Origin Story Interview w/ Paul Shapiro, The Better Meat Co.

Origin Story Interview w/ Paul Shapiro, The Better Meat Co.

Brighter Future


Mar 29, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableFood #fermentation #CleanMeat #PlantBased #MeatAlternatives

Brighter Future

We’re here with Paul Shapiro, head of the Better Meat Co., a company that produces sustainable meat analogue ingredients using fermentation techniques.

Thank you so much for joining us, Paul. Could you introduce yourself and your business?

My name is Paul Shapiro and I’m the CEO of Better Meat Co., a business-to-business food tech ingredient company based in Sacramento, California. We take microbes and subject them to a special fermentation process that transforms them into a delicious meat-like texture in less than a day. We call this product Rhiza mycoprotein. This ingredient can be used to recreate the experience of eating meat without the need to raise and slaughter animals.

That’s very interesting. What are you trying to achieve with Better Meat Co, and why does it matter?

Well, the planet’s not getting any bigger, but humanity's footprint is. And one of the main ways we leave this footprint is through our food consumption—particularly in the amount of meat we eat. It takes significant land, water, greenhouse gas emissions, and, frankly, animal cruelty to raise and slaughter billions of animals for food. The problem, of course, is that humans like to eat meat. It would be ideal if people wanted to eat plant-based foods like rice and bean burritos, lentil soup and hummus wraps. But people really enjoy meat.

To address this, we need to find ways to create the “meat experience” without using animals. It's similar to how it would be great if people wanted to walk and bike more, but people enjoy driving, so we need to create cars that don't rely on fossil fuels. Similarly, we need to produce meat that doesn't rely on animals. That’s important for our current global population of around eight billion— but it will be even more important in the near future, as we’re projected to add another two billion people to the planet in the next 30 years.

We will not have any more land to farm food for them. We only have one planet to farm, and we've already deforested a significant amount of it to raise crops or create pasture for animals. If we want to feed the incoming and current billions of people, we can't continue to deforest the rest of the Amazon or other rainforests to raise animals for food, so we need to separate the pleasant experience of eating meat from animal slaughter. That’s what Better Meat Co. is trying to do.

What is your background, or the path that led you to your current career or business?

I spent a long time as a lobbyist, actually, working at the U. S. Congress and state legislatures, trying to enact animal welfare and food sustainability policies. But after about 15 years of doing that, I began to think that food technology and innovation could solve this problem more quickly than some public policies could. I'm of course not against public policies; they’re very important. But food technology and innovation might be able to do even more to solve this problem than some of them.

So I wrote a book on the topic called Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World. To my surprise, it did very well, and opened a lot of doors for me. I was then presented with a choice: continue writing about the people who I thought could solve this problem, or become one of them. I chose the latter and co-founded The Better Meat Co. with my friend Joanna Bromley. For the past five years, the company has continued to grow and has been working to find ways to economically replace the use of animals in the food system.

How did you and your co-founder meet and decide to start a business together?

I met Joanna through a mutual friend who I worked with in the public policy field for a while. This friend was also starting a company, and he introduced us to each other. We began talking and decided to collaborate on creating an ingredients company. Joanna quit her job in consulting and moved to Sacramento to join me in this venture. It was challenging to start from scratch, but we were both incredibly dedicated to making it happen; it wasn't unexpected that the company continued to grow.

Who is the Better Meat Co.’s target audience?

We’re a business-to-business, or B2B, ingredients company, so we don't aim to create a consumer-facing brand for grocery store shelves. Instead, our product is for the companies that create those brands. We primarily work with food companies that want to reduce their environmental impact and create healthier products with less saturated fat, less cholesterol, and more fibre, and that also want to save money by using our ingredients— which can be less expensive than conventional beef.

This is a win-win situation, as it benefits the company by controlling costs and the end consumer, who now has access to healthier meat-free products. Eating fewer animals is also better for our health, as the World Health Organization has labelled processed meat as a class-one carcinogen— the same classification as tobacco. By using our ingredients, companies can create products that benefit not only the planet but also the health of their customers.

