Why famous people are joining food tech advisory boards

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 […]

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.

Leonardo DiCaprio

Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images

 

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.”

Mark Lipton

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.”

Ashton Kutcher

Steve Jennings via Getty Images

 

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 Toubia at Aleph Farms said the actor’s enthusiasm and involvement helps propel the sustainability aspect of their companies.

Kristian Gul

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