A new report from the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change says that the global environmental crisis is at a tipping point and calls for “urgent action” from policymakers, companies, and individuals to curb global emissions before it is too late. The report also acknowledges–for the first time–that plant- and cell-based foods are a crucial part of the solution.
Women entrepreneurs are answering this call for change. Over the past several years, women-led food tech startups have dominated the plant- and cell-based food sectors. Not only are these women developing innovative solutions to pressing systemic concerns, they are also fundamentally changing the culture of the food tech industry.
‘Move fast, break things’
Women leaders in the emerging plant- and cell-based food technology industries face obstacles that their male counterparts do not, including gender bias and inequitable funding opportunities. These obstacles are rooted in systematic issues beyond food tech, but over the past 30 years, tech startups, in particular, have developed a culture that privileges competition, winning, and networking in ways that excluded women and people of the Global Majority.
During the Silicon Valley tech startup boom of the 1990s, the industry became notorious for its “bro culture,” a white, male-centered model of leadership that rewarded brash, hyper-competitive, aggressive behaviors in tech leaders. Jennifer Stojkovic, founder of the Vegan Women Summit, describes it as a “move fast and break things mentality.” It’s a leadership style that has been known to foster hostile working environments, sexual harassment, and discrimination.
In an industry that disproportionately funds startups led by white males, women, and people of the Global Majority don’t have access to the same opportunities and leadership roles. In 2021, Trust Radius’s Women in Tech Report found that 72 percent of women working in tech companies described “bro culture” as pervasive, and nearly 37 percent of Global Majority women felt that racial bias was a barrier to their advancement.
Food tech is no exception. Vegan Women Summit surveyed 145 female food tech founders in 2021 and uncovered significant barriers for women in the industry. Ninety percent of the women reported that they were treated differently than their male co-founders. Forty percent experienced sexual harassment and discrimination, and investors were identified as the harassers over half the time. Female founders reported difficulties finding mentors in the industry, less networking and educational opportunities, and bias as mothers and caregivers.
Excluding women from biotech spaces has profound ramifications, according to Stojkovic, including resulting in poorer products that are less likely to serve the needs of different populations. “Studies show that diverse teams make better products–the more perspectives you have going into a product, the better the product will be. And I think that’s a large part of why women do tend to get better returns than male leaders when they are given the opportunity,” she says.
New perspectives and innovative solutions
Despite these challenges, women founders are prominent, and they’re bringing new perspectives and innovations to traditionally male-dominated tech industries. Fengru Lin, founder and CEO of TurtleTree, a company that produces dairy products from cultivated animal cells, says, “At TurtleTree, more than 50 percent of leadership positions are helmed by women, and we are very proud of that.”
She feels that with more women at the forefront of cell-based technologies, “there will hopefully be more cell-based products and innovations that serve the needs of women, and more inclusively, the human population, animals, and the planet.” One example of this inclusivity is TurtleTree’s plans to produce cultivated human milk to address global infant nutrition gaps and replace dairy-based infant formulas.
Women are also pushing back against the idea that tech must be accomplished quickly and aggressively—a longtime tenet of traditional startups. Stojkovic, who also wrote The Future of Food is Female, observes that “many of the women leaders in this space are adopting a thoughtful approach that asks how do we make sure that we are inclusive and reaching all the different demographics with our products.”
Michelle Egger, CEO and co-founder of BIOMILQ, a startup that first developed technology to cultivate human milk from mammary cells, is an example of this approach. It includes being very clear about the advantages and limitations of cell-based technology and being careful not to promise delivery of a product before it’s ready. She says, “We’ve given timelines that are not particularly attractive to investors because we think it’s very important to be upfront about where the science is evolving.”
And while Egger agrees there is an urgent need for food system change, she is quick to point out that cell-based products must be science-driven. “It’s never a straight path and it’s never easy,” she says. “You don’t get to be cavalier when you’re talking about products that are consumed by people, especially babies.”
When asked about the predominance of female founders in plant- and cell-based tech, Egger notes that while gender often plays a role, it’s not the only factor that impacts the way a startup grows and develops. But, she does think that women bring unique skills to the table. “Companies that are male-run versus female-run tend to look different—the science is done in a more supportive, team environment. We’re very consensus-driven.”
That’s one of the reasons Egger thinks women are drawn to food tech: “Cultivated milk and meat are very deep tech, and women see a lot of promise in application-based sciences because we can solve problems with tangible outcomes.”
“Instead of being the maverick achiever in the room, we get to care more about what our technology does for others. And a lot of women with deep technical skills can use those skills in food science,” she says.
Egger’s belief in collaboration extends beyond BIOMILQ. To address the inequities in mentorship, funding (less than 3 percent of venture capital funding goes to women), and networking opportunities that women face, she co-founded BABL, a collective dedicated to amplifying the voices of and creating opportunities for female biotech founders.
Without a doubt, women are changing the game in food technology by introducing broader perspectives, pushing back against traditional toxic, competitive startup culture, and looking to reach underrepresented demographics. But their impact also comes down to having the available investment capital to create new technology.
Stojkovic says the flood of new investments is “promising for the future of food. But there is an unprecedented amount of money going into plant-based and cell-based technologies, and that comes with great responsibility. We need to make sure this money gets into the right hands, otherwise, we’re doing a great disservice to the women and people of the Global Majority who are building companies that are really going to make a difference for our future.”
Ingrid L. Taylor is a writer, poet, and veterinarian whose work explores strategies for fostering multispecies solidarity and deconstructing speciesism. She has worked in clinical veterinary medicine and public health.