Interview with Avery Parkinson: Cellular Agriculture

Avery Parkinson is the Executive Director of Cellular Agriculture Canada. She has been passionate about cell ag technology for a couple of years now and has held positions at Tufts University, Big Idea Ventures, the Good Food Institute, and the Protein Report where she has worked on creating educational content and resources to grow the industry nationally and worldwide. Avery will be speaking at our upcoming event focusing on food for 3D printing.

Jenny: When was the first encounter you had with 3D printing? What was that experience like? What were you thinking at that moment?

Avery: The first experience I had with 3D printing was when I was in elementary school. Our class had recently gotten a 3D printer and our teacher was showing us how to 3D print a tiny acrylic robot figurine. At the time, I remember my classmates and I were amazed at seeing the robot being built up layer by layer, so precisely and efficiently. Since that first exposure, it’s fascinating to explore its potential as a tool to help cellular agriculture researchers and companies develop cell-cultured foods like meat.

Jenny: What inspired you to start your journey in cellular agriculture?

Avery: One of the most significant challenges within the cultivated meat industry is finding effective ways of producing structured protein products – products that are characterized not only by the kind of tissue present in them but these tissues’ shape and arrangement as well (think steak, chicken legs…etc). 3D printing using ‘bioinks’ has emerged as a potential way to produce these products due to the technology’s high level of customization and tunability which is advantageous when trying to recreate specific shapes of tissue. Now, quite a few companies around the world including Aleph Farms, BlueNalu and MeaTech are looking into 3D printing to help develop their meat products.

Jenny: Who inspired you the most along this journey?

Avery: At present, I have been most inspired by Aleph Farms – an Israeli startup working on creating cultivated steak. In 2019, they 3D-printed a piece of animal muscle tissue onboard the International Space Station in partnership with 3D Bioprinting Solutions, and earlier this year, they successfully announced the creation of the world’s first 3D printed ribeye steak. What I admire most about Aleph Farms is that they use the technology as a unique tool to overcome a hurdle in another emerging technology which itself has the potential to remedy many of our most pressing social and environmental problems. In 2018, they created the world’s first steak at a time when many didn’t think we had the technology to do so yet because most companies were working on creating ground, unstructured meat. It goes to show the potential of 3D printing and Aleph Farms’ ability to keep pushing the boundaries within this technology.

Jenny: What motivates you the most for your work? 

Avery: My work centers around creating a flourishing and well-connected cellular agriculture ecosystem in Canada. This includes advocating for a fair and appropriate regulatory framework for cellular agriculture-related products, connecting with diverse stakeholders to identify concerns and create solutions, and functioning as a hub where existing players in the field can collaborate. Most recently, we convened the first-ever panel of government officials to discuss the regulatory framework for cellular agriculture products in Canada and are in the process of writing a supplementary report. Cellular agriculture holds many potential benefits for the environment, public health, and food security. Given how nascent this industry is worldwide, but particularly in our country, I am motivated by the fact that we are at the forefront of important and necessary innovation – that we now have the opportunity to grow this ecosystem as beneficial as possible.

Jenny: What is/are the biggest obstacle(s) in your line of work? If you have conquered them, what were your solutions? 

Avery: At this point, the biggest challenges in cellular agriculture tend not to be technical (a handful of startups have successfully created viable products, although further research is needed to overcome other hurdles), but with the production and distribution of products. In Canada, we have yet to have a regulatory framework that governs the sale of cellular agriculture products. Zoning and classification challenges also inhibit startups from obtaining funding and production space, as it is not clear what type of business these companies would fall under. Beyond that, a foreseeable challenge lies in making sure that the implementation of this technology is done effectively – to minimize commercial monopolies, promote research collaboration and ensure that the concerns of previously underrepresented stakeholders are voiced and solved. CAC has, and will continue to work to address these challenges by advocating for a fair and appropriate regulatory framework, engaging various segments of Canadian society in conversation, hosting publicly available discussions with experts in the field, and creating resources for members of the public to benefit from.

Jenny: What do you think is (are) the biggest challenge(s) in 3D Printing/bio-printing? What do you think the potential solution(s) is (are)?

Avery: I think one of the biggest challenges in the 3D Printing industry is the knowledge gap between the handful of experts and visionaries immersed in the field and the many companies and employees that comprise any given supply chain. As manufacturing and material costs decrease, the technology still would not be widely implemented if companies do not invest the time and resources to assume the startup costs, and both train and retrain employees. The first step to overcoming this would most likely be for companies to recognize that these initial investments have the potential to translate into much long-term gain which in turn may persuade them to make these initial changes. It would also be beneficial if existing higher education industrial and manufacturing engineering programs built additive manufacturing into their curriculums so that it becomes part of a more widespread set of skills. The cellular agriculture industry continues to explore how production will look at scale, and more widespread knowledge about 3D printing’s potential could influence and perhaps even expedite how these products are produced.

Jenny: If you are granted three wishes by a higher being, what would they be?

Avery: Firstly, I would wish that people have more proximity to the outcomes of their actions. I think that the reasons problems are perpetuated is because their outcomes are indirect and those who cause them are not made to experience their implications and thus have less urgency to change their behaviors. Secondly, I would wish that people felt more obligation to do what they can with their respective kinds of privilege in the spaces in which they hold those privileges. In order to solve problems of inequity, it often takes the people who (perhaps unintentionally) benefit from it to give space to and uplift those who are comparatively at a disadvantage as a result of the imbalance. In addition to the extensive organizing and agency that anyone experiencing any kind of oppression may have, if more people in positions of privilege proactively leveraged it as a tool to overcome rather than divide, we would achieve a more verdant society. Thirdly, I would wish that our society valued collaboration more than it currently does. A group of people with complementary skill sets working together can achieve much more than they all could individually, and so to affect change, we would be more productive if we were incentivized to feel as though we should share knowledge and resources more liberally.

Jenny: What advice would you give to a smart driven college student in the “real world”? What bad advice you heard should they ignore? 

Avery: Within an area that you are passionate about, it is important to get a breadth of experience and then get a depth of experience. So many times, I think students attach themselves to the idea that they must choose a pathway before pursuing it. I think it is more beneficial to gain exposure to many different kinds of roles, see which ones are the best fit for you, and then go deeper in that area. The experiences which have not directly translated into your eventual area of expertise are never futile – no education is ever wasted, but might simply have helped clarify what your passion is. Earlier this year, we launched the first version of our CAC Pathways project inspired by Cellular Agriculture Australia to help give some clarity to the ways students and professionals can lend their existing skillsets and passions to the field.

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