In the past year, Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio has made headlines not only for his movies, but also for his environmental activism.
At the end of 2021, he starred in “Don’t Look Up,” a movie about a comet heading toward earth that many have said is a metaphor for climate change. In November, he was spotted at the COP26 climate summit in Scotland, reportedly speaking with policymakers and sharing news from the event on Twitter.
But he’s also been busy in the food tech space. Last April, animal-free dairy maker Perfect Day announced that DiCaprio was one of the eight founding members of its Sustainability & Health Advisory Council, or SHAC. In September, he invested in and became an adviser to cell-based meat companies Aleph Farms and Mosa Meat.
Nicki Briggs, vice president of corporate communications for Perfect Day, said that the company was first introduced to DiCaprio in 2020. He was interested in animal-free dairy’s potential to increase sustainability and change the way that people eat without forcing them to make any sacrifice.
“He’s been incredibly generous in terms of wanting to be of service, in terms of promoting awareness behind it,” Briggs said. “And he’s helping to spread the word, which is a huge benefit of having somebody with a footprint like Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, didn’t seem surprised that someone like DiCaprio was interested in putting money and knowledge toward his company. The actor has been involved with climate change and the sustainability movement for two decades, creating his own foundation to work on environmental conservation and renewal, and being named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2014 for his dedication to climate-related causes. DiCaprio is serving on Aleph’s Sustainability Advisory Board.
“The vision and the values, the goals of Leonardo DiCaprio and Aleph Farms are very much aligned. There is a connection,” Toubia said. “And we believe that having him involved with Aleph Farms, and helping us [in] developing our strategy and implementing a plan for solving climate change issues makes a lot of sense.”
DiCaprio could not be reached for comment.
But movie stars aren’t the only well-known people filling advisory boards for food tech companies. Former U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman is also a member of Perfect Day’s SHAC. Veneman led USDA under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. Briggs said she’s been an unofficial advisor to Perfect Day since 2016, and has helped the company be thoughtful about the business and segment landscape, as well as connect it with relevant experts.
Dan Glickman, who was USDA secretary under President Bill Clinton, currently serves a similar role with Eat Just’s Good Meat division, which makes the company’s cell-based meat. Glickman, who has remained involved with food and agriculture after his time in the executive branch was over, is on the Good Meat Advisory Board. He had already been interested in the cell-based meat space when Eat Just CEO Josh Tetrick invited him to get involved.
“It just looked to me like this was right up my alley, pursuing new technologies to create opportunities for consumers, give them additional choices,” Glickman said. “… Particularly as we deal with sustainability and climate-related issues.”
Mark Lipton, professor emeritus of management at The New School and Parsons School of Design and a c-suite adviser, said that more companies and nonprofits are adding advisory boards. These boards give an official role within a company to people who are useful for various reasons — business acumen and experience, industry knowledge, unique viewpoints or general celebrity — but who don’t have the time or expertise to be on a policymaking board of directors. And members of the advisory board can lend both their knowledge and reputations to help companies put themselves on solid technical, regulatory and reputational footing, he said.
“My sense is that with the emergence of social media in particular, that was like jet fuel to expanding the role of advisory boards and shaping what the purpose of them was,” Lipton said.
Advisors with star power
Ashton Kutcher started out as an actor with his role in “That ‘70s Show,” and appeared in a variety of movies and television shows. But he also was an online influencer before it was trendy, becoming the first person to have 1 million Twitter followers and co-founding positive news site A Plus.
But he also has been an early investor in many promising tech startups. In 2010, Kutcher joined forces with music manager Guy Oseary as venture capitalists. The pair have brought their cachet and financial knowhow to investments in a raft of tech-enabled companies, including Airbnb and Uber.
In October, a collective led by Kutcher and Oseary partnered with cultured meat company MeaTech 3D.
Simon Fried, senior business development executive at MeaTech 3D, wouldn’t go into detail about Kutcher’s role in the partnership or any level of investment the group has made in the company. But he said Kutcher is widely recognized as an influential investor, almost as much as a celebrity. And Kutcher and Oseary’s reputations — both in Hollywood and among venture capitalists — can help “cut through a lot of noise” in the tech world, making clear the potential of cultured meat.
“My sense is that with the emergence of social media in particular, that was like jet fuel to expanding the role of advisory boards and shaping what the purpose of them was.”
Professor emeritus of management, The New School and Parsons School of Design
“We certainly hope to be, as a company, benefiting directly from their ability to attract attention and to promote the company. I think they have every interest in doing both,” Fried said. He noted how many of the companies Kutcher and Oseary have been involved with have a similar mission as MeaTech: using technology to work toward sustainability and the greater good. “…Their ability to lend a voice and to amplify our messaging is absolutely one of the more exciting parts of this partnership,” he said.
MeaTech is based in Israel, but has plans to make the United States its core market. A partnership with a pair so well known in the U.S. helps bring that forward, Fried said. Kutcher’s path crossed with MeaTech through business connections and mutual interest. The company’s business case — as well as the strong focus on mission — seemed compelling to the actor and Oseary, Fried said.
