8 Questions with Upside Foods founder & CEO Uma Valeti, MD

This is part of a new series at Food Dive of Q&A’s with iconoclasts in the industry doing interesting things and challenging the status quo in the food industry. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Name: Dr. Uma Valeti, MD

Where do you live: San Francisco, CA

Occupation: Founder & CEO, Upside Foods

Growing meat, poultry and seafood out of cells is no longer a pipedream, it’s a reality and Dr. Uma Valeti’s Upside Foods is leading the charge.  

In autumn of 2022 the company obtained FDA approval for its cultivated chicken—the company’s first rollout—and in June, the USDA gave its final approval, enabling Upside Foods (as well as Eat Just) to sell its cultivated chicken in the U.S. (Dominique Crenn is serving Upside Foods’ chicken at Bar Crenn in San Francisco, and José Andrés is serving Eat Just’s Good Meat chicken at China Chilcano in Washington, D.C.) 

Fueled by billionaire investors including Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Upside Foods was founded by cardiologist Valeti in 2016 as Memphis Meats and was one of the first in the cultivated meat space. Moving from medicine to manufactured meat may not be an obvious career move, but Dr. Valeti sees it along the same continuum. 

“I’m able to save many more lives than I would if I continued practicing as a cardiologist—like multiple magnitudes more,” he says. The opportunity, and the potential was really hard to ignore and kept thinking somebody else could do it or would do it—and I tried to encourage a lot of people to do it.”

“But I couldn’t get anyone else to quit their very promising career and take a chance on something that was still in the realm of science fiction. I didn’t want to look back 20 years from now and say, ‘Hey, I should have done it.’”

Valeti has come a long way from rural India, where he grew up, to the sleek modern cultivated meat production facility in the Bay Area that functions like a well-funded tech startup rather than the typical slaughterhouse. When Valeti first started thinking about cultivating meat, he remembers. “Nobody was willing to quit their very promising career to take a chance on something that was in the realm of science fiction,” Dr. Valeti laughed. So, in the absence of anyone else willing to take a chance, Dr. Valeti took the leap. “I didn’t want to look back 20 years from now, 30 years from now, saying, ‘Hey, I should have done that. . . . ‘

Optional Caption

Courtesy of Upside Foods


FOOD DIVE: What was your first job? 

DR. UMA VALETI: My parents come from a very humble background; we were a farming family. My mom was the first person in her family who went to college, to learn physics and graduate. We built our own home from the ground up—laying that foundation brick by brick. 

I remember sitting next to the mason and laying bricks alongside him—building our own home. I didn’t get paid for it. But that was my first job. And then I helped build my mom’s sister’s house—but this is when I was eight or ten years old. 

Technically, that’s what it was, but the first job I got paid for was in Jamaica when I finished medical school. It was part of my internship, and I got paid for that. 

FOOD DIVE: What inspired you to focus on your current work?

VALETI: The core inspiration is that we can do better with how foods come to the table. I love being a physician, but to be able to provide an opportunity to have a lower impact on the environment and also be able to make foods healthier than they are right now.

There are three important reasons.One is kindness to fellow life. 

Number two is the opportunity to decrease the enormous and unquestionable environmental impact from growing animals. It’s one of the most unaddressed impacts, because there’s also water pollution and air pollution. And there are significant challenges related to pandemic evolution and epidemics—[meat farming] is an existential threat to humanity with the way we raise animals. 

And then the third one is what if we can make meat healthier? No one’s asked this question before. We kind of take it for granted that it’s the healthiest it can be, but we think it can be much healthier. 

Those three things are such a powerful draw that I was able to walk away from my position and the profession I love—cardiology. It’s literally at the front lines, saving lives of patients that are in cardiac arrest or heart attacks. 

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