Origin Story Interview W/ Brett Thompson, Newform Foods (Formerly Mzansi Meat Co.)

Origin Story Interview W/ Brett Thompson, Newform Foods (Formerly Mzansi Meat Co.)

Brighter Future

 / 

Oct 19, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #EthicalMeat #CultivatedMeat #FutureOfFood #AnimalAdvocacy #ImpactfulBusiness

Brighter Future

Today, we’re lucky enough to be joined by Brett Thompson from Mzansi Meat, a company born from a relentless drive to reimagine our planet’s food systems and the way we make meat.

Thank you for agreeing to speak to us today, Brett! For our readers who aren’t familiar with you or your business, could you give us a quick introduction?

Sure! My name is Brett Thompson. I'm the co-founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat, and we are Africa's first cultivated meat company. Essentially, “cultivated meat” means we’re taking cells from an animal—in our case, that’s from a cow—and recreating the production of meat from an animal's from animal's body without harming or killing the animal. This way, we can more ethically produce the same meat products that so many people love to eat. The Mzansi Meat office and lab is located in Cape Town, which is where we’re making our delicious cultivated-beef burgers.

Wow! That’s an amazing vision and innovation. Could you tell us a little bit about your personal story? Where do you come from, and how did you get to where you are today?

My path to date has been interesting and not completely linear. Initially, when I started my studies, I was thinking about becoming a chartered accountant—and no offense to accountants, but thankfully that never happened. I failed several university classes and eventually decided to stick with economics, which is what I finished my studies in. While completing my postgrad in economics at the University of Stellenbosch, just down the road from where I live, I wrote my thesis on the economic case for vegetarianism. 

Then, in early 2011, I got a job at South Africa's largest alternative meat producer, which is also the largest in Africa. It makes alternative meat products in Australia, the UK, the US and throughout Africa and South Africa. I spent a number of ten years working in sales and marketing, but I also worked for other animal advocacy organisations, promoting alternative protein and meat production. It gave me good experience in the for-profit and non-profit worlds of trying to sell products, trying to sell an idea. I think that these two things combined have influenced how I do business and speak about animal-related topics. 

After that, I spent some time in Berlin and worked for an NGO called Beyond Carnism, which Melanie Joy runs. I then worked at another NGO called ProVeg International. While there,I had a business related to cultivated meat in mind for a while. Then, in 2018/19, I came back to South Africa and started a non-profit called Credence Institute, which still exists today. 

At Credence Institute, we wanted to research animal advocacy and alternative proteins. One of the projects that came from it was Animal Advocacy Africa, which is now mostly independent. That project is about bringing funding into Africa. Many great organisations are doing important work here, especially outside South Africa, in countries like Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia,etc., but the funding to do it, particularly for farmed animal advocacy,doesn't exist; it goes directly to wildlife. I think many people are very supportive of the idea, however.

Another project within Credence Institute researched consumers and their views on cultivated and plant-based meats. That was the sort of the kickstart for me to look at Africa because no one was cultivating meat in Africa just two years ago.   

Thank you for sharing, Brett. Imagine what the world would have missed out on if you had become an accountant! What exactly led you to create Mzansi Meat?

The initial idea came from a partnership. It was March 2020, and we had been working on the project for a couple of months. I remember the first time we presented it to somebody else, roughly about February, a month before lockdown. We approached a prominent scientist in South Africa and said we wanted to do this project—and she absolutely destroyed the idea!  She said it wasn't going to work for the various reasons that she outlined.

I always reflect on that time. I wanted to pursue this idea and I felt like an entrepreneur, so to hear someone completely tear it apart was tough. It was sort of a catalyst moment. But also, there was a lot of research that my organisation, Credence Institute, had done that had given me confidence in this project. And so, I put her reaction aside, conducted my research, and looked into the viability of a business creating cultivated meats. Looking at how vast Africa is and how untapped it is in terms of its people and its resources, it was a no-brainer. Someone was eventually going to do it, and I wanted it to be us. That all came together in March 2020. As the world went into lockdown, we started the company. And it's been an exciting journey ever since.

