From petri dish to protein

Science to sink your teeth into: Biological sciences alumna reimagines the future of meat with cultured animal products.

Katie Willis - 15 May 2017

When Isha Datar gave her first public talk in 2012 on the concept of cultured, lab-grown meat, she was greeted with laughter. "It certainly wasn't the reaction I expected," Datar explains from her office in New York City. "And while there are still a lot of questions about cellular agriculture, the disbelief isn't as prevalent anymore."

Cellular agriculture is the process of developing animal products--such as meat, milk, and eggs--from cell cultures in the lab, rather than using animals and factory farming. So, is your hamburger coming from a test tube? Not yet, says Datar. But it's not completely out of the question either.

"We can't deny that factory farms are feeding the world," says Datar. "Alternative food sources will simply lessen our reliance on that one source. This will be a great thing, because the density and number of animals that we are dealing with on factory farms is reaching global limits."

And while the idea of cultured animal products--or cellular agriculture--may make some uncomfortable at first, the potential benefits are huge, including moving toward more safe, secure, and sterile systems of producing animals products around the world. Epidemic viruses, like avian flu and mad cow disease, could become a thing of the past--not to mention potentially mitigating the massive environmental impact associated with factory farming.

"Throughout history, there are lots of examples of how alternatives arise. Consider alternative energy sources like solar and wind power," explains Datar. "Alternative food sources, like alternative energy sources, would simply become part of a portfolio of options for people who are interested in trying them."

There are many other aspects to consider, ranging from the need to develop sustainable food sources in space to concerns about climate change and the environment.

Now the Executive Director of New Harvest, a non-profit organization that supports research and development in the field of cellular agriculture, Datar knows that introducing all audiences to the idea of cellular agriculture is important. "Everyone eats, so everyone is relevant."

Early inspiration

Born and raised in the Canadian prairies, Datar is a self-declared foodie and meat lover. So, when the opportunity to combine her love of science and interest in food arose in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science, she leapt at the chance.

In 2009, after seeing a poster for a graduate-level meat science course, Datar enrolled and began to learn how the worlds of science and agriculture intersect. The course, offered through the Faculty of Agricultural and Life Sciences, introduced students to the concept of animal products without animals, or cellular agriculture.

"You can talk about food with absolutely anyone, but you can't necessarily discuss protein synthesis pathways with everybody," explains Datar. "It was a little bit like taking a popular science course, and it really drew me in. It was at that point that I, consciously or unconsciously, decided that I wanted to be a part of it."

The final assignment was a research paper on the future of meat. Naturally, being the only student with a biotechnology background, Datar wrote about cellular agriculture and cultured meat. It was then that she found New Harvest, a non-profit organization centered around this very idea. Datar contacted then-director and founder Jason Matheny to ask for feedback on her assignment. To her surprise, he replied connecting her to a group of researchers she had written about, with advice to publish the paper.

"I had to write back to him to tell him that I was just an undergrad student," laughs Datar. "I was so thrilled. People weren't asking how old I was or what lab I worked in. They were simply reading my research and offering their feedback and suggestions. It was an impromptu peer review by people who treated me as a peer."

The paper, "Possibilities for an in-vitro meat production system," was published in Innovative Food Science and Emerging Technologies in January 2010, and still holds its own in today's literature on cellular agriculture.

Next steps

After completing a master of science in the biotechnology program at the University of Toronto and an internship as policy assistant with GlaxoSmithKline, Datar returned to New Harvest on January 14, 2013 taking over from Matheny as Executive Director and sole employee.

"Going it alone was challenging," explains Datar. "I often asked myself, 'When my laptop is closed, does this organization even exist?'"

It did exist, as it turned out. Datar's first year at the helm of New Harvest was spent on community building and uniting people with a common interest in cellular agriculture. And in 2014, things came together in way she had never expected.