Food Dive could not reach Kutcher for comment. But in a MeaTech press release about the partnership, the actor said he and Oseary believe the company’s innovative technology positions it to be the leader in industrial-scale production of cultured meat.
“We intend to work closely with MeaTech’s management to help MeaTech implement its strategy and achieve its goals and global success by leveraging our marketing, strategic expertise, and network,” Kutcher said in the release. “The engagement with MeaTech is in line with our group’s mission to provide sustainable solutions through company building, investment, and acceleration of companies and technologies across various sustainability domains.”
This effort became visible late last month, when co-founder and CEO Sharon Fima announced he was stepping down from MeaTech’s leadership roles. Fima said he was departing because the company was transitioning out of its R&D phase, and he is handing the reins to someone who could help the company grow. Arik Kaufman, director of Israeli cell-based milk company Wilk Technologies, and a founding partner of Kutcher and Oseary’s BlueSoundWaves collective, replaced him. Kaufman, who is also an attorney, has experience in food tech and biotech law, as well as time managing commercial negotiations, M&A transactions and local and international fundraising.
DiCaprio’s influence hasn’t been apparent in any business moves at Perfect Day, Mosa Meat or Aleph Farms. But Briggs at Perfect Day and Touba at Aleph Farms said the actor’s enthusiasm and involvement helps propel the sustainability aspect of their companies.
Aleph Farms has committed to net zero carbon emissions in its operations by 2025, and pledges to get there along its entire supply chain by 2030. With DiCaprio’s background in climate change activism, Aleph Farms found it imperative that he not just be an investor in the company, but also join its sustainability board. There are high expectations for cultivated meat, Touba said. While data shows that eight in 10 consumers in the U.S. and U.K. are open to eating cultivated meat, companies such as Aleph Farms and Mosa Meat need to be able to develop products and give consumers a reason to try it.
“The addition of high-profile individuals can play a role,” Touba said.
In the written statement about his involvement with Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms, DiCaprio echoed sustainability concerns.
“Their ability to lend a voice and to amplify our messaging is absolutely one of the more exciting parts of this partnership.”
Senior business development executive, MeaTech 3D
“Mosa Meat and Aleph Farms offer new ways to satisfy the world’s demand for beef, while solving some of the most pressing issues of current industrial beef production,” he said.
DiCaprio has quite a lot of involvement — financial and otherwise — in other companies and causes devoted to climate change. He is on the board for the World Wildlife Fund, a member of the board of trustees for the National Resources Defense Council and part of the Earth Day Global Advisory Committee. He also serves on the advisory boards of farmed seafood company Love The Wild and Runa, a beverage brand that uses Amazon guayusa leaf as a natural caffeine source.
Climate change is also the reason DiCaprio got involved with Perfect Day, according to the company’s statement when he joined SHAC.
“A full-fledged response to climate change must bring innovation to all aspects of our daily lives — including to the foods we consume. Perfect Day’s forward-looking vision offers a new model for reducing the impact that our diets have on the planet,” he said in the statement.
Known experts ready to advise
Eat Just’s Tetrick has kept former USDA Secretary Glickman abreast of the company’s progress through the years — both with updates on plant-based Just Egg and the company’s cell-based Good Meat.
As time went on and Tetrick went through the regulatory process to get Good Meat chicken approved for sale in Singapore, he realized Glickman would be a useful formal adviser. In addition to his six years heading USDA, Glickman also served 18 years as a congressman representing Kansas, and was a part of the House Agriculture Committee. Eat Just, like many other cell-based meat companies, is currently working with regulators at USDA and FDA to shape a regulatory framework for cell-based meat in the United States.
On a Zoom call last year, Tetrick asked Glickman to join the Good Meat advisory board. Tetrick said Glickman’s expertise and perspective is important.
“I can pretend to know what USDA thinks. I can pretend to know how constituents in Kansas would look at this, but it’s a whole lot more effective when the former head of the USDA and leader on the House Ag Committee can help guide you,” Tetrick said.
Tetrick said that despite already being familiar with what Eat Just’s Good Meat was doing, Glickman wanted a lot of background information before committing to the advisory board role.
Glickman said that before he made a commitment to Good Meat, he needed to see exactly what they were doing. Having lived in Kansas for so many years, he’s been very close to traditional agricultural practices. As the world changes, Glickman said, people may want to pursue different options for their food for a variety of reasons.
“These are new technologies which give consumers additional choices,” Glickman said. “As we confront climate change and variable weather patterns, particularly, and all sorts of pests and disease which accompany climate change, you got to be open to new technologies.”
Glickman isn’t the only notable figure advising Eat Just’s Good Meat. Celebrity chef and humanitarian José Andrés also joined the cultured meat division’s board of directors last year. Andrés is well known not only for his highly acclaimed restaurants, including one with a two-star Michelin rating, but also for his humanitarian efforts. In 2010, he established World Central Kitchen, which brings food and culinary training to areas in acute need. He often personally works with people who need help, and has traveled to disaster zones following volcano eruptions, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
As a member of the cell-based meat division’s board, Andrés brings both culinary knowhow and a penchant for connecting people to food. In his new role, he will introduce Eat Just to small farmers to strike cell sourcing agreements, and work with Good Meat’s chefs and food scientists to help improve performance of their products. And he has committed to serve Good Meat cultivated chicken at one of his restaurants.
