In this edition of BMB’s Alumni Spotlight, we feature Brett Cotten
Brett is the author of Gene-trepreneur–a best-selling book on biotech entrepreneurship impacting human health, animal well-being, and sustainability. The book features interviews with “gene-trepreneurs” at Wild Earth, New Age Meats, Finless Foods, Ginkgo Bioworks, and more industry-leaders achieving high-impact results.
He is a 2020 graduate of the University of Cambridge’s Master of Bioscience Enterprise program (MBE) – the MBA for biotechnology. Prior to Cambridge, Brett obtained a Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Penn State University, where he also completed a tech-based entrepreneurship and innovation program within the College of Engineering. He has worked with startups and venture capital firms in health-tech and alt. proteins and is now focused on removing as many animals from agriculture as possible.
Currently Brett works as a Venture Associate at Counterfactual Ventures (CF), a venture studio, a.k.a. startup-builder. CF has in-house expertise to build startups from the ground up as opposed to traditional venture capitalists who typically invest in external companies that pitch to them (a process more along the lines of Shark Tank). What makes CF so unique is that it is the world's first venture studio specifically focused on alternative proteins–the field using many of the best medical-grade technologies to culture the next generation of cell-based, plant-based, and fermentation-based foods.
The field is extremely impactful, affecting human health, animal well-being, and environmental sustainability simultaneously! Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are good examples of these types of future-of-food companies on the plant-based side, but the cell-based (also called clean meat or cultured meat) companies are gearing up for launch and are tremendously exciting. Some prevalent ones include Memphis Meats in the US, Shiok Meats in Singapore, Mosa Meat in the Netherlands, and many more creating everything from cell-based tuna and shrimp to clean beef, pork, poultry, and even kangaroo. It is real, genetically identical meat without the animals. The fermentation side is very cool too–check it out at dairy startup Perfect Day and Clara Foods.
Let’s chat with Brett, talk about his experiences while at Penn State, and catch up with what he’s been up to.
What do you do at Counterfactual Ventures?
At Counterfactual Ventures, I work as a venture associate within CF's research, design, and build team (RDB). We find the greatest gaps in the alt. protein field as a whole and seek to fill the most impactful amongst them in our effort to accelerate the shift from animal agriculture to alternative proteins. We will have eight companies in our first cohort, and eight in our second as a part of the initial $5M fund. This is just a proof-of-concept however, and the founders are in the process of raising significantly more. How it works is that each company stemming from the RDB team will be funded by $250k-$350k of investment and incubated for six months before graduating to the next stage. CF has connections to the whole field and beyond, so there is a talent pool to draw in C-suite co-founders like CEOs, CSOs. It's a very exciting and fulfilling position. I am part of a fantastic team positioned to create significant impact, and the role aligns perfectly with the content of my book, Gene-trepreneur, and the skillsets I developed while at Penn State through to my masters course I just completed at Cambridge.
What was it that made you want to come to Penn State, and BMB, to pursue your education?
I came to visit Penn State before accepting. I had to make a decision between PSU and McGill, and it had to happen soon! My dad and I hopped in with an accepted students tour group we saw passing by, and it was led by a student named Taryn, who was the president of the biotechnology club at the time. I ended up speaking with her for quite a while. She showed me around all the facilities, including the beautiful Life Sciences Bridge. And her answers to all my questions made the choice pretty easy. I came in as a biology major but soon switched to BMB. I complemented this with the entrepreneurship & innovation minor to gain a business background in addition to the science from BMB. And it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
How do you feel Penn State, and BMB, prepared you for your current position or career?
Penn State provided me with a solid scientific foundation, which I further built upon in Cambridge's MBA for biotech program, so that I can now bridge the gap between STEM and business in the world of venture capital and startups.
Did you conduct research while at Penn State? Where was your research conducted and what was its focus?
I opted for the entrepreneurship & innovation (ENTI) minor within the College of Engineering's tech-based cluster to pair my science background with business. The research I conducted was around business plans and learning the basics about how to build companies. Luckily, there is now an ENTI minor in Eberly led by Dr. Beatrice Sirakaya, and I know she is doing a great job. I highly recommend the minor for those who want to lead in the biosciences from outside the lab.
Share at least one interesting/fun fact about yourself.
I never wanted to eat meat growing up–I watched too much Crocodile Hunter and Jeff Corwin Experience for that. But my parents wanted me to have protein so I could grow. I found out when I was 10 that "vegetarian meat" didn't exist yet. What I hope to accomplish in the field of alternative proteins will help change that. My future kids will be eating the best cell, plant, and fermentation-based foods.
What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Racquetball. Playing ukulele for herds of moo-sical cattle. Pizza-making. Being roped into British pub culture, especially Irish pubs for their live music.
Advice from Brett to future generations of scientists:
I have two pieces of advice.
- Think outside the box (aka lab). If lab work is what you enjoy, great! But for those who feel the lab is not their place, there are other ways to create your impact in science that are outside of the lab. Business development. Consulting. Venture Capital. Law. There are a million varieties of each because one firm or company is not set up like the next. It could be for big corporates or small startups. Impact-driven, financially motivated, or somewhere between the two. And subset of science is also a big one, leading me to two...
- Do not immediately accept that you have to go into the medical field, for example, doing pharmaceutical research. If you want to, great! It’s an exciting space for lots of people. But there are so many fields that need people like you, the ones who have scientific skillsets and knowledge, to transfer those to novel areas where your impact is valued and can be extremely outsized. Alternative proteins is just one example. It's the best one I've found so far and am most passionate about, but there are others. Bioremediation. Biomimicry. Performance Materials. Data Storage. And more.
The future will be bio-based. You are living in a time when biology can be programmed and engineered to do extraordinary things. There is a world outside of pharma and highly duplicitous research where you can create your impact at an outsized level in a way aligning with exactly what you care about. Find the problems you care about. Make them your purpose. If other people care about them too, you can find a way to make an impactful career out of it.