"This was a great year, because people started to realize that cellular agriculture wasn't just theoretical, futuristic stuff" -Isha Datar

In conjunction with community partners and spearheaded by Datar, New Harvest started two San Francisco-based companies--Muufri, now known as Perfect Day, and Clara Foods. Muufri produces milk from yeast cultures, and Clara Foods produces egg whites from the same. While New Harvest did not have enough money to fund the start-ups on their own, they sourced funds through two accelerator programs--IndieBio in San Francisco and the Synthetic Biology Accelerator in Ireland.

"This was a great year, because people started to realize that cellular agriculture wasn't just theoretical, futuristic stuff," says Datar. "We were able to show that it was possible, and in the near term. The year 2014 put us on the map for donors and philanthropists and has been instrumental in making us what we are today."

Identity shift

Navigating the influx of funds has been challenging, Datar explains. With many more interested individuals and groups, and an employee base of two (with the addition of longtime volunteer Erin Kim in 2016), New Harvest needed to make some deliberate decisions about where they wanted to fit in the world of cellular agriculture.

"It has been a steady incline for New Harvest for the last few years," explains Datar. "We had to ask ourselves a lot of questions. Where exactly do we fit? What is our role? How do we want to position ourselves at this crossroads?"

The answer, it turned out, was to return to Datar's love of science and discovery in the world of academia.

"Many issues with food technology today arise from a lack of transparency. We want to talk about the research as it's happening in an accessible way."

"We've decided to focus on funding academic research and developing the discovery side of cellular agriculture for the time being," says Datar. "Nonprofits are a crucial part of the discovery process. They do the early-stage research and development that is too expensive or too exploratory for private companies to do in-house. They fund the early academic research that lays the foundation for everything that comes after."

Fast forward to 2017, where under the direction of Datar, New Harvest is doing just that. Now in a financial position to fund and conduct open-source, academic research, New Harvest provides financial support to research groups to get a start in the world of cellular agriculture by funding their first projects, prototypes, and milestones in the creation of animals products without animals. From here, the recipients will be better positioned to attract funding from other sources, putting themselves on the map, so to speak, much like New Harvest itself in 2014.

"We want to focus on academic research so that results can be published publicly, for anyone to read," says Datar. "Any person who is interested in this field should be able to read about what we're doing, how we're doing it, and what materials we are using. Many issues with food technology today arise from a lack of transparency. We want to talk about the research as it's happening in an accessible way."

The first project began in 2015 through King's College London and has grown to four different academic partnerships across the globe. New Harvest plans to fund many more academic research projects in the coming months and years.

Future focus

Isha Datar (left) and Erin Kim ('16 JD), communications director at New Harvest, visit Sag Harbor, N.Y., home of New Harvest donor, hedge fund manager, and art collector Adam Sender (right).

"The thing that keeps me motivated is that we're on the cutting edge of something," says Datar. "This field is fragile, and it needs people to keep things moving and pushing the work forward. Cellular agriculture continues to innovate upon itself in the same way that all agriculture has."

New Harvest unites a diverse collection of people interested in bettering the planet. Cellular agriculture is inherently interdisciplinary. Whether a scientist, entrepreneur, chef, or just someone interested in what they eat and where it comes from, New Harvest provides a wealth of information and resources about cultured animal products.

Datar also wants people to know that cellular agriculture is more than purely utilitarian: it's also culinarily-minded. While many may think the work is simply about feeding as many mouths as possible in the most efficient way, cultured animal products present many interesting culinary opportunities.

"I love food and trying new things," says Datar. "At every instance where I have the chance to do so in my work, I'm reminded how real cellular agriculture is. We're not just selling an idea. We are creating things--real food--and we are moving research and food science forward."

As for what's next, Datar says the thing that keeps her engaged is working with the donor population that makes New Harvest possible.

"I love the fact that we are a charity and have inspired people from around the world with our cause," explains Datar. "Their goodwill makes this happen. It is very motivating that these people believe in the same idea that we do, and they trust us to try and make it happen. Serving that donor population is something that keeps me going."

"New Harvest is at the intersection of so many motives that will better our world. And we're about creating the solution to many issues at once. So we start there, presenting the solution. All of these issues and problems are secondary."