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A portrait illustration of Liz Specht. Rebecca Clarke for Vox

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Liz Specht is shaping the next generation of meat alternatives

Scientists, investors, and entrepreneurs want in on the meat-free revolution. Specht has been there to guide them — and accelerate the whole field.

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

Six years ago, the first servings of the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger were introduced to the public. The plant-based meat market subsequently grew and grew, and it prompted a rush of eager scientists, entrepreneurs (both copycats and innovators), traditional meat companies, and deep-pocketed investors who all wanted a piece of the quickly expanding meat-free pie.

Few have played a more instrumental role in guiding that growth than Liz Specht.

Specht is the head of science and technology for the Good Food Institute (GFI), the largest of a handful of nonprofits that work to bolster the field of “alternative protein.” The field encompasses three types of companies. The first, those like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, use only plant-based ingredients to mimic meat, dairy, and eggs. The second, like Upside Foods, are figuring out how to make cultivated meat — meat grown from animal cells in bioreactors. The third are employing different forms of complex fermentation to make dairy and eggs with no animals harmed, like Perfect Day.

Considering how far the whole sector has to go — both to make plant-based products taste better and cost less, and to make cultivated meat economically viable — expanding scientific and technological knowledge couldn’t be more critical.

Specht and her team have played multiple roles in both business and research to push things forward. She’s acted as a technical adviser to budding startups, educated investors in a field where hundreds of entrepreneurs have their hands out for money, and has counseled big meat companies on how they can leverage their resources to back alternative protein companies or create their own range of animal-free products.

GFI’s science and technology department has also awarded $13 million in open access research in 17 countries to discover new sources of plant protein, develop cell lines for cultivated meat, and create whole-muscle cuts (like steak) of plant-based meat.

A synthetic biologist by training, Specht is also a sharp science communicator, distilling the promise and challenges of alternative protein in the popular press, trade publications like The Biochemist, and journals like Food Technology. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, she also moonlighted as somewhat of a Cassandra, warning that hospital systems would soon be overwhelmed in a viral tweet and, days later, an article for Stat. Her bullish take on alternative protein might be just as prescient.