Private patents, monopolies & lobbying: obstacles for cell ag with New Harvest Executive Director Isha Datar

This article is based on an episode of the Red to Green podcast on food tech for sustainability and health. The first season is covering cell-based meat, dairy and seafood. Listen to past episodes here. 

This is an interview with Isha Datar; the Executive Director of New Harvest, as she delved into the fascinating emerging industry of cell-based technology. 

In 2010 Isha published an important research paper called “Possibilities for an in-vitro meat production system”, when very few people even knew about the possibility of creating animal products without animals. She also co-founded Perfect Day a startup making milk without cows and Clara Foods, another startup making eggs without chickens. New Harvest is an important non-profit research institute fund and conducts open, public and collaborative research that reinvents the way we make animal products – i.e. without animals.

The research funding structures for cultured meat are broken
The question on many people’s lips is; why haven’t we seen any cultured products in the market already? The reasons are funding structures for discovery research that are not adequate to accommodate cellular agriculture solutions; you just have this space where there’s so much opportunity but so little support…I noticed that there were a lot of people who were ready to do the work, who wanted to do the work, who are experts already at cell culture work, but just did not have dedicated funding for the food application.”

Much of the needed investment she says is focused primarily on the biomedical space, and although relevant to ag and cell-tech, it’s not specifically garnered towards food applications, “when you receive a grant, it is for medical applications for the most part. And so it’s very hard to divert your grant money away from those medical applications into something like food.” Cultured meat is such a new industry that there is little research behind it, and that makes it hard for investors to commit. 

(Image courtesy of New Harvest)

She says this is the very reason behind why New Harvest was conceived, with the mission to temporarily fill the white space in the industry including establishing more of a foundation of academic research, citation papers and investment opportunities. Its Isha and her team’s goal to start inspiring startups as well as governments to support this work and recognize the potential in cell-based developments.

We need to connect scientists from different fields 
“I think the messaging around why we need cultured meat is pretty clear. It’s just about getting organized”.

Isha explains that the companies fellowship program is centered around bringing academics and researchers together, albeit from different disciplines, to discuss their work and collaborate in a shared environment, which she believes will help push early-stage funding forward.

“A lot of the problems of research today is that it’s very hard to have pre-published, academics talking about their work with one another and not being afraid of their research getting scooped”.

A lack of public funding and subsidies is holding cell ag back
A lot of innovation and discovery stage R&D is well-known to start from academia, and it’s a common pre-competitive work that once it starts to become promising, companies want to get their foot in the door and start funding at later stages. Isha explains that the cell-based space, however, is inherently different as there lacks much R&D development apart from New Harvest themselves, and there are only a handful of startups securing investment rounds here and there; “compared to the established biotech space, we have a ton of private funding and very little public funding”.

With larger companies only testing the waters, and startups working separately on research and development, the cultured industry is off to a slow start.

Cultured meat is such a revolutionary space that Isha believes if they receive the same types of government support and subsidies as companies in the existing food industry, it would soon be at a competitive price point. Cell AG would benefit from the subsidies to cover the costly R&D ; I think it’s going to be increasingly hard for the existing food lobbies to make the case for their work in a climate-changed world and in a post-COVID world”.

Cultured meat could lead to an increase in meat consumption
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jevons paradox, but it’s the idea that when something becomes more efficient, it doesn’t actually become better for the world.”

This is exactly how Isha would describe her worries surrounding the cell and agtech industries. She is optimistic about the positive impact it will have on the environment and consumer needs. However, she worries about a future wherein being able to produce meat with fewer resources, inadvertently leads to higher consumption levels and increased food waste. How will we be able to make sure that cultured meat is indeed the better product and not just a shortcut to a more efficient meat producing business?

Most corporates are hesitant to invest and are missing out
Isha explains that having been in conversation with meat producers for the last ten years regarding this space, they are interested but still rather hesitant to move forward.  Most corporates are “keeping tabs on things” and are not yet doing big investments. 

“the companies who can really disrupt the meat industry or the cultured meat industry are going to be pharma companies because they have the expertise to do that type of work. They are very familiar with the R&D timelines associated with it and they’re very familiar with the regulatory process.”

And what about food companies, are they really not getting involved enough?

“Maybe it’s happening behind closed doors.  But, I haven’t seen it in ways that are very meaningful yet. I think there’s a big opportunity there that they’re still missing out on. And now is as good a time as ever to get involved.”

You heard it here first folks

Cell-based meat in the next five years
With the “first” cell-based company making its way on the food tech scene only five years ago; Memphis Meats, the space is becoming increasingly busier, with at least 50+ companies now.

Doesn’t seem like it would be too long before we start having thousands of companies.”

Isha has seen a change in the last five years in how companies are sharing their messages with consumers. The first wave of companies were the big visionaries, selling the grand idea and attempting to cover the whole supply chain. This involves their own R&D, bioreactors, serum, marketing and scaling. The second wave of companies are B2B companies either offering the products or licenses. The third phase are ecosystem builders or what you could call “pick and shovel” companies. These specialize in solving specific problems within the supply chain. Usually led by scientists this recent wave of cell ag companies tackles, for example, scalable bioreactor systems or new cost-efficient serums. “We’re seeing some evolution in the field and I think it’s all moving in the direction of the field becoming more established and more mature.”

Listen to the full episode on iTunes or Spotify

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