It's amazing that, despite someone with knowledge and experience saying no to the idea, you had the vision and confidence to say, “I'm still doing it.”  

The other word for that is “stupidity”.

It's so funny that what you call “stupidity” has now led you to win awards. How do you feel about that?

Sometimes I still feel stupid, even though I'm collecting awards and doing interviews. I think it's a suspension of disbelief that separates many people. You need to have a massive belief in what you're doing and an ability to move something over the line. But also, there’s a feeling of disbelief around why other people haven't done this before. When someone does something, there’s a collective mindset shift around it and how possible it is. It’s a case of if you don't try, it's not going to happen. That's the difference. That's the philosophy I've been leaning on for the past three or four years.

When you think about Mzansi Meat and the work you’re doing, who exactly are you doing this for? What drives you to push through the challenges and the tough times?

The driving point for me is the animals, but I am doing it  for everyone. When you provide people with options, they eventually tend to make the right choice. Currently, I think people just don't have a choice. When it comes to where we get our protein from, it's predicated and built on an industry that requires immense suffering. We go along with it because of historical happenstance. People should care about this, and that shift in caring about it is beginning to happen. I think that, at the moment, we cannot, on mass, connect our values with our choices because we're coming off the back of 10,000 years of eating meat and agriculture. Plus, 50 to 100 years of industrial meat production. It’s the system that we’ve become used to overtime. So, to answer your question, I want to make ethical meat for South Africans, and then I want to make it for Africans, and then I want to make it for the rest of the world.  

What part of your work is most fulfilling to you?

The most fulfilling aspect of my work is the incremental changes I see happening in the company, which I created with my co-founder Tasneem. Seeing blank spaces turned into productive spaces is a big driver for me because it feels exciting. I also know that it's a vessel for what I believe is a positive change for the world. Sometimes that change feels painfully slow, but it’s amazing to look back and see what we’ve achieved in a year or two or ten.

Have you ever been in a situation, whether in your life or career, where you’ve decided to do something differently than expected or take a new direction?

Yes, as I mentioned briefly before, I had a rocky start in university. My father had recently passed away after working all of his life in a corporate job—the same path I was planning to take. Other things were also happening that contributed to my thought process. I was trying out a bunch of different things and exploring various avenues, which is what you do in your first year of university anyway.

I picked up all these different courses, like the philosophy of art and literature. I did an ethics course in my second or third year, and I stopped eating meat because of it. It completely changed my life.

That was a moment when I took a new direction, one different to what I had planned for myself. Before that, I had a very defined plan to become a chartered accountant. I wanted to work for an investment firm and make money.I still want to make money, but now, I've been lucky that the money I've made has genuinely been as a result of pursuing things that I'm really interested in. 

So many people have these great, potentially world-changing ideas that they never pursue or share with the world. It takes work to get an idea off the ground, but it also takes a lot of self-belief. What gave you the confidence to go after this idea, and how did you know you could create something better than what was already out there?

I think it was a culmination of the previous ten years of experience. There were a few key moments that I drew upon that allowed me to make that leap of faith. However, my confidence comes from the fact that I'm a layman; I'm not a technical person. Cultivated meat is a very technical discipline, so it has been ten years of me trusting the research of others and jumping into the unknown, which is probably one of the things that I'm actually good at personally.

I was also in my early 20s and surrounded by old execs in retail, learning from them about how to prepare products and how products can increase in demand over time. I think that the skill or stupidity of jumping continuously into the unknown has helped me to work towards creating a product that was new to most people—one that was essentially created out of thin air.

No venture is ever smooth sailing. No matter how great the idea, there are always obstacles and challenges along the way. What were the biggest challenges you faced with Mzansi Meat, or even mistakes you made?

There are lots of challenges that we have faced along the way.Initially, the biggest challenge we faced was funding, which is still a big challenge today. Then there’s also the R&D process and learning how to optimise and improve a very technical process. In the beginning, we didn't understand our company's current and projected value well. We then overcompensated in terms of our thoughts and abilities and thus struggled to raise the right amount of funding and execute the plan, all of which put us under tremendous pressure.

