that I found the whole thing kind of frustrating. Change was a lot slower than I wanted it to be. I wanted more to be happening and it wasn’t. It’s not because United Nations or nonprofit organisations are incapable, you’re not able to do certain things because it’s simply the nature of a nonprofit or an international institution to move slowly.
I wanted things to go faster and I read a book called Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Ed’s note: It originally appeared as an article by C. K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart in the business journal Strategy+Business, today, it’s a book that Bill Gates even quotes from). It was a book about how the most effective way to make things happen quickly to make change happen quickly is through capitalism, and then I started to really understand this, the answer to the question of how to solve urgent problems faster, and that eventually led to me co-founding this company about eight and a half years ago.
For some, capitalism is responsible for some of modern society’s biggest ills like massive income inequality. So, when you talk about problems with the global food system, aren’t we in the developed world, the biggest hoarders of food supply? Do you still believe that capitalism is the answer?
I thought when I was spending that time in Sub Saharan Africa, my idea was that the way to do positive things is through nonprofits and through international institutions. Capitalism wasn’t there to solve real problems like climate change or kids living in cardboard boxes. And you know what I’ve come to believe now is that both things are true, that capitalism is a system, and it is energy and it is a process and is a way of thinking and incentivising people and capital. That system can be used to direct bulldozers to knock down, millions of acres of rainforest, or that system can be used to direct scientists to create the future of meat to save a rainforest. It’s exactly the same system, it just depends on how you want to use it, it depends on what the intention is behind it.
Capitalism has caused an enormous amount of pain and it equally can do a lot to relieve harm, it is the intention behind it is what matters and everything that we’re trying to do is to ask, “What if we let morality guide it? What if we let compassion shape it? what if we let kindness rule it?”
Let’s raise money, build a business model and make some money. Let’s do all these things for the purpose of the intention of solving a problem. Right now, the way we consume meat every day is big problem. What can we do to change that? if we change that then we can do a lot to protect biodiversity all around us and mitigate Zoonotic diseases (Ed’s note: illnesses shared between animals and people) and act in a way, eat in a way that reflects basic values like kindness. It was that this subtle change that alters how I perceive capitalism. Yes, it’s done a lot of things that are destructive to the planet, but if you put a different intention behind it, you get a different outcome. And that’s what that’s what we’re trying to do.
You worked on several social campaigns in Sub Saharan Africa, what did you feel some of the biggest challenges were about the global food system I mean, why is this a problem the richer nations haven’t been able to help solve but you can?
Well the food system is screwed up for a lot of reasons. There are a billion people who are going to bed hungry tonight. About 2 billion people suffering from something called micronutrient deficiency. They’re not starving but they’re denied really important nutrients that allow their brain to develop further and other organs to develop. And then you expand the problem beyond that, you have a food system that is responsible for essentially ruining about a third of the habitable land on the planet. So instead of rain forests, which are full of 10s of millions of species we’ve never even seen before, that are also carbon sinks we have fields of chicken food. We have a food system that makes it more likely that avian flu is going to be the next COVID. In fact today, we’ve just had the first case in Russia where avian flu (Ed’s note: H5N8) has been transmitted to humans.
These are the kinds of things that our food system does every single day without us being aware of it, billions of animals are also killed every single day in ways that if we saw it, if we would realise what went into the chicken nugget that we had, that most thoughtful caring people would reconsider their dietary habits.
These are things that are happening in Nigeria, Liberia and Kenya. But it’s not just Africa, it’s even in Birmingham, Alabama, or Beckley, West Virginia, Singapore, and even in Hawaii where I am right now, the food system is impacting all these different things and we just have to figure out a way to use capitalism, to change another system, how we get the food that goes into our bodies in a way that is aligned with the kind of planet we want and that’s going to take a lot of work.
Your lab grown chicken was just launched in Singapore in 1880, and I understand you’re not making money off it yet. Are you looking to scale production in a way that makes this alternate food source affordable?
Eventually we want the chicken and then beef and pork that will launch after this to be THE meat, so not to be an alternative form of meat but to be the ubiquitous form of meat that most people consume today.
So we’re going to start by scaling in Singapore, and then eventually US, Europe and China. Eventually we hope to get to a place where it’s not only funding itself but we’re able to continually just reinvest invest cash back into the business to ultimately you know make it make it as ubiquitous as conventional chicken or beef.
To do that we got to make sure to bring the costs down, below the cost of existing animal proteins, and be really open with consumers about what it is and what it’s not. It is real meat that doesn’t require killing, it’s real meat didn’t require chopping down a tree. It’s real meat that doesn’t use antibiotics. It’s real meat and it’s manufactured in a steel vessel in a contained facility, we are going to let people know what’s going on how it’s made. And that that’s going to be hard work in the next handful years but it all started in Singapore.
To make an analogy, an Impossible Burger costs $20 at a supermarket versus a $5 burger at McDonald’s. What sort of costs are we talking about here for your lab grown chicken?
Eventually we want the cost to be below conventional chicken, conventional beef and conventional pork. That will be a five to 15-year journey as we get to scale and reduce some of the elements like the nutrients of cells consumed. But the whole purpose of this is to make it cost effective enough and tasty enough where any restaurant around the world, whether it’s a diner a Michelin star restaurant, a burger joint. Whatever wouldn’t have a reason to put the conventional animal protein on the menu.
