EA Interview Series, January 2016: Perumal Gandhi, Cofounder of Muufri

by thebestwecan12th Jan 20167 comments

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Animal product alternativesEffective altruism lifestyleFarmed animal welfare
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Perumal Gandhi

The EA Interview Series celebrates the amazing efforts of people in our community. We hope this reminds us of our wonderful achievements thus far and provide newcomers with a personal understanding of our community.

In this interview we want to highlight the work of Perumal Gandhi, a leader in the push to help the animals who are abused and slaughtered for food. Perumal co-founded Muufri, a company paving the way for cellular agriculture (meat, eggs, dairy, and other animal products made with cell cultures rather
than animal farming).

Muufri's goal is to produce animal-free milk, which is likely the most tractable cellular agriculture food product. Because it doesn’t require building tissues like cultured meat does, animal-free milk can be produced more easily by utilizing technology initially developed to produce medicines like insulin. Muufri has raise millions in funding to apply this method to producing milk, and they’ve already made prototypes! Cellular agriculture is an exciting project that could play a crucial role in ending the exploitation of animals.

Perumal is relatively new to the effective altruism community, but, like many others, he’s been thinking about “doing the most good” for a long time and is happy to belong to a community centered on that idea.


How did you get involved with animal advocacy?

I used to be a carnivore that believed the “your meat comes from small family farms that take excellent care of their animals” story. But one day, while I was walking back home from school (6th grade) a volunteer from PETA handed me a pamphlet on the industrial farming of chickens. And it showed me, in gruesome details, the reality of how we produce our meat. That basically caused me to quit meat overnight and I turned vegetarian. A few months later we got a dog into the family, and I slowly started to observe that animals are sentient beings that can feel pain, anger, fear, and love. All of the above set the stage, but what got me into animal advocacy completely was the experience of being bullied extensively for a few years. It shifted my view on life and allowed me to view what we were doing to animals as pure bullying. And I decided that the cause that attracts me the most is standing up for the billions of voiceless sentient beings that we have on planet earth.

What led you to co-found Muufri?

Once I got into animal advocacy completely, I started volunteering a lot at various animal organizations and shelters throughout my high school and undergrad years. After volunteering for a few years – doing everything from cleaning the shelter to driving the animal ambulance to giving street animals medical care to trying to convince people to eat less meat – I realized that while helping animals on a one-on-one basis was gratifying, it wasn’t solving the root problem i.e., people love meat, dairy, and eggs. I had also come across Prof. Mark Post’s work on cultured meat at that point, and something just clicked in my brain. If we could produce the same animal products that people love without using animals, we’d all win! So I left India to do my masters in Tissue Engineering in the US, since there were no such opportunities in India. During my master’s work I realized that the technology for cultured meat is still nascent, and I started looking into alternatives i.e., what other animal product can we produce today, using a technology that’s already quite mature. The answer turned out to be milk, and that’s how Muufri started. (For our founding story, check out Isha’s blog post on us.)

How did you get involved in EA? In particular, what's kept you interested after hearing about it?

Through Eitan from Stanford! He is an EA, and he introduced me to the world. What’s kept me interested is that every person I’ve met in the EA world is both highly logical in thinking and serious about making the world a better place. That’s quite rare – especially the latter, since most people in the world don’t bother about making the world a better place – and it made me respect anyone who becomes a part of the EA movement. So it’s a shared view of looking at the world that’s kept me interested.

What inspires you most about your work?

Two things inspires me the most about my work:

  1. The day to day variety! One hour I get to think about hiring the best people, and the next we’re talking hardcore science. 

  2. Meeting and interacting with exceptional people. I meet highly intelligent and motivated people on a daily basis, and this allows me to learn through osmosis about how they think and work. It also drives me to be better than what I am, and it keeps me on my toes constantly since they ask some of the toughest questions. (And yeah, one of those people is my co-founder.)


What is your day to day work like? (And what’s the best part of your day to day work? What’s the worst?)

