“I got closed out because of Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” bemoaned Jody Rasch, the managing trustee of an angel fund that wasn’t able to buy in. Venture capital firm DFJ — which has backed the likes of Tesla and SpaceX — led the round, with one of its then-partners calling the nascent company’s work an “enormous technological shift.”
The cutting-edge product the startup was trying to develop? Meat — the food whose more than $200bn in U.S. sales has come to be the defining element of the Western diet. But what made this company’s work so revolutionary was not what it was trying to make so much as how it was attempting to do it. Memphis Meats, the brainchild that had the startup-investor class salivating, was aiming to remove animals from the process of meat production altogether.
It’s the type of world-saving vision that has oft captured the imagination of Silicon Valley — the kind of entrenched problem that technologists believe only technology can solve: feeding a fast-growing, protein-hungry global population in a way that doesn’t blow up the planet. Conjuring up meat without livestock — whose emissions are responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gases — is core to that effort. Just listen to how the progenitor of Googleyness itself describes the prospect of animal-free meat: “It has the capability to transform how we view our world,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin has said. “I like to look at technology opportunities where the technology seems like it’s on the cusp of viability, and if it succeeds there, it can be really transformative.”
Indeed, in the eyes of many Silicon Valley engineers, meatmaking is a process that’s so inefficient it’s ripe for disruption. Animals, it seems, are lousy tools for converting matter into muscle tissue. Cows require a whopping 26 pounds of feed for every one pound of edible meat produced. In a culture obsessed with high performance, that is maddeningly wasteful.
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