In a written statement announcing Andrés’ appointment to the board, Tetrick said that his worldview makes him a key member.
“These are new technologies which give consumers additional choices. As we confront climate change and variable weather patterns, particularly, and all sorts of pests and disease which accompany climate change, you got to be open to new technologies.”
Former USDA secretary and member of Eat Just’s Good Meat advisory board
“His relentlessly innovative approach to food and his dedication to pushing everyone around him to do more good in every moment will be of enormous benefit to our team and our mission,” Tetrick said in the statement.
Cell-based meat companies aren’t the only ones tapping into the wisdom of professionals in their field and respected advisers. The Live Green Co., which uses a specialized algorithm to reformulate existing food items to be plant-based and healthier, brought former White House food safety adviser Dr. James Marsden to its advisory board. Marsden, who was executive director of food safety at Chipotle, served as an official adviser to USDA as it developed hazard analysis and critical control point food safety regulations.
Priyanka Srinivas, founder and CEO of The Live Green Co., said the company was looking for advisers that had strong backgrounds in food science and safety, and regulatory processes and standards around the world. An investor in Live Green felt that Marsden would be a good fit for the advisory board, and Srinivas invited him to join. Live Green’s leadership has changed its home country three times in five years, and needs grounding and connections in the United States. Srinivas, who is from India, relocated to Chile in 2018 after receiving a grant to build her company there. And with the company’s latest $7 million funding round this year, it announced it was relocating to Boston.
“Having someone like Dr. James [Marsden] also helps us with connections, network and understanding the industry from within,” Srivanas said. “…In fact, he already started to introduce us to key talent resources in the U.S. who can add a lot of value to Live Green.”
Marsden said that he has been interested in innovative food technologies for a long time, and saw a lot of potential with Live Green’s technology. He said he wants to ensure that the company doesn’t have any food safety-related hangups.
“I think we can go a long way towards bringing them into the mainstream of the food industry,” he said.
The advisors a company needs
The New School’s Lipton said there are distinct reasons for choosing someone notable for an advisory board. If the person is a celebrity, they’re often on the board to promote the organization or its products. If the person is well-known, they could make the organization look credible.
“It’s that halo effect of credibility and trust, which clearly is never to be underestimated in terms of value coming down the road to any organization,” he said.
Charles Elson, a finance professor at University of Delaware and expert in corporate governance, said that key names in advisory roles are vital to pushing a new brand forward. A household name lends legitimacy, so if a Hollywood A-lister is working on a brand — even if many people haven’t heard of it — consumers may think it is worth considering.
“It’s that halo effect of credibility and trust, which clearly is never to be underestimated in terms of value coming down the road to any organization.”
Professor emeritus of management, The New School and Parsons School of Design
Celebrities don’t often seek out advisory board roles, Lipton said. Publicists and agents tend to find the companies for them to be involved with. And while advisory board members that add value to the company — former government officials working with businesses in a heavily regulated industry, or people who are well-known in food industry circles — could help with industry standing and investor capital, celebrities don’t often do the same. In the business sense, Lipton said, an advisory board with members who only seem to be able to add value to a company through tweeting or using their celebrity status might make investors turn away from it.
Perfect Day’s SHAC is a mixture of well-known names, professionals and young up-and-comers, including two high school students. Briggs said that the council exists to make sure that the company is doing its best to meet the challenges ahead of it — including climate change and access to nutrition — in an inclusive and thoughtful way.
“We really want to make sure that we’re approaching the market without blinders on,” she said. “That is the most thoughtful and responsible way to drive a business forward.”
The advisory board for Eat Just has a variety of notable people — but not all celebrities. They include XPrize founder Peter Diamandis; author and consultant Deepa Prahalad, whose father C.K. Prahalad wrote “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” which inspired Tetrick’s business; and PopChips co-founder Keith Belling. Tetrick said that the members of the advisory board are all experts in something he and his team are not necessarily versed in, and that helps the company grow in a meaningful way.
Glickman’s participation with Good Meat, Tetrick said, is meaningful not only because of his expertise, but also because of the reputation he’s built throughout his career.
“To know that the former head of the USDA has decided that he wants to help out in this way, I do think sends a signal that this isn’t just a project for Northern California hippies and Silicon Valley investors,” Tetrick said. “It’s something that could have a wider impact on agriculture in the U.S. generally and on global agriculture, and that’s important.”
Elson said that while more companies establish advisory boards, the companies — and potential advisors — should tread cautiously. The wrong mix could be disastrous for both the company and members of the board. After all, disgraced blood-testing company Theranos Scientific had an advisory board made up of many well-known people who didn’t necessarily know anything about biotech.
“Will they bring you credibility, whether in the marketplace or amongst investors?” Elson asked. “…Remember the old line: A good name is to be had rather than great riches. Sometimes, a good name will bring you great riches. That’s the point. But you don’t want to sully the good names in pursuit of riches.”