The $3 Billion Dollar Thought Experiment and the Future of Our Planet

Of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and big-budget pipe dreams gone up in smoke.

Marla Rose
8 min readApr 19, 2024
Image credit: John Beske

I want to preface this by saying, I am not a business-minded person. Numbers make me drowsy and irritable. I was well past a reasonable age when I learned that the stock market wasn’t referring to stockings being sold and traded at such high stakes for some reason. This is neither a statement of self-mocking or self-congratulation. (Certainly not the latter!) It’s a statement of fact. I have more of a likelihood of knowing teen slang than I would a business term and let’s just say that once I decide to commit to learning a new word from the youth of today, it’s been at least a year since they’ve stopped using it.

Okay, so given all that, I want to dive a little into cultured meat and my belief that food tech is just another bubble.

Despite my lack of business acumen, I was immediately able to accurately predict something that the so-called smartest people with expensive degrees in a bunch of fancy boardrooms and on exclusive virtual chats with celebrity backers didn’t see coming: cell-cultured meat — AKA clean meat, lab-grown meat, cultured meat, who knows what else it’s going by — was going to fall on its $3 billion dollar face. I could see all this without an MBA or even watching a single full episode of Shark Tank. It’s not because I’m smart. It’s because I have been boots-on-the-ground as an activist and paying attention. And now I am going to tell you why this NY Times piece (it is lengthy but not verbose) on the fall of cultured meat that was published in February of this year was one of the biggest “I-told-you-so” moments I have had in a long time. I wish I got some satisfaction from it but I most assuredly do not.

The piece itself, a guest essay written by the journalist Joe Fassler, explores the very expensive thought experiment that was given real financial legs, only to sputter out before even standing, perhaps mainly doomed by the sheer weight of the hubris and hype — which on any of the rest of us would look like wishful thinking rather than confident optimism — of cultured meat entrepreneurs and the venture capitalists who love them.

To start, here is the simplest of descriptions of what cultivated meat is: Stem cells from an actual animal are mixed with a medium of nutrients in petri dishes to multiply and grow muscle cells, which then will transform into the muscles, fat and connective tissues of the animals people might otherwise eat, like chickens, cows and sea-life. The cells are further grown in tanks and shaped as wanted, such as nugget or patty form. This is all hypothetical, of course, because, well, I’ll get into that.

It’s kind of what you can imagine in an episode of The Flintstones where they meet a wacky but kind food scientist from the future. Fred still wants to eat his brontosaurus burgers; he just doesn’t want to feel guilty about it because he loves Dino, a domesticated cousin, so much. Fred is conflicted until the brilliant scientist from the future, nurtured with funding by the effective altruism investment crowd, offers a way for Mr. Flintstone to have his meat and eat it, too.

Okay, I am telling you, this is my mentality. You were warned.

Essentially, cultured meat is a product that cooks, tastes like and is virtually indistinguishable from an animal’s flesh — it is meat, the companies will remind us, just not requiring an animal — made with just a relatively few animal cells and not requiring suffering, CAFOs and their manure pits or slaughterhouses. It’s what’s for dinner, to borrow the beef industry slogan, except it’s not for dinner (or breakfast or lunch) and, other than a short-lived experiment at a bar in San Francisco and a single butcher shop in Singapore, it’s not on the menu. Anywhere. That’s because it hasn’t worked yet.

With just under $3 billion invested between 2016 and 2022, the cultured protein industry was shaping up like the space race — let’s call it the meat fleet — and the various well-funded businesses were vying to be the first cultivated meat company with products approved by the government.

This high-tech race has been more of an obstacle course than some may anticipated. During this time of development (building the plane as they fly it), it was determined that some of the cells were contaminated, variously, by mouse and rat cells, and had to be chucked. Until recently, Eat Just’s cultured meat division, Good Meat, required fetal bovine serum, a slaughterhouse byproduct and supplement widely used in in-vitro cell cultures to cultivate quick expansion.

Some cultured meat start-ups and divisions had millions invested before they could even show that they had a cell line that could reliably grow in the lab. At Upside Foods, which has raised $608 million since 2015, the gleaming, custom bioreactors that were supposed to produce large whole cultivated meat cuts have failed thus far to produce on this promise and are empty; instead, individual small roller bottles are coated with porcine gelatin to produce tiny cell sheets, which are carefully removed from hundreds of these bottles by hand and produce just a tiny amount of product. According to Upside, one of their cell lines costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to develop per gram. (The weight of the average chicken breast is six ounces, or 174 grams.) The giant facility Upside announced with great fanfare to be opened in Glenview, IL has been placed on pause until “key proof points” have been achieved. I am interpreting this as meaning until the company can prove to current and future investors that it can deliver on its promises.