A roller coaster ride! It’s never the same – some days are full of work, others are really boring since the ball is in other folks’ hands.

The best part is the raw amount of learning. Because of which I honestly know a ton about biotech as a field; I know how a company really works and the importance of all the various departments.

The worst part is the uncertainty and fear of failure. I’m not scared of failure in itself – it’s how we learn and grown. But, so many people have placed their faith in us and expect us to succeed that failure would feel like we’re letting them down.

What aspect of being an EA do you struggle with the most?

The biggest thing I struggle with is the constant fight between my rational side - that is the real EA - and the emotional side. From buying stupid things that I don’t need to giving money to charities that aren’t as effective as others, I struggle to be as rational as possible while making decisions, and every now and then I make emotional decisions that I later regret.

What are your hobbies/what do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I volunteer at the local animal shelter, do Sudoku puzzles, learn stock investing, cook fancy food, and hit the gym. I’m also trying to learn how to be more mindful through meditation.

What is your vision for animal advocacy? Are there any projects you're particularly excited about outside of cellular agriculture?

My vision is that one fine day there’ll no longer be any need for animal advocacy!

Outside projects:

  1. Lab on a chip device work. It could revolutionaries drug testing! Right now, most drug testing results are useless – that’s why a lot of money has to be spent on drug development. If we could have a lab on chip device that resembled the human body & test drugs on that, then the number of affordable and effective drugs would increase.

  2. AI: I love everything to do with artificial intelligence. As AI gets stronger, faster, and cheaper – you’ll see it being used everywhere. Right now biology is largely a black box, but once we understand more and have the raw computational power of an AI – it’ll be a game changer.


What have you done in your job (or a previous one) that you’re most proud of?

Well, one of my side jobs is investing in the stock market. While in India two years ago, I had made some, sizable - for a college student - investments which finally increased in value and gave me a 3x return a few months back. I had made that investment at a time where most people were selling the stock like crazy because of a lot of bad press about the company. After I invested, the value kept going down, and I wanted many a times to sell it and cut my losses, but I had the emotional fortitude to hold onto it since according to the raw numbers the company was doing well even though there was a lot of bad news and fear mongering about it in the news. Holding onto the stock and going against my emotional self successfully is something that I’m proud about.

How would you like to continue to grow as an EA?

I’ll admit honestly that I’m a horrible EA. While I donate a good bit of my earnings, I also spend a lot of my money buying stupid, stupid stuff that I really don’t need! And I love good food, so a good chunk of my money goes there as well. So one of my goals is to be more financially prudent this year to allow me to give more. I’m also stupidly emotional and many times donate to charities that do more for one animal or person for the feel good feeling that I get, rather than give it to the most effective charities i.e., emotions over logic. So, that’s also on my list of things to do.

Do you have any role models, in effective altruism or elsewhere?

My role models are mostly from outside the EA world since I’m so new to it!

  • Dr. Y. V. Reddy: He was the Chairmen of the Reserve Bank of India (equivalent to the US FED) from 2003-2008. This was the period where the world over, many central banks were lowering standards and allowing the big banks to invest regular people’s money in sub-prime investments. And, until the crash came, most were making a killing. But, in India, thanks to the direction of Reddy, regulations were being tightened. People in India – everyone from politicians to business titans – and the world over were ridiculing Reddy at that time, and he was under immense pressure to change his policies. But he stood firm in his decision to work for the betterment of the common man. The end result: India fared much better in the 2008 crash than most of the world.


  • Adam Brown: He was a US NAVY Seal, and he gave his life in Afghanistan. Regardless of people’s view on war, if you read the story of Adam Brown, you’ll find a true warrior and hero. He used to be a drug addict, but he got himself out of all of that and overcame innumerable challenges (everything from losing an eye to losing the ability to shoot using his dominant right hand) to become the best of the best. He exemplifies drive, hard work, kindness, and courage in my book.


  • Josh Balk: The kindest and most compassionate person ever. He is the person I’d like to become ten years from now.


