Where are the better animal-free alternatives?

In his stunning book, Sapiens, author Yuval Noah Harari highlights the dizzying technological advancement that humanity has achieved and attributes this to science. Better science engenders greater efficiency in production and services; therefore, the pie gets bigger. We now generate more crops for the same amount of input. More petrochemicals for the same petroleum input. Knowledge and research underpin such fruitful outcomes. Without the scientific insight, we remain in technological limbo. Accordingly, key scientific advancement will ultimately determine how quickly animal-free products displace animal-derived products.

How does technological innovation occur?  I distinguish two types of innovation: linear and disruptive. Linear innovation is perhaps the most familiar: making existing products, service, or industry better through knowledge and research. Linear innovation surfaces especially in technologies such as cars and computers. Cars are safer, more fuel efficient, and greener. Computers are faster, cheaper, and smaller compared to yesteryear.

In contrast to linear innovation, disruptive innovation is a new technology or service that completely supplants an existing industry and renders them obsolete. For example, cheap, able teleporters would clearly disrupt the car industry. I alluded to companies such as Netflix disrupting old guard such as Blockbuster. Disruptive innovation is a cliched but still animating topic in the entrepreneurship world. Entrepreneurs delight in the idea of rending extant industries with their own product or service. I shamelessly count myself among such dreamers. Disruptive technology expectedly follows a performance versus knowledge curve shown below. By performance, I refer to the product’s beneficial attributes (cost, taste, healthiness, environmental impact, production efficiency).


At first, the disruptive technology will not conquer the industry, but because of the potential of the respective technologies, the disruptive technology can win out given enough research development. Much of this blog focuses on the ceiling of animal-derived products specifically to show how ripe for disruption the animal product industry is. There are limits to animal-derived technology that animal-free ones can overcome. I seek to convince you, the reader, of that fact.

Of course, it’s one thing to merely highlight the potential of disruptive technologies; however, the disruptive technologies also need to be advanced or generated in the first place. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly humanity’s failure to generate suitable animal-free alternatives, but I see ideation and fundamental research as the biggest limitation to the animal-free product industry. It’s difficult to substantiate this comprehensively; instead, I highlight a few key points.

One of the biggest success stories in the alternative meat space is Impossible Foods. For the uninitiated, Impossible Foods has designed a vegan burger that looks, tastes, and smells like a cow-derived one. The key scientific advancement that enabled the burger was heme. Heme is the same iron-based molecule that imbues the red color in your blood and is abundant in meat especially hamburgers. The founder of Impossible Foods, Patrick O. Brown, correctly hypothesized that heme was a key molecule to impart the taste of meat. Impossible Foods now synthesizes the heme in yeast and adds it to veggie burgers. However, without this testing the initial hypothesis, there is no Impossible Foods nor their burger.

Another hot company is Memphis Meats, even though I’ve been cool to their approach  (likening it to a robotic ox). Their catalyzing research traces back to the post-doctoral work of Nicholas Genovese, one of the Memphis Meats founders. Nicholas successfully convinced PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to fund his research [1]. In a key paper during his post-doctoral tenure, he successfully generated muscles from stem cells, paving the way to grow meat directly from cells rather than in animals [2].

What alarms me regarding both cases is how bootstrapped the initial scientific research pursuits were. Patrick had to take a sabbatical (time away from his normal job) in order to pursue the research. Nicholas had to plead funding from PETA. This is research that governments and organizations should be actively promoting. There should be funding programs incentivizing our best researchers to pursue these problems.

As a good reference, consider the renewable energy industry. In 2015 alone, the world spent 67 billion dollars on renewable energy research and development. How much did we spend on researching animal-free alternatives? The Good Food Institute and New Harvest are the only two organizations, I find, to actively fund research of animal-free alternatives. Between the both of them, I estimate that less than 1 million dollars was available to ideation research for animal-free alternatives in 2016. This is about 10,000-100,000 times less than what humanity funds in renewables. A pittance. No wonder we are so far behind.

As I continually emphasize, countries or industries that take advantage of the animal-free disruptive technology will profit immensely. The gain isn’t just moral or environmental, it’s also economic. Animal-free products have much more potential in all around performance (taste, cost, nutrition, productivity, yield) than animal-derived counterparts. Being the first to the finish line will be a tremendous financial opportunity. China has invested heavily into renewable energy technology and are seemingly the leaders in it. Who is going to do it for the animal-free industry?


Why haven’t we already transitioned away from animal products? Even though animal-free products have much more disruptive potential, the lack of institutional funding for the ideation limits our progress and the generation of suitable technologies.

Other notes

  • I emphatically recommend David Deutsch’s criminally underappreciated The Beginning of Infinity, on the topic of scientific knowledge leading to societal advancement. Using arguments stemming from first principles, the book wonderfully ties our progress to knowledge and explanations. Deutsch also reappraises the value of human creativity to turn the wheel of progress in both optimistic and convincing fashion.
  • I suspect Steven Pinker’s Enlightment Now will also reinforce how science engenders human development (but moreso using empirical data). I haven’t read it yet, but I enjoyed the antecedent The Better Angels of Our Nature. The science-begets-progress topic was bandied throughout the book.

Key words

  • Linear innovation – piecemeal or evolutionary developments to existing products. Examples include cars, computers, and cell phones.
  • Disruptive innovation – a innovation that obviates an existing industry because its performance is vastly better. Examples include DVDs replacing VHS.


[1] A. Dance, “Engineering the animal out of animal products,” Nat. Biotechnol., vol. 35, no. 8, pp. 704–707, Aug. 2017.

[2] Genovese, N.J., et al, “Enhanced Development of Skeletal Myotubes from Porcine Induced Pluripotent Stem CellsSci. Rep.7, 41833 (2017).

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