This, of course, is not scalable. And for some unknown reason, beyond simply the tech being able to deliver on the promises of whole cuts of cultured meat (which is the holy grail, because who needs more patties and nuggets?), somehow it did not occur to entrepreneurs or the venture capitalists that if they cannot get the costs of production facilities down, they will not be able to reach the price-point necessary for their product to realistically compete with traditional meat.

I understand that innovation takes time. Of course! No one is disputing that. And I know that people will write this off as a hater taking potshots. I don’t know many who want people to stop eating animals as much as I do. This is why this particular pipe dream, squandering so much money, time, attention and other resources, is so upsetting. Can you imagine what that $3 billion in venture capitalist money in cultured meat, which was written about in the past tense by the NY Times author as if it’s already over, could have done if it weren’t sunk into these gleaming but useless tanks and unoccupied factories?

Investment into community growing spaces and gardening education? Planting public fruit trees and cultivating urban edible landscapes? Coordinated efforts between supermarkets, farmers markets and distributors to rescue good, plant-based food before it goes bad or expires to get to people who need it for free or at a deep discount?

Investing more in lobbying to change how polluting food systems are bailed out and buttressed? Opening plant-based culinary schools with generous scholarships? Investing in vegan food producers who are committed to access and affordability? Working to get more vegan items in the WIC program?

None of these things are necessarily sexy, but is throwing away $3 billion dollars and having virtually nothing to show for it all that sexy? The confidence of an entrepreneur matters less than if their ideas are able to be implemented.

Of course, none of this even addresses what I have seen as the primary roadblock, which is the human reluctance to eat novel foods, no matter how it is branded or what kind of anodyne word is used for it. The average person, yes, they are comfortable eating the bodies or animals, but things grown in-vitro or with all kinds of strange caveats? NOPE. (Is it meat? Yes, but no animals had to die. So is it vegetarian? No. So is it just a figment of my imagination? No, it’s real. But…?) When most people I have talked with about trying vegan foods are apprehensive, do you think they will be open to eating something that was born in a petri dish with a growth serum?

They haven’t even figured out how to make production facilities affordable enough but I truly think the biggest hurdle would be finding a market for cell-cultured meat, even if they could figure out how to reach price parity. Because who is buying it? Not vegans, by and large. We’re also far too small of a market to justify any of that investment. Vegetarians? Maybe. An herbivore might try it for novelty’s sake but in general, the people who were grudging vegetarians who missed meat have long since moved over to “humane” meat, in my observations, so this wouldn’t be appealing to them. The average meat-eater? Maaaaybe they’d have a little curiosity but I can’t imagine it would be a regular thing, especially not without it being far less expensive than regular meat and even then, I think people would be turned off because it sounds like a science experiment. Why was “who is the market for this” relegated to an after-thought as the people in those exclusive rooms got dazzled by all the high-tech reveries?

My question is, realistically, who is this very costly (in every sense of the word) product for after all is said and done? Is it to say they were the first to get government approval but, aw, shucks, they cannot afford to make it, too ahead of their time? Is it for sharing four small strips with a reporter, estimated to be $10 million in the making, and the reporter is kind of “meh” about it after all that? What was this all about? Is it to hobnob with princes and movie stars, famous inventors and the wealthiest of the wealthy? What was this for? To show that venture capitalists will write check after check for no good reason? We know this. May I present Theranos, WeWork, the freaking Fyre Festival?

As the world burns and the clock ticks, are alt protein food tech entrepreneurs and the investors who love them willing to step away from the self-serving, messianic fantasies and work toward something that doesn’t waste $3 billion? To stop toasting one another, clapping for each other, creating shiny new presentations for products that cannot materialize and throwing all that money away? Because we really do need all hands on deck.

Ultimately, selling the public on moving away from eating animals is not about the bells-and-whistles that draws in investors but making the shift over the long-view compelling in a million, multi-pronged ways that are probably not all that alluring to venture capitalists. In the meantime, we can all just keep trying to build this world, with or without custom bioreactors and investors with deep pockets.

Marla Rose is cofounder of