Podcast: Filming with Attenborough, global development goals, and lab-grown meat

January podcast


In this edition: David Attenborough meets our newest robot, progress towards global goals, and supporting the future of lab-grown meat.

Download the complete podcast (mp3)

Play the complete podcast (above)

OR listen to individual chapters:

News: Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster – We find out what it was like to have Sir David Attenborough on campus as he met a robot sea monster and the researcher who built it.

Global goals for 2030 – The Global Development Hub at Imperial brings together researchers working on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We hear from Hub Co-Chair and sanitation researcher Professor Michael Templeton and solar energy researcher Professor Jenny Nelson on how some of these targets are being tackled.

Lab-grown meat – We meet Reka Tron, co-founder of Multus, an Imperial startup supporting lab-grown meat. She tells us about their innovation and how they began by winning the Faculty of Natural Sciences Make-A-Difference competition.


(24 January 2024)



Gareth Mitchell:               Hello everyone, I'm Gareth Mitchell. In this edition, how Imperial's underwater equivalent of T-Rex has hit prime time in the UK, that's in our news section in just a moment. Also today, I'm with the Global Development Hub, catching up on progress with the UN's sustainable development goals. Also, cultivated meat anyone?

Reka Tron:                         We're creating the key ingredients to make cultivated meat affordable and sustainable, but rather than cutting down the animal, you end up growing the meat up from animal cells.

Gareth Mitchell:               Yes, this Imperial start-up has advice for you if you want to succeed in the exciting FoNS-MAD innovation competition.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right folks, let's do as we always do, jump in with a little bit of news. We have Caroline Brogan with us this time, and the Christmas and New Year broadcasting schedules at the BBC were enriched, Caroline, weren't they, by some amazing David Attenborough action, as it were, and Imperial College was involved. What a story. I'm going to shut up now and let you tell me about the BBC show, about Imperial College, and David Attenborough, and a robotic pliosaur. Take it away.

Caroline Brogan:              Hi, Gareth. Yeah, so back in May 2023, David Attenborough came to visit Imperial to film for his new documentary, called Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster. This was obviously super exciting, as a science communicator, he is one of my heroes, and the filming went really, really well. The star of the show was a robot called Flip, and Flip has been built by an Imperial technician called Dr Luke Muscutt. It's been described as the T-Rex of the seas. It was a ferocious predator, very, very big.

Gareth Mitchell:               Okay, I mean, this is an incredible story in itself, isn't it? About this particular beast. And obviously, researchers are incredibly interested in this. One of the Imperial aspects is trying to understand this incredible creature through making a robotic one, isn't it?

Caroline Brogan:              Yes, exactly. So Dr Muscutt, what he did was he recreated this beast as a two-meter-long version, with fully working flippers, that could freely swim in Imperial's hydrodynamics lab. At the lab there is this massive wave tank, it's basically a tank of water that they use to recreate storm conditions, and see waves' effects on coastal erosion and shipping and things like that. They were gracious enough to let Luke use the tank to test his robot, which has been able to tell us all sorts of information, like how the flippers work in tandem, whether it's similar to how penguins flippers work, or how it's quite different. And what he had found previously is actually they had this unique flipper system, which he recreated for Sir David.

Gareth Mitchell:               So they came along and filmed all this and it ended up on the telly, didn't it? It went out on New Year's Day?

Caroline Brogan:              New Year's Day, yeah, on BBC One. It's available on iPlayer, it's called Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster.

Gareth Mitchell:               And I must say, you have put together the most incredible feature online. How can people see your feature, along with all the pictures and the video and the graphics and everything else that you put into it? How