We don’t think conventional will potentially be on the menu, because we’re in such an urgent state, our little blue planet can’t really afford any more trees to be cut down, we can’t really afford any more nitrogen runoff and erosion, we can’t really afford a higher probability of other zoonotic diseases causing a pandemic. All these things have to stop and it will happen eventually, just like renewable energy: solar and wind energy will be the ubiquitous kinds of energy when they figure out a way to work as good or better and be more cost effective than everything else.
In a recent interview with Anderson Cooper for 60 minutes, Bill Gates mentioned that he didn’t think the foods produced in this manner would be able to this to scale up if developed countries weren’t leading the world in adopting these sources. Do you feel that’s a negative perspective on the issue?
I think it’s probably accurate. I mean I think the reality is, in order to scale something, you need to be able to sell. I mean look at Tesla: in order to make more of something, you have to sell something, and then initial something that you sell whether that’s roadster or a model 3 or cultured chicken bites, you are necessarily going to have high costs because you haven’t scaled. So you’re going to want to go to those places where people have the ability to pay more for it.
It just so happens that in more developed economies people have a higher income, so they’re more likely to pay for electric power or a smartphone or a culture chicken bites. Folks in developing countries have a low or medium income, so I think it just because of the nature of how production and scale, and economics work. I think it’s a factual statement.
At the end of the day, you’re talking about consumers in New York, London, Copenhagen, Singapore, Paris, Shanghai, Beijing, Oslo and Cape Town in Dallas, Texas, consumers need to have a want to do something different. And you know that’s what will drive them to buy a smartphone or to buy an electric car or to try some lab grown chicken and that’s the case with any new technology.
Is Eat Just your answer to the problems that face the global food system?
There are many different ways you can make this massive thing we call the food system better. Each of us individually can choose to eat more whole plants, for example today every single person in developed economies could choose not to eat, conventional animal protein, and instead have squash and apples and kale and arugula and other types of whole plants, and that would make an enormous difference in making the food system better.
We can incentivise farmers to grow things other than soy and corn that would make the food system better. We can innovate new technologies around creating a better form of meat to make the system better, all we’re doing is definitely not the only way to make it better. But we think in what we do, it’s dealing with animal protein that is the most urgent challenge, and the biggest reason why our food system is holding our planet back. This is why we focus on developing a different kind of protein.
You are building a facility in in Singapore. Why have you chosen Singapore?
Singapore for a few reasons. Chiefly, Singapore is living in 2031, not 2021, and it turns out they think about policies and regulations and even their consumers. Second, we’ve developed a really good relationship with the Economic Development Board of Singapore and that provides an array of different incentives and reasons why a company like us would want to come. Finally, really strong protection of intellectual property rights. The ability to hire engineering talent in other talent and finance and operations. The fact that it’s so centrally located in Asia, whether we’re talking about selling product to China or India or Korea or Japan, or the rest of Southeast Asia.
Some of our current investors are in Singapore like Temasek, so we just happen to know the know the know the country better than most.
We are currently living in an age where many are not really paying attention to our scientists and an issue like food supply feels like a multivariate problem, it’s quite a challenge to tackle for one man…
Well, it’s not just one thing it’s a whole lot of different things. So, solving the issue of scientists are saying something and people are not listening requires us to elect people who are more thoughtful about listening to evidence, reason and science, as opposed to social media chatter.
In order to do that in a number of countries, certainly in the United States, we need to reform how we finance campaigns. We need to make it easier for people to vote not more difficult for people to vote. We need to make it easier for folks all around the world to get a college education which makes them more likely not less likely to believe in evidence and science as opposed to conspiracy theories, we need to we need to allocate more capital to technologies that solve real problems.
That said, there are a lot of people buying electric cars but are not necessarily into the science of climate change, they just want to buy an electric car because it looks really sexy, and it’s fast, and it works better. And I think the more products we have, whether in transportation or food or communications that even if you’re not driven by the morality of it you’re just driven to choose it because it simply works better is an incredibly effective way to solve these problems.
If you look at the food system: in using these different tools, electing leaders that will vote against subsidies for conventional animal protein I think is a good thing. Leaders who believe in policies that that are not accelerating our path towards more type two diabetes and obesity is a good thing, but you also need companies to pitch in, and put out these new products you also need to educate consumers. So it’s a multivariate problem that’s not going to be solved by a singular event and different people depending on what they’re really interested in can hit these problems from different angles.
Someone who’s a political organiser in Macon, Georgia, fighting to elect candidates who will support voting rights legislation, to me, is a really important step to solve the food system problem and the climate change problem because it’s my belief that the more people that can vote, and the less are our politics are controlled by special interests, the more likely are that we’re going to be getting candidates that focus on solving real problems.
So, it’s a big old challenge that we’ve got to hit it from multiple dimensions and not be discouraged that it seems like it takes a long time. We’ve all got to realise that better is good, better is often not perfect, but we’ve got to continue moving towards a planet that that is close to the one that we all want to live in. No matter how hard it is.
What drives your sense of altruism?
If we only stop and pause for a second, it’s not hard to see how this this place we call Earth really needs us, whether it’s a suffering of an animal, or a friend who’s going in for bypass surgery. I feel like if we only have a single life, it seems like a good place to use it to fix those things and probably the second thing is some combination of that and pure fun. Solving hard problems that are meaningful is fun. I don’t want to have a boring life, I want my brain to be engaged in really hard, complicated things. There’s some, some percentage of that is really driven by that.
(All images: Eat Just)