Not a week goes by without Elliot Swartz receiving at least one request from researchers asking him where they can find cell lines (a cell culture developed from a single cell) for use in cellular agriculture – an essential tool for creating lab-grown meat. “One of the most important things that cell lines offer is that they enable researchers to just get started in this new field,” says Swartz, who works in New York as a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute (GFI) – a nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture and bringing its products to our shelves and stomachs as quickly as possible. Helping researchers is a core part of his role. In the case of cell lines, however, there’s very little he can do.
Swartz’s response to the researchers is unfortunately always the same: at the moment, publicly available cell lines relevant for cellular agriculture don’t really exist. That doesn’t mean that they’re nowhere to be found. Upside Foods (previously Memphis Meats) has submitted several patents to protect cell lines it has developed, and companies such as Cell Farm Food Tech have built a business around selling cell lines for profit. Keeping discoveries behind closed doors is a pattern of behaviour found in private companies across the industry, which many believe is slowing down innovation.
There is some progress. In Singapore last year, Eat Just became thefirst cultured meat company to gain regulatory approval tosell its product. But many technological, social, and economic hurdles remain before our supermarkets are filled with a variety of cultured cutlets. To surpass these hurdles, organisations including the GFI are pushing for a more public exchange of data, tools and ideas. As it stands, most research in the field is done by private companies which seem keen to protect their intellectual property.
Swartz says the lack of publicly available cell lines “is a gatekeeper in getting people into the field, even though there’s a lot of interest,” adding that this isn’t really an issue in other industries. Scientists looking for stem cells for research or clinical purposes can go to the government-funded UK Stem Cell Bank, and across the Atlantic, the nonprofit American Type Culture Collection hosts a reserve of cell lines that are mainly open access. Although repositories like this do include animal cells, that doesn’t mean they’re suitable for generating meat.
What makes cell lines themselves so useful is that they are immortal and can multiply indefinitely, so they can be used as a standard model across the industry. “We’re not going to understand if our findings are true if different groups are using different cells with different features,” Swartz continues. “So cell lines are the first piece of the puzzle for getting cultivated meat to become an actual field of study.” The GFI is filling the cell-line-shaped hole in cellular agriculture by funding the creation of lines that will be openly accessible, and making a repository to store them in. Kerafast – a Boston-based bioresearch company – will maintain this repository. Researchers not involved with the GFI are welcome to deposit cell lines too, as are private companies; anyone looking to use the cells must pay a small fee to cover the costs of storing and maintaining them. So far, only one academic group has deposited a cell line. “The lines being worked on in academic groups are still in development, which is why we haven’t got that many yet,” Swartz says.
The reluctance of private companies to share their cell lines may in part be because of how they are financed – a GFI report found that of the $366m invested in cultured meat in 2020, only around $12m came from public sources. Controlling the vast majority of the capital in the industry means that the private sector can comfortably dictate the pace and direction of innovation, which the Breakthrough Institute’s food and agriculture analyst Saloni Shah sees as an issue. “With the government and public sector funding research you can set criteria and standards, and make sure the right kinds of technologies get funded so that the development of the sector accelerates and improves,” says Shah.
The complaint that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Isha Datar, the executive director of New Harvest – another nonprofit focused on advancing cellular agriculture. She thinks one of the reasons the field lacks government funding is that it is a mix of tissue engineering, which is medically oriented, and food science. “Cellular agriculture is kind of homeless and so it falls in between the cracks of the existing pillars of funding and how we think about science being separated,” she says. Swartz also agrees that more public funding is needed, but he thinks it will only come after the technology has been scaled up. “‘Does this industry scale?’ is going to be the key to opening the floodgate for governments funding this technology,” he says. “Open source research is going to be really important for bringing new ideas on how to scale this technology or lower costs.”
Swartz also complains that secrecy is holding up the industry-wide adoption of other cheaper, more efficient materials. For example, all of the nutrients needed for animal cells to grow into chunks of meat are contained in the cell culture medium, but the industry standard foetal bovine serum is expensive, and must be extracted from the foetus of a slaughtered cow. Many startups claim to have developed alternatives, but they remain trade secrets. “Companies tend not to patent these things, because by patenting a cell culture medium you have to include everything that’s in there, which is open sourcing what the ingredients are,” says Swartz.
Even if the cell line problem were solved, there would still be technological hurdles holding the field back from large-scale commercialisation. Using computer modelling to address these hurdles and accelerate the intensification of cultured meat production is a central goal of the Cultivated Meat Modeling Consortium (CMMC).
