“Ultimately, I think people want to do the right thing. When sustainable, ethical products that are just better for people are affordable, you don’t have to use complicated arguments. The “invisible hand” will take care of that.”
Arturo grew up a meat-eater in Texas – an unapologetically carnivorous state. A series of critical engagements with food including an internship with the USDA and a research project in Geneva, Switzerland prompted him to shift to a plant-based diet.
Arturo interned with the investment bank Credit Suisse, the U.S. Supreme Court and even the White House during the first term of the Obama administration before deciding to seriously pursue his passion for food tech as a way to create sustainable, animal-free foods.
New Harvest: Hey Arturo! I’m excited to talk with you. Out of curiosity, did you get to hang out with the president when you interned at the White House? What was he like?
Arturo: No, I wish. I only met him once, at the very end of my internship. We talked a little bit about school and Texas, but that was pretty much it. There are 150 interns every term—it’s a huge class – and every intern in amazing.
NH: That’s understandable. The president’s pretty busy. Anyway, how did you get involved with a biotechnology start-up with your more political background?
A: Well, I met Isha and Dave at a food tech conference in San Francisco. I was fascinated by what they were doing. Isha knew I was interested in getting involved in this space and introduced me to David. David is the lead scientist of this venture, and I’m doing more of the business side of things. Basically, anything that’s not science: business plans, contracts, establishing relationships and pitching to investors.
NH: Was that your first time hearing about cultured meat research?
A: I was actually familiar with New Harvest because I spent a semester in Geneva doing a research project on China’s growing meat consumption and its growing geopolitical, public health, environmental and economic liabilities. Given this huge problem, I couldn’t think of an effective way to circumvent these impending crises; everything seemed so dire, and I didn’t know what to propose as a solution for China. Then I read about cultured meat, and then later seeing Isha’s TEDx talk. New Harvest is the first thing that pops up when you google cultured meat. I reached out to Jason Matheny who was director of New Harvest at the time to interview him. It blew my mind. Ultimately, my paper argued that China should invest in cultured meat (just as it invested in solar energy) as a win-win solution to meet our current demand and take animals out of the equation. I couldn’t take my mind off it—I became a vegetarian right after, and a vegan a few months later.
NH: Wow! And now you’re part of the New Harvest team in a way, coming full circle. Is this what you imagined yourself doing “when you grew up?”
A: No it’s not at all. It was a dream that felt so far removed. I graduated in May and was in DC for several months after interning for Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But I was so into food tech, and I knew DC wasn’t the place for that, so I figured I should probably be in San Francisco to pursue my passion. A week later, I booked a one-way ticket, no job, no place to stay. After a month and a half in San Francisco, I met Isha, David, and the guys from Muufri at a conference. They gave me a ride into the city, we had lunch together, and started chatting. A week later, Isha approached me asking if I wanted to join her and David in getting this egg project started. It was surreal.
NH: That’s incredibly gutsy.
A: Yeah, I actually turned down a couple of job offers because I really wanted to pursue something in this particular space. Thank God it happened right when I met David and Isha and the Muufri guys. I’ve never been so personally invested in work, like there’s a fire burning inside of me. I was so excited about the original pitch—I was researching the market for egg whites and found myself reading articles for fun at 3am. I didn’t think this was possible.
NH: I feel like that’s the Millennial American Dream right there. And now you and David are teamed up making chicken-free egg whites. How did you guys come up with the name for your start-up, Clara Foods?
A: Well I’m Mexican, and when we were thinking about potential names, we wanted something homey and folksy that resonated with people on a basic level and that didn’t allude to biotech or a Silicon Valley startup. “Clara” actually means egg white in Spanish. It also means clear. Weirdly, I ran it past Dave and it happened to be his dog’s name too. It was a funny coincidence and we decided to run with it. The “Foods” part was because we wanted to make it relatable—something anybody in the grocery store wouldn’t think twice about buying.
NH: A lot of the criticisms of veganism or a plant-based diet center around the idea that it’s not relatable—that it’s accessible only to people of a certain privilege or financial means. How do you see biotech foods intersecting with food insecurity?
A: To be inclusive it has to be accessible, affordable and convenient. It is expensive to eat a plant-based diet in a country where a subsidy regime makes it more costly to eat a salad than a burger. There was a time in history when eating only plant foods was for the poor—they couldn’t afford to eat meat—but the government has changed economics to the extent that prices don’t reflect the true cost of the product. My number one priority is getting the price of our egg whites competitive with the market, so anyone can afford it.
NH: How do you see the cost of biotech foods going down to a competitive level without the government subsidy help given to Big Ag food on the shelves?
A: Well the cost of production for meat producers right now isn’t getting any lower. Prices are continuing to rise in large part because of increased regulations and strained natural resources. The California regulation on battery-caged hens is just one example. All of those factors are raising the cost of production of the status quo. With the price of traditional animal products only on the rise, and the price of these technologies only on the decline, it will reach a point where these new technologies will be commercially viable.
NH: Do you have a timeline for when you think biotech foods will saturate the market, be mainstream?
A: I could totally see this within the next decade. Ultimately, I think people want to do the right thing. When sustainable, ethical products that are just better for people are affordable, you don’t have to use complicated arguments. The “invisible hand” will take care of that.
NH: Will your egg whites be marketed as “vegan” or do you think you’ll take the Hampton Creek route and steer clear of that label?
A: I don’t believe that we will be successful if we market or see ourselves as a company addressing a niche. Yes, vegans will probably be most inclined to try our products at first but hopefully they just start the trend and spread the word. For the lasting future of this type of food, we have to see this as something any mom would buy for her kids.
NH: Do you think we’ll need new terminology to describe these new animal-free, “vegan,” animal products?
A: Well, I think all animal-free products are vegan, and some of those are “plant-based”. We want to emphasize that this is the exact same product, it’s not an alternative, it’s not a different version, it’s just made in a different way. We want to emphasize the product is appealing beyond just being chicken-free—it makes more economic sense, it’s better for the environment—it’s really just amazing.
NH: A lot of vegans are also pretty vehemently anti-GMO—are you worried about biotech, vegan foods getting any backlash or being the subject of the same sorts of vitriol as GMO foods right now?
A: That’s a question we’re definitely trying to answer—how to market to consumers who in theory would be in your camp if it weren’t for that one thing. A lot of the most environmentally conscious people are oftentimes the ones most against these biotech products, and I think that’s a huge loss for the movement. I’m not sure how to bridge that consciousness… yet.
NH: These biotech foods are so promising to me, at least, because I feel like so many people recognize the advantages of a plant-based diet, but the process of actually giving up their favorite foods can be unbearably difficult.
A: Until I cut out meat for a New Years Resolution in 2012, I had always wanted to go vegetarian. I had the intention but never acted on it. I tried to be vegetarian in high school, but I failed miserably. The summer before college I interned for the USDA in a sub-agency that oversaw every single slaughterhouse in the country at a time when they were under investigation for inhumane handling violations. Part of my job was to watch all the videos. That was incredibly eye opening. I could no longer subscribe to the “ignorance is bliss” mentality. Ultimately, I went to college and started eating meat again until giving it up three years ago. I actually set the resolution together with my younger brother.
NH: Is he still vegetarian?
A: Yeah, and now my youngest brother is vegan. And my dad was most mostly against y decision, is cutting our red meat after a health scare. I have a running tally of people who I haven’t necessarily “converted” but that I’ve shared this idea or lifestyle with and now they’ve sort of taken it up on their own. People are curious and I pretty much always get positive feedback.
NH: What’s your favorite vegan food?
A: Probably cashew cheese. I love the creaminess. No no no, actually, it’s hummus. I don’t know if that counts but I’m in love with hummus. I ate it pretty much every single day for two weeks when I moved to San Francisco and I didn’t know how to cook. It was so good and filled me up.
NH: Any final thoughts? Or suggestions for people inspired by your story?
A: I think more than anything is to just be proactive. If I hadn’t shown up at the conference, communicated my passion to Isha, none of this would have been possible. Ultimately, share your dream with others. You never know what can happen. If you don’t say anything, people don’t know that you’re looking. I think we underestimate the power that small interactions can have that can potentially be life changing – as they were for me.
Get in touch with Arturo at firstname.lastname@example.org