After five years of testing, which included developing a mammoth meatball, novel food company Vow has launched its first cultured meat product. It has also created a culture of board transparency and information-sharing. 

    Since April, diners at the exclusive Mandala Club in Singapore have noticed something unusual on the menu — Japanese quail parfait. The cultured meat creation is by Vow, the first Australian cultivated meat brand to earn regulatory clearance anywhere in the world.

    The next offering from Vow’s luxury food service brand, Forged, will be another new invention, quail foie gras. Last year, Vow made international headlines when it created mammoth meatballs from the cells of the extinct species. These meatballs were not for public consumption — the idea was to demonstrate the possibilities of cell-based meat, and illustrate the intersection between climate change, intensive farming and the loss of natural habitat.

    “The mammoth meatball was a way of creating a conversation by shifting perceptions of what is ‘acceptable’ meat,” says Vow co-founder and CEO, George Peppou. “Our idea was that by coming out with something so weird, when we launched with Japanese quail the following year, it would suddenly feel quite normal and reasonable. And there would hopefully be a very high willingness to try it as a result.”

    Scores of novel food companies are in a race to reproduce conventional meats without the slaughter of animals and intensive farming practices. Vow sets itself apart from the competition by creating cell-based meats that are completely new. Peppou believes consumers will be more inclined towards behaviour change with a novel meat product, rather than replicating proteins that already exist.

    Painstaking preparations

    Like all cultured meats, Vow’s products come from a sample from an animal, such as an egg or a muscle biopsy. The team determines which kinds of nutrients the cells need to grow without changing, then reproduces this nutrient “soup” at scale, in huge stainless steel tanks. “The factory looks a lot like a brewery,” says Peppou.

    It has taken Vow five years to launch its first product, including two years of tastings. “It’s an extremely long time,” says Peppou. “I would’ve liked it to be faster, I’ll tell you that. However, for a novel food and deep technology product, five years is actually reasonably quick. We’ve essentially had to invent all the components, work out how to scale them and undertake all the risk assessments and regulatory clearance work.”

    Pending clearances from Australia’s food regulator, Australian diners at upscale restaurants will be able to enjoy Vow’s quail products by the end of the year. The focus on food service rather than retail is to try to make a strong first impression.

    “I trust professional chefs to prepare this really well,” says Peppou. “The average home cook, less so, because it’s completely new. The first contact is such an important part of our long-term success. We want it to be an extraordinary food experience.”

    Vow’s strategy of creating “fictional” foods has meant that it hasn’t put farmers offside. It also has open relationships with key lobby groups and key stakeholders, as well as the traditional meat sector. In fact, the company’s senior government affairs lead used to work for the former NSW National Party leader, Paul Toole.

    Layers of compliance

    As a novel food company, Vow must adhere to extensive regulatory requirements. The novel food component includes specific approvals to sell novel ingredients. Vow’s own quality systems ensure that it produces consistent, safe food in line with agreed risk assessments with regulators.

    “This is core to how we do business and absolutely critical,” says co-founder and former chief product officer Tim Noakesmith, adding Vow has an internal saying, “If it’s not safe, it’s not food”.

    “Making food that is exciting and new is a massive responsibility and something we take very seriously,” he says. “We have a world-class team of food manufacturers, we’re in constant collaboration with regulators and we’re all fully aligned on reaching one outcome — food in market that’s completely safe.”

    Investor-weighted board

    At the end of 2022, Noakesmith moved out of his day-to-day operational role to become a board director. He is now based in South East Asia, with six-month stints in Thailand and Vietnam.

    “Initially, I took a bit of time off to re-energise after a pretty wild ride building Vow to that point,” he says. “Since then, I’ve focused on coaching founders and CEOs. I’m still in Sydney from time to time for face-to-face meetings and the occasional in-person board meeting.”

    As a Series A company, Vow’s board consists mostly of investors. The directors include co- founders Peppou and Noakesmith, as well as Samantha Wong from Blackbird and James Tynan from Square Peg Capital. There are also observer members, two of whom are investors.

    “We treat the observers as very much part of the decision-making process,” says Peppou. “We provide huge amounts of detail to the board about everything that’s happening in the business and how we’re tracking to plan. If there is any major strategic shift, we’ll be discussing it and looking for alignment as a board — and then incrementally de-risking. If we ever released a batch that is non- conforming, it would immediately be escalated to the board.”

    Getting the culture right

    Peppou and Noakesmith have striven to create an internal culture within Vow that is transparent. Both achievements and hurdles are visible for all to see. Accountability is built into its governance structure. “Transparency is core to our internal culture,” says Peppou. “Technology-driven and IP-heavy businesses often intentionally create a lot of silos between teams as a way of protecting that knowledge. We’ve gone the other way by creating a completely transparent internal culture.

    We have dashboards up in our office spaces and factories with everything from cash in the bank through to yields that week. Those metrics are shared with everyone on the team. That extends into the board, as well.”

    Peppou believes that transparency creates a more efficient organisation. There is less of a reliance on the leadership team to transmit and share information. Instead, their time is freed to provide guidance and context.

    “For example, there’s a project underway between our lab scale process development and the factory team,” he says. “They have access to each other’s data. They can take a look at it and ask questions about the implementation of that process in the other setting. That’s not very common. Often you’d have just the leader of the lab and the leader of your factory talking together, then they would translate that information down the chain. That creates a bottleneck through your leadership layer, and you’re relying on that layer to have enough context to communicate the right information to the other leaders and their teams.”

    Similarly, autonomy is a critical part of Vow’s work culture. From the beginning, the company has allowed anyone on the team to spend up to $5000, without approval, to hit business goals.

    “Culture has been a huge focus from day one, and just like anything else, we’ve had to run a lot of experiments to get that one right — and we’re still learning,” says Noakesmith. “Most of the time, these things seem obvious in hindsight, but so many people fail to uphold them in their companies. Beyond this, the team really supports each other to experiment and try things that sit outside the status quo. I guess George and I weren’t using central casting to found a company like Vow, and so this sense of challenging the norm has been there since day one. Now the team has taken it further than we could have dreamed at the outset of the company.”

    Peppou says the approach is paying off. Vow has hit all its organisational milestones, but used less than 10 per cent of the capital of its better- funded competitors. “To me, that’s proof that being transparent and open is a much more efficient way of operating.”

    This article first appeared under the headline 'Back from extinction’ in the July 2024 issue of Company Director magazine.

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