Modelling is a useful tool that allows researchers to simulate experiments before entering a laboratory. This helps to save on time and resources. In order to run more complicated simulations, however, modellers first need data from simpler experiments that detail the fundamental biological processes behind cultured meat production – to understand the sum of the whole, we must first analyse the parts. “We’re experiencing quite some difficulty in getting the information we need to actually build models,” says Jaro Camphuijsen, a researcher associated with the CMMC. Private companies they work with have shown resistance to sharing data and running certain experiments. “We have been talking to a cultivated meat company quite a lot, and we often ask: ‘What happens if you do this experiment?’ The answer is usually: ‘We don’t know,’ and ‘We aren’t going to do that because the cells will die,’” Camphuijsen explains. But failed experiments, he says, can provide useful data points that often reveal more than successful tests. “Experiments that go wrong actually provide lots and lots of information if you want to find out how these tiny systems of cells are behaving.”
When asked to respond to accusations that industry secrets were slowing down innovation in the field, Uma Valeti, the CEO of Upside Foods, wrote in an email that the firm “kickstarted the cultured meat movement when we were founded in 2015. Without that, the industry wouldn’t be in the place it is today, where there are hundreds of companies, NGOs, academic groups and government institutions focusing on cultured meat, across every continent but Antartica.” She adds that Upside is “actively supportive of more open access research on cultured meat,” and it has “actively supported the development of public research institutions like the Cultured Meat Consortium”.
Responding to the same accusations, Robert E Jones, head of public affairs at Mosa Meat, wrote: “Few companies have done more than Mosa Meat to contribute to the open advancement of cellular agriculture.” He adds that Mosa “hoped the 2013 burger would trigger a moonshot level of public investment in research,” and that “there is something to be said for an innovation ecosystem that includes both private capital and public investments for a challenge as big as reforming the food system.”
The idea that governments need to start investing in more sustainable food options is echoed by Datar. She has concerns about a field that lacks an academic basis and publicly accessible information. “It means cellular agriculture is going to have to be more transparent than other industries,” says Datar. “I think we need a lot more data sharing and a lot more transparency if we are to create a better food system.” Will private companies heed this call for more transparency and build on their claims that they are supportive of more open access research, or will they follow the approach in other sectors where financial gain has been prioritised over societal benefits? Campaigners hope the answer is one that puts the planet before profit margins.
Employees at Netflix halted work on Wednesday and staged a protest outside the company’s Los Gatos, California, headquarters to condemn the streaming platform’s handling of complaints against Dave Chappelle’s new special.
The actions – which hundreds participated in – are the latest in a string of highly visible organizing efforts in the tech sector, as workers increasingly take their grievances about company policies and decisions public.
“Three years ago, a worker walkout at a major tech company would have been unthinkable,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings. “White-collar workers across the world now understand their labor power, and their ability to change the unethical practices of their employer by withholding their labor.”
On Monday, the transgender employee resources group behind the walkout released a list of specific demands of Netflix, including more funding for trans creators, recruiting more diverse employees and flagging anti-trans content on the platform.
Tensions at Netflix started in early October, when Netflix leaders doubled down on their support for the comedian Dave Chappelle following criticism from viewers, the queer media watchdog Glaad as well as some employees that Chappelle’s new show contained jokes that were anti-trans.
As internal criticism grew, Netflix leaders continued to defend the special. Reed Hastings, the co-chief executive, reportedly said on an internal message board: “I do believe that our commitment to artistic expression and pleasing our members is the right long-term choice for Netflix, and that we are on the right side, but only time will tell.”
Ted Sarandos, the other co-CEO, claimed in an email obtained by Variety: “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.” He added: “Adults can watch violence, assault and abuse – or enjoy shocking standup comedy – without it causing them to harm others.”
The Sarandos memo in particular fueled the walkout, according to the Hollywood Reporter. “The memo was very disrespectful,” a staffer told the outlet on the condition of anonymity. “It didn’t invite a robust conversation about this hard topic, and that’s normally how things go.”
Meanwhile, Netflix temporarily suspended Terra Field, a trans employee, who had tweeted that Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness” and tied such comments to real-world violence. The company said Field was suspended because she had attended a meeting she was not invited to, but it later conceded she had “no ill intent”.
Netflix fired another trans worker who had been involved in organizing the walkout on allegations of leaking internal documents to the press.
“We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” a Netflix spokesperson told the Guardian about that decision last week.
The employee on Tuesday identified themself as B Pagels-Minor in an interview with the New York Times and denied “leaking sensitive information to the press”.