  • My parents: For innumerable reasons.


  • Chinmay Anand: One of my best friends from home, he taught me what having a heart of gold looks like. One of the kindest people I know.


  • Natalie Rubio: Another friend, but from SF, who taught me it’s OK to be a little crazy and do stupid things.


  • Eitan Fischer: My introduction to the EA world – I admire him for his ability to think rationally and I admire him for his compassionate view on the world.


  • Ryan Pandya: My amazing co-founder from whom I’ve seen and learned firsthand the traits that Americans have that makes them brilliant and amazing to work with!

I could honestly keep going about my role models in life for pages and pages! I find that I have a role model for anything and everything i.e., if I meet someone, even if they have just one quality that I admire and respect, I add them to my list of role models and try to emulate them on that aspect.


Thanks for your time, Perumal. It’s great to hear about your inspiring story, and we’re excited to follow Muufri’s progress as well as the broader field of cellular agriculture. Just to let readers know, Perumal is happy to be contacted with questions at perumal@muufri.com.



The EA Interview Series is currently produced by Jacy Reese, research associate at Animal Charity Evaluators, and Nicole Ross, operations associate at GiveWell. Disclaimer: the views expressed above are those of Perumal, Jacy, and Nicole, not their employers. We hope to continue producing one interview each month, as a way to highlight the incredible work being done in our community. There’s a good chance the people running this project will change over time as people have shifting availabilities. This is the second interview we’ve done in this project. The first one, with Michelle Hutchinson of Giving What We Can, can be found here.

 

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:26 PM
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Animal products without animals is a great idea.

But if it is profitable, someone will do it for-profit anyway. If it is not profitable, these products will fail in the long run. Perhaps altruistic funding can speed this process up, but it won't make a difference in whether or not these products will have a market in the long run.

Maybe an alternative is to lobby for higher animal welfare standards, lower subsidies of animal products, and undercover investigations to unveil cruelty and lawbreaking in the industry. All of these would work even if the substitute products don't take off, but they also have the implicit effect of supporting the substitutes indirectly by making animal exploitation more expensive.

But if it is profitable, someone will do it for-profit anyway. If it is not profitable, these products will fail in the long run. Perhaps altruistic funding can speed this process up, but it won't make a difference in whether or not these products will have a market in the long run.

This may be true, but doesn't look like much of a dismissal to me. This kind of dynamic applies to pretty much everything we do - it would very often be achieved later anyway. Moving it forward in time gets benefits for that slice of time, and it may also change long term trajectory if sequencing of some changes matters.

This kind of dynamic applies to pretty much everything we do - it would very often be achieved later anyway.

I don't think it applies nearly as strongly to most forms of social change, which is a significant benefit of that strategy. You might argue that moral progress is inevitable, but I'm quite skeptical of that hypothesis.

But I would agree that speeding things up can still be really valuable, especially given major uncertainty about affecting the far future.

I don't mean to dismiss Muufri, just put the true counterfactual in perspective. If there is a potential market for these products, replaceability is a realistic expectation.

I don't think this dynamic applies to everything equally. I would expect it to apply more for those actions that exist in a market equilibrium, like supplying a substitute for an existing good at a given price. Maybe the same is true for donations, selective consumption, undercover investigations or political activism, but that seems less obvious to me.

Why did it take so long for someone to start an animal-free milk company?

Is it because the state of the research and technology to enable Muufri's business wasn't sufficiently advanced until now? If so, that would support the replaceability hypothesis.

Or is it because there is a shortage of entrepreneurs who start organizations to do something no one else is working on? If so, that seems to support Auren Hoffman's hypothesis.

I think Muufri is different from your typical for-profit company in that they are doing what no-one else is doing, so I do believe they could have an impact. Auren Hoffman, a serial entrepreneur, says that doing what no-one else is doing may have an outsized impact.

I'm not sure this is true in the long run, but perhaps it helps speed the innovation up.