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A portrait illustration of Isha Datar. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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The future of meat requires new intellectual infrastructure. That’s what Isha Datar is building.

For meat alternatives to take off, we don’t just need startups — we need more research and new structures to advance the field.

Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

America’s agriculture system was shaped in part by government-funded land grant universities, which conducted agricultural research and trained students to enter the farming and food sectors. But no such government infrastructure exists for those trying to reinvent meat by growing animal cells in bioreactors — known as cultivated or cell-cultured meat — or to make animal-free eggs and dairy using complex fermentation methods.

A group called New Harvest, led by its executive director Isha Datar, is building it.

Most attention and money in the space — which Datar calls “cellular agriculture” — have gone to startups. New Harvest helped launch two of the first, Perfect Day and the EVERY Company; Datar is a founder of both, and eventually turned her stake in each company over to New Harvest. They occupy a burgeoning field: Investors poured around $2 billion into the industry in 2021 alone. But those startups often keep their research findings tied up as intellectual property; there are dozens of companies trying independently to solve the same novel, daunting challenges, with the hope of one day making a lot of money from it.

Datar and New Harvest have taken a different tack: funding open-access research that can be used to advance the entire field.

Funding academic research isn’t the most glamorous work — the group doesn’t put out flashy announcements of funding rounds from business luminaries or celebrities (with the exception of its support from Robert Downey Jr.), and New Harvest operated on a modest budget of around $1.5 million in 2020. But they are indeed building out the field. Many of the nonprofit’s grantees have gone on to publish pioneering research in academic journals, start their own companies, or join existing ones, and its fellowship has served as a sort of talent pipeline for the brand-new industry.

One of its bigger accomplishments is its work with Tufts University. Six years ago, New Harvest launched a fellowship in the university’s tissue engineering center and has since funded the research of several other students there. Now, Tufts is the premier academic hub for cell-cultured meat research in the US, having been awarded an unprecedented $10 million US Department of Agriculture grant in 2021 to expand.

In its open-access spirit, New Harvest has brought 50 cell-cultured meat startups together to publish research on ensuring their products are safe to eat, and is developing a program for startups to share basic knowledge and tools. And Datar has not shied away from criticism of the field: when journalist Joe Fassler at the Counter published an article concluding that cell-cultured meat may never be technically or economically feasible, she invited him and one of his sources to New Harvest’s annual conference as speakers, not to debate, but to share their perspectives.

As that gesture suggests, Datar has served as a measured voice in a field prone to hype, evangelizing about the promise of cell-cultured meat on TED stages while eager to engage with its most ardent skeptics.