Social media event pages for the walkout have advertised a rally outside the Netflix headquarters in Los Angeles featuring public figures and speakers.
Staffers participating in the virtual walkout have vowed to halt work and focus on efforts to support the trans community.
‘A wave of worker walkouts’
In this week alone, there are protests at Netflix, the grocery delivery platform Instacart and at Facebook by its content moderators. Uber drivers globally went on strike in 2019. Hundreds of Amazon workers walked out to protest against the company’s climate policies in 2019.
Walkouts have become an increasingly common tactic among tech employees. “We are seeing a wave of them,” said Jess Kutch, executive director of the Solidarity Fund, which raises money to support employees engaged in workplace organizing – including at Netflix.
Google employees were among the first to deploy the strategy on a large scale in 2018, when more than 20,000 workers around the world walked out over the news that the company had given a $90m severance package to an executive who was forced to step down over sexual misconduct allegations (which he has denied).
The incensed workers decried a culture of silence about sexual harassment and systemic racism and demanded Google make concrete changes to address such issues within the company. In particular, they targeted Google’s use of forced arbitration – a practice common in the tech industry in which workers settle legal disputes in a private forum, making it almost impossible for workers to sue their bosses in court and keep repeat offenders from being publicly recognized.
The November 2018 action changed the way workers in the tech industry organize, experts said. “Workers are observing their peers to see what is effective in moving decision makers, and replicating that in their own companies,” Kutch said.
Kutch noted tech employees studied other protest movements to determine the most effective forms of action, learning, for example, to release specific demands tied to their walkouts. “There is a degree of depth, commitment and planning that was not present even just a few years ago,” she said.
Organizers have particularly taken aim at the tools tech companies had long used to keep dissent internal. Faced with employee pressure, companies such as Google, Airbnb, Facebook and eBay were compelled to end forced arbitration practices.
Employees have also fought companies’ use of non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs, which were initially meant to protect trade secrets, but later allowed companies to keep accusations of wrongdoing from becoming public.
Last month, California passed a law that makes it illegal for firms to prevent employees from speaking out about such issues through the use of NDAs.
Organizing gained another boost when the Black Lives Matter movement and protests laid bare some of the huge inequities in tech and revealed the power of protest to change them.
“Workers woke up at that moment to the fact that if employers are able to discriminate against any one part of the workforce, it hurts everyone,” said Anastasia Christman, senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
“There have been isolated examples of this kind of thing for years, but employees are increasingly using the leverage of their labor to stand up for diversity and equity,” she added.
The price of whistleblowing
For some employees, the price of speaking out has been steep. Leaked memos showed that in early 2020, Amazon discussed smearing a warehouse worker who spoke out against the company’s Covid-19 practices and was later fired. (Amazon said the employee was fired for putting other employees at risk of Covid-19.) In September 2021, Amazon reached a settlement with two other employees who said they had been fired over their climate activism within the company.
Other whistleblowers have narrated how their lives were upended by speaking out against major tech companies. The worker behind the walkouts at Google, Claire Stapleton, left the company after 12 years of working there, due to perceived retaliation for her role in organizing.
Netflix told the Guardian in an email that it “respect[s] the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out” and recognizes “we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content”.
“We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused,” the spokesperson said.
In a public blogpost, Field outlined much of the vitriol she has sustained for speaking out about the special. She said she did not necessarily want the show removed from the platform, but wanted accountability from Netflix to its workers and viewers.
“We’ve spent years building out the company’s policies and benefits so that it would be a great place for trans people to work,” she wrote. “A place can’t be a great place to work if someone has to betray their community to do so.”
Netflix CEO Sarandos told the Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday that he handled the situation poorly, but that he remains supportive of Chappelle’s work. He said that his previous memos “lacked humanity”, and did not acknowledge that “a group of our employees were in pain”, but said that his stance “hadn’t changed”.
The price of a 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 single-board computer is going up $10, and its supply is expected to be capped at seven million devices this year due to the ongoing global chip shortage.
Demand for components is outstripping manufacturing capacity at the moment; pre-pandemic, assembly lines were being red-lined as cloud giants and others snapped up parts fresh out of the fabs, and the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak really threw a spanner in the works, so to speak, exacerbating the situation.
Everything from cars to smartphones have felt the effects of supply constraints, and Raspberry Pis, too, it appears. Stock is especially tight for the Raspberry Pi Zero and the 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 models, we’re told. As the semiconductor crunch shows no signs of letting up, the Raspberry Pi project is going to bump up the price for one particular model.