What would you say is the most fulfilling thing in your work?

Some people have jobs that don't significantly improve the world, but I’m grateful to have a job where I know that if we succeed, we can reduce suffering worldwide. It's not just about earning a paycheck, but also creating something meaningful with real-world impact. If we’re successful, it will have a significant positive impact on the welfare of future generations. It gives a sense of purpose and fulfilment in the work we do.

In your development of the Better Meat Co., did you ever take a completely different direction than you had planned?

When we started the company, we focused on using plant proteins like soy, wheat, and pea protein. Although peas are much cheaper than meat as raw products, they’re only about 20% protein, and extracting the protein makes using them more expensive than you’d expect. It’s also pretty expensive to process plants into that holy grail of the meat-like texture. As a result, it quickly became clear that it would be difficult to reach price parity with animal meat using those ingredients.

So, we began looking into fungal proteins, which have a naturally meat-like texture and require less downstream processing. This was a pivot for our company, shifting from using plants to using fungi proteins, but it turned out to be a productive direction to pursue.

That’s very clever; anybody who’s had mushrooms cooked right could probably see how they resemble meat. What life experiences and knowledge led you to believe that you could create something innovative and superior to existing market offerings?

When I look at companies that have been successful in our industry, like Perfect Day, which uses fermentation to create dairy proteins without cows, I notice that the founders often come from non-traditional backgrounds. Perfect Day, for example, was started by two individuals in their early twenties who had just graduated college, had never met each other before, and had limited experience. However, they had an idea that they believed was technologically feasible and were motivated to make a difference in the world. They went on to create a company that today has a valuation of $1.5 billion and sells a variety of products. It gives me confidence that people without extensive business experience or advanced degrees can make an impact by starting a company, so long as they surround themselves with the right talent.

What were the biggest challenges with the Better Meat Co. that you faced so far?

Starting a company, especially in the beginning, comes with many challenges. First, nearly all startups lose money, so raising funds from investors is crucial. However, it can be difficult to persuade them to invest in a company that is still young and has a long-term possibility of profitability.

We faced many challenges as a young company, such as technological hurdles, scaling from a few people to a couple of dozen, and finding suitable spaces to work and grow. The challenges never stop coming. As Ben Horowitz from the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz said, “When you start your own company, you sleep like a baby: you wake up every two hours and cry.” Starting a company is not for those who seek an easy life, but it can be incredibly fulfilling.

How do you personally deal with those challenges?

I am very grateful to have an extremely supportive wife, who is also an entrepreneur, and a wonderful dog who brings a lot of happiness into our lives. Additionally, I often think about a quote from the great philosopher Rocky Balboa, who said that in life it's not about how hard you can hit, but about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That's how you win at something. So when I face any struggles, I spend time with my wife and my dog and just think about that quote from Rocky.

Who can forget the immortal words of Mr Balboa? Speaking of taking hits, what were the biggest failures you think you’ve had— and what do you think you learned from them?

One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is assuming that everyone will do what they say. This has led to a lot of disappointment when people failed to follow through on promised investments, orders, job offers, projects, or a whole host of things. I’ve learned only to expect something to happen once it’s already occurred rather than assuming it will happen based on verbal commitments.

Were there any big “Aha!” moments in life or your startup?

Throughout my life, I’ve realised that there are many ways I could have approached things differently and more effectively. This includes focusing on fungi proteins instead of just plant proteins, getting more interested in food technology instead of just public policy, and even going back to my teenage years when I was an animal activist and engaged in demonstrations that I look back on now as maybe not having been as effective as I’d hoped.

I’ve changed my approach to creating social change multiple times in the four decades of my life, and I’m open to the possibility that there might be something more effective than what I currently do. My priority is to be maximally effective in reducing the number of animals used for food. I am open to different strategies and not bound to any particular approach as the optimal solution.

What books, films, or speeches about entrepreneurship and climate would you recommend to others?

