Beyond Animals

Elaine Siu has gone from creating a company to building revolutionary industries

Elaine Siu (MS 2018) was ready to pass the torch. As founding managing director of Good Food Institute Asia Pacific, an organization aiming to disrupt the broken food system, she had spent several years trying to build a new industry around the development of alternative proteins.

And when the world’s first sale of cultivated meat—protein grown directly from animal cells without using live animals as production units—was approved in Singapore, Siu felt that she had reached a truly paradigm-shifting milestone.

Good Food Institute’s programs played a significant role in this shift, sparking a 1,200 percent increase in the number of companies and organizations working in the alternative proteins industry.

“If someone had told me a few years ago that we could create a paradigm shift in the world by building a new industry through a non-profit startup, I’d have said they were crazy,” says Siu, an alumna of the Master of Science in Entrepreneurship Program (MS Entre) at the UW Foster School of Business. “What we’ve experienced building and accelerating the alternative proteins industry is simply beyond our wildest dreams.”

She felt it was time challenge the status quo of another incumbent industry.

“Now that we’ve done it once,” she says, “I’m confident that we can replicate that success formula and apply it again and again.”

Many facets of entrepreneurship

Siu didn’t set out to build industries. After leaving a decade-long career in financial law, she founded a beauty e-commerce company that she would pitch as the “vegan Sephora.”

She viewed the company as a means to an end. “I was only interested in starting a business because I believed that’s the most effective form of activism,” she says. “I cared mostly about the measurable impact my business was creating towards the changes I wanted to see in the world, and cared way too little about, you know, the business!”

After shuttering her e-shop in 2017, Siu joined Good Food Institute (GFI)—a nonprofit—but brought the full force of her business acumen and entrepreneurial drive.

An effective nonprofit can be the industry builder and dealmaker to create big change in the world.”

-Elaine Siu

“I joined GFI despite the fact that it’s a nonprofit, not because of it,” says Siu, who was hired to found GFI’s affiliated company in Asia that is now Good Food Institute Asia Pacific. “I was 100 percent a corporate animal turned startup wannabe, and my perception of nonprofit was still stuck in that outdated image of a ‘charity’ and the stigma of inefficiency.”

“But the most valuable thing I learned in MS Entre is that there’s more than one way to be an entrepreneur…”

Indeed, the nonprofits spun out of the effective altruism movement are very different from what Siu had expected.

Building better alternatives

Effective altruism is a research movement that uses high-quality evidence and reasoning to work out the most promising solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Efforts are recommended to be focused on high-impact causes that are typically:

  • great in scale (affecting many lives in a significant way),
  • highly neglected (few addressing the problem), and
  • highly solvable or tractable (with additional resources).

Applying the effective altruism approach, GFI was created to shift the world away from industrial animal agriculture, which is one of the biggest culprits of climate change, environmental degradation, antibiotics resistance, public health threats and animal suffering.

“I was fascinated by GFI’s theory of change,” says Siu. “When products that can replace meat, egg and dairy taste the same or better and cost the same or less than the conventional industrial animal products, the market will shift.”

That is why GFI focuses on stimulating scientific research and development to generate technological advancements that will accelerate product quality, build with scalability and achieve price parity.

“I was surprised to learn that more than a few first-mover startups were formed through nonprofits like GFI pulling the strings behind the scenes,” says Siu. “And that became part of my job too, which was an exciting position to be in.”

She identified white spaces, scouted the right entrepreneurs and companies to fill those spaces, helped startups hire the right people in crucial roles, advised them on business and scientific strategies and connected them with investors.

What I learned in business school came in handy,” says Siu.

Next-gen materials

According to GFI research, the three pillars of alternative proteins are booming. Plant-based food companies have accumulated $2.3 billion in venture capital with over 99 percent invested between 2010 and 2019. Cultivated meat companies have received more than $163 million investment with over 50 percent closed in 2019 alone. And fermentation companies devoted to alternative proteins have raised more than $837 million—85 percent of that between 2019 and 2020.

Elaine Siu is an in-demand expert on alternatives to animal products.

Now that alternative proteins are taking off, Siu has moved on to the next emergent industry harnessing effective altruism. She is the chief innovation officer of the Material Innovation Initiative (MII), which is spurring development of new ventures that replace animal-based materials like leather, silk, wool, fur, down and exotic skins with more sustainable and humane high-performance alternatives for the fashion, automotive and home-goods markets.

“We are starting over again,” says Siu, “from creating the nomenclature to building the ecosystem.”

How to invent a new industry

Effective altruistic organizations like GFI and MII are gathering a kind of playbook on launching new and sustainable industries. First come a few “poster child” companies—the likes of Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods in the alternative proteins space. Impact investors and venture capitalists get involved on the ground floor. And early signs of success drive more private funding into the space and ignite momentum.

Then comes the corporate partnerships and investments to take things into the mainstream. Burger King launches the “Impossible Whopper,” for instance. And titanic Tyson Foods invests in cultivated meat startup Memphis Meat, which creates significant market signals that accelerate momentum.

More investment attracts more talent and enables more R&D, feeding the new industry that is now taking shape.

Finally, public funding starts to catch up as governments begin to realize that the new industry can relieve environmental crises, create new and better jobs and boost a nation’s global competitiveness. At least, that’s how it has played out in alternative proteins.

Siu and the Material Innovation Initiative are expecting a similar trajectory for alternative materials, too.

“We as a nonprofit are well-positioned to work on each of these elements,” she says. “From grooming the startup and investment communities to corporate engagement to generating research funding and lobbying for policies that create a level playing field for the new industry to compete in. An effective nonprofit can be the industry builder and dealmaker to create big change in the world.”

Elaine Siu is publishing a book this summer—Your Next 40,000 Hours: Falling into an Illuminating Second Career—to inspire more mid-career professionals to shift into purpose-driven, high-impact jobs to make a difference in the world.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.