The 2GB Raspberry Pi 4 will now once again set you back $45, an increase of $10 from its previous retail price. It used to be $45, then was brought down to $35 early last year when the 1GB model was discontinued. Now it’s back up again. This is the first time the project has hiked its prices, the trading arm of the Raspberry Pi Foundation said.
Don’t worry, however, the bump is said to be temporary and the module will eventually return to its original price of $35, company CEO Eben Upton announced on Wednesday.
The 4GB Raspberry Pi 4 and 8GB Raspberry Pi 4 versions will remain at $55 and $75, respectively. For those relying on a supply of $35 2GB boards, the project will bring back those 1GB Raspberry Pi 4 modules, priced $35.
“This provides a degree of choice: less memory at the same price; or the same memory at a higher price,” said Upton. 2GB for $45 or 1GB for $35. A choice, but not one people might expect.
“As many of you know,” he continued, “global supply chains are in a state of flux as we (hopefully) emerge from the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. In our own industry, semiconductors are in high demand, and in short supply: the upsurge of demand for electronic products for home working and entertainment during the pandemic has descended into panic buying, as companies try to secure the components that they need to build their products … At Raspberry Pi, we are not immune to this.”
The project is expected to make around seven million of its computer boards total this year, maintaining the same level of production as last year as the pandemic took hold of the world. This is unlikely to increase much next year either, Upton said. Judging from his explanation, this figure is lower than hoped: “Despite significantly increased demand, we’ll only end up making around seven million units in 2021.”
Pis containing 40nm chips will feel the chip crunch the hardest over the next year, meaning there will be limited supplies of devices older than the current generation of Raspberry Pi 4, Raspberry Pi 400, or Compute Module 4.
“In allocating our limited stocks of 40nm silicon, we will prioritise Compute Module 3, Compute Module 3+, and Raspberry Pi 3B, and deprioritise Raspberry Pi 3B+ … Our guidance to industrial and embedded users of Raspberry Pi 3B+ who wish to optimise availability in 2022 is to begin migrating your designs to the 1GB variant of Raspberry Pi 4,” Upton said.
The biz expects to be able to make enough systems using 28nm silicon – namely the Raspberry Pi 4 and Compute Module 4 – over the next 12 months to hold their price… bar the aforementioned 2GB model.
“These changes in pricing are not here to stay. As global supply chain issues moderate, we’ll keep revisiting this issue, and we want to get pricing back to where it was as fast as we can,” Upton concluded. ®
UK headquartered Swoop was one of three finance companies to have received funding from RBS, which has previously given the start-up £5m in 2019.
Irish start-up Swoop Finance has received £2.5m from a fund established by banking giant RBS.
In 2019, it was awarded £5m by the banking firm, which accepted a £45bn bailout from the UK government at the height of the financial crisis in 2018. The bailout programme came with the condition that RBS would set up a £775m fund to boost competition in the region’s finance sector.
Swoop is one of three companies to have benefitted from that fund, with the others being UK finance companies Codat and Cashplus. The three start-ups will receive a combined £12.5m in grants from RBS.
Codat and Cashplus will both receive £5m from the fund.
Swoop was founded in 2017 by former KPMG chartered accountant and corporate financier Andrea Reynolds along with Ciarán Burke. Reynolds spoke at Silicon Republic’s Future Human event last year about the process of launching Swoop. She said she founded it after she spotted a gap in the market for a virtual “finance buddy” aimed at SMEs seeking financial advisers and lenders.
Today, Swoop is headquartered in the UK and it employs around 60 people. It recently launched in Canada, adding to its existing locations in Dublin, London and Sydney.
The fintech’s backers include Enterprise Ireland and Velocity. It has raised around €1.6m so far. Speaking last year, Reynolds said the pandemic’s digitisation of the finance industry – and most other industries – had benefitted the company.
She added that the ongoing changes in the industry would hopefully “democratise finance” and “open up opportunities” to companies seeking funding no matter where they are located.
“The future is that you won’t need to know who the lender is,” Reynolds said.
“All decisions will be made through your data and you’ll get those decisions instantly. So you could have a lender in Barcelona lending to a business in Ballyjamesduff, for example. It won’t matter where you are. It’s what your profile is and does it match to their algorithm.
“This means it’ll open up opportunities. It’ll democratise finance further because businesses, regardless of where they’re located, will not be disadvantaged. Everybody will have this at their fingertips,” she added.
Reynolds said she had seen “a 30pc increase in businesses moving online” during the Covid-19 pandemic.