One book that meant a lot to me was How Are We to Live? by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer. I read it decades ago, but I still think about it. It argues that the key to happiness in life is not self-enrichment but instead working to benefit others. The book posits that it is ironic that if one wants to be happy, one should work for the happiness of others, which will, in turn, create the most happiness for oneself.

Another book I found compelling, more recently, is the novel Tender is the Flesh by Argentine writer Agustina Bazterrica. It imagines a world where so-called “defective” humans take the place of animals, and explores what that world would look like. It’s a very thought-provoking story that highlights how we treat animals.

Thanks so much for the recommendations. What were the biggest compromises you made to get where you are today?

I wouldn't necessarily call them compromises, but as far as my company, Better Meat Co., is concerned, we have had much greater ambitions than the resources available to achieve them. As a result, we’ve had to rely on creative solutions like buying used equipment and sourcing equipment from Alibaba to make progress. These solutions, however, don't always lead to the best results and are driven by necessity due to a lack of funding. As we continue to grow, our goal is to have more resources, so we don't have to make these sacrifices.

Did you have to sacrifice your personal life to pursue your career?

I today strive to live my personal life in a way that I would be comfortable with if it were made public. This means avoiding certain actions I may not want to be associated with. I don't view this as a sacrifice, but it is a different way of living. It requires a certain level of self-awareness and self-regulation.

How do you envision a future world, and how will Better Meat Co. help us get there?

I envision a world where our relationship with animals is built on compassion and respect rather than violence and domination. At present, non-human animals are often viewed as nothing more than property to be used and exploited for our own purposes, regardless of the suffering it causes them.

Just as our understanding of the physical universe expanded when Copernicus and Galileo showed that we were not at the centre of it, we will come to recognise that we are not the centre of the moral universe either. Other animals deserve consideration and respect. I hope for a future where our civilisation is not built on the exploitation and killing of billions of animals.

How would you like future generations to look upon you and your journey?

I don’t really have any desire to be remembered by future generations. I certainly don’t expect to be remembered. It doesn’t bother me. I don’t expect to be known or recognised by people a hundred years from now. What is important for me is that my actions and behaviours are felt in the form of a world with less suffering. I hope that my actions will contribute to making the world a more compassionate, less cruel, less violent, and more joyful place for all living beings; that's what makes me happy. Knowing that I've made a positive difference in the lives of others, regardless of whether people know my name or not, matters to me.

What is the number one piece of advice you would like to give young and upcoming entrepreneurs?

I would say that the climate crisis is so urgent and immediate that we cannot afford to wait to take action. In the past, it may have been wise to spend extra time on education or building a career before focusing on making a positive impact. But the reality of our situation demands immediate action.

Climate change is causing year-round wildfires, floods, and droughts. It’s not a future dystopia; it’s happening now. I encourage any young people reading not to wait but to take action. Again: now. Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels for energy and animals for food are two of the most important things we can do to help prevent climate Armageddon. I’m doing what I think I can, but one person or company cannot do it alone. I encourage young people to get involved, start creating new technologies to achieve these goals, go into public policy, and work on creating incentives that encourage these changes— but don't wait. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says: Do it now.

If there was one last message that you could send to every person in the world, what would that be?

We should rethink our relationship with animals and consider them existing alongside us rather than purely for our benefit. Just as we look back on some of the beliefs and practices of our ancestors with horror, future generations may view our current treatment of non-human animals in the same way. However, we can do better, and it's time we start treating animals with the respect they deserve.

And hopefully, we’ll be able to treat animals better sooner, rather than later, thanks to the efforts of people like you. Your mycoprotein looks like an incredible replacement for meat, and we hope the Better Meat Co. can continue to grow and get its product into as many places as possible around the world. Thank you so much for sharing some of your journey and your philosophy with us.

In addition to being the CEO of The Better Meat Co., Paul Shapiro is also the author of the national bestseller Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World, a four-time TEDx speaker, and the host of the Business for Good Podcast. In 2023, he was named Most Admired CEO by the Sacramento Business Journal.

You can connect and learn more about him here.

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