We also launched the business while the whole world was under lockdown. We needed a lab, but we couldn't leave the house. So, I think that our biggest challenge has been ourselves and that over-zealous approach. We could have been more understanding of the fact that the whole world was going through a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, which would limit us in many ways. Instead, we kept putting more pressure on ourselves to try and deliver on some of the objectives we had defined in a very different world. So, once we realised that, we began to set realistic timelines for research and development. We hit those timelines and produced a product that we're very proud of for our burger launch a couple of months ago. We learned a lot from that mistake of going too hard, too fast. We’ve now become far more dynamic, consistently updating our processes based on new information.

Many entrepreneurs report experiencing an “A-ha!” moment. A split second when things suddenly click into place, make sense, or get easier. Were there any big “A-ha!” moments that gave you a new perspective or insights?

There were plenty of “A-ha!” moments, especially when I've seen things happen under the microscope or in bioreactors. It has made me appreciate life and second guess some of my understanding of it. It's quite incredible to see what nature is capable of doing. For example, all mammals have the same body temperature: 37 degrees. And they all react very similarly under certain conditions. We’ve worked with cells from cows, chickens, pigs, and lambs, and we plan to look at other species, too. It's quite incredible how all of these animals are connected. When you start looking at them in certain conditions or at a certain side of an animal's body, we all have shared characteristics.There is a connectedness, yet we look at each other differently when we shouldn't. It’s incredible what happens in nature, and what we are trying to do is recreate that outside of nature because we want people to stop harming nature.

Personally, as a CEO, my biggest “A-ha!” moment was learning to step back from areas outside of my expertise. It’s essential that you trust the team you've put together. It should be a no-brainer, but I think it is very difficult to let go and focus on your own strengths as a CEO or founder. For me, it has been an ongoing process to learn to focus on what areas I can do well and ensure that my team has the resources available to do what they do well.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you made to get to where you are today?

The biggest sacrifices have been to my own energy and to my time. I’ve had to take time off, but by then, it is too late. When you get to that stage, self-care isn’t the answer. It would have been better to implement more efficient management and prevent the burnout from happening. Also, my personal free time is very limited; I've worked almost every day for most of the length of this company's life. I've had a couple of days off here and there, but you get stuck in a certain pattern or way of doing things and it becomes obsessive.

You’re also selling your bandwidth for other things that should be enjoyable. For example, at the weekend, I watched a game of rugby with some friends, but I found that my brain would occasionally go into work mode. What about that fundraising lead? Or what about that other problem? Oh, and we also had that issue in the team that needs to be solved.  You sacrifice personal time and your mental bandwidth when others get to shut down and relax. The flip side of that, of course, is that you're doing something you find really rewarding—something that you really want to do.  

This is a more personal question, so please feel free to pass if you’re not comfortable answering. Do you believe in a higher power? And if so, how does it affect your decision-making in life and business? 

I believe that it’s important to do have things that allow your mind to become settled. Being mindful like that is very helpful, whether that comes from a spiritual practice or a god. And it's something that I've tried to do over the last five years. Although, not always successfully. However, getting outside of your body, your ego and looking at the world in a more holistic way or in a universal or spiritual way does benefit your well-being as a human. And in that sense, I believe that there is something greater than me

I try to take a pause and a breath in between the decisions I’m making. This helps me to become more focused, more mindful, and to be cognitive or conscious of when frustrations, ego and anger arise. So, even if I can't control what happens in my day-to-day life, I must be able to recover from it quite quickly. That’s primarily how it affects my decision-making.

We're currently undergoing a period of great uncertainty and change in many facets of life on this planet. We’d love to hear how you envision the future? What do you think will become our new normal in years to come?

I’m not a fan of the word “normal” because I don't think we've ever had “normal”. We’re constantly changing as a species, and I think that's a good thing, for the most part.

From my perspective, in terms of our company, I think there will be far more options for meat that is ethical and tastes good, and these options will be easily accessible to those who want them. And I believe demand for these products will grow as people continue to align their values with their choices. That's the world that I want to live in. And I think it’s very possible that we’ll get there. So that's the future of this world that I hope to see. 

That reminds me of when horses were used for transportation, there was a whole industry that was not ready to let go, and eventually, they were left behind once the car was invented. It was easier to choose the better and quicker option of not using and hurting the horses anymore when an alternative was easily and readily available.  

Yes, exactly! There are plenty of examples of this across every type of social or environmental issue we have now overcome. We can look backwards and say, “how could they ever have done that? How did we have chimney stacks polluting our neighbourhoods, which now have been removed. How did we ever have whaling and accept that?” It came down to having suitable and accessible alternatives. And that’s what we’re trying to offer through our Mzansi Meat products.

When you’re no longer around and the people close to you, your family and friends, look back on you, your journey and all you have achieved, what would you like them to say or feel?   

I hope that they would think of me as someone they enjoyed having around, who was very passionate about something but not to the detriment of others in their immediate life, which I wouldn't want. So, I think that would be a big component. I hope they would remember me as someone with the right disposition to life, regardless of how shit it could be sometimes. I hope they would see my business as something decent and view me as somebody who was very driven, passionate and focused on making positive change. I hope they’ll look back on my journey and be able to say that I created some long-lasting results and prompted actual change in the world.

All over the world, there are entrepreneurs, young and old, just starting out in their journey, building businesses that could potentially change the world. What advice would you offer to those people?

Don't do it!

Okay. If you immediately disregarded that advice, then that's a good first step. It’s so incredibly difficult to start a business, and you have to be very ready for lots of people to not think your ideas are based in reality. However, once you’ve overcome that, the small, incremental negatives and positives are the biggest things you’ll need to endure. The frustrating spreadsheet that you can't get to work with your cash flow on a Saturday morning. That can have a bigger impact on your mental well-being than a panel of investors rejecting you on a Thursday afternoon. Let go of those tiny negatives but embrace those small positive moments and capture them in your mind. For example, I walked past an empty lab for a long time during the lock downs and wished that we could have our scientists in the lab. But then, one morning, I walked by and there they were! They were in the lab doing amazing things. Hold onto those small moments along the way.

The truth is, if you love what you do, it’s worth it. It will be amazing. It will be wonderful. Keep going and don’t give up.

Awesome advice. It’s so easy to get so bogged down in those tiny frustrations and annoyances that we overlook all the positives that are also happening. What books, movies, speeches, or people have inspired you most along your journey?

This might be unpopular, but Ayn Rand has inspired me. She famously wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I don't particularly like those two books, but she wrote another book called Capitalism: The Unknown Deal, which was a provocative statement for some. I just remember reading that book when I was 23 or 24 and in my final year of university. It shifted something in my thinking. It gave me different viewpoints on some of the problems I wanted to tackle. It led me to interesting discussions and books related to classical liberal and classical economic thought. So, I think that one book definitely sparked something in me.

While in my second or third year at university, I met the South African philosopher and academic David Benatar, who essentially changed my career. He's written many books on a range of topics—some that I agree with and some that I don't. I was particularly inspired by his lecture series on applied ethics, which touched on topics like the ethics of forgiveness, humour, sexual behaviour, and the eating of animals. That discussion switched on a light bulb in my mind, and I haven't eaten meat since. So, I think a combination of those two would probably describe all of the work I've done since leaving university.

If you could share one message with the whole world, what would that message be?

Have purpose, be mindful, become content, always wonder.

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A huge thank you to our wonderful guest, the fascinating Brett Thompson, for participating in this interview and sharing his start-up experience and vision for the future with us. It’s always exciting to delve into the mind of an entrepreneur who is having a real impact on the planet. If you would like to find out more about Brett and the amazing work he is doing at Mzansi Meat, you can find him at: www.mzansimeat.co

To stay up to date with all of our latest content and interviews with amazing people like Brett, subscribe to the Brighter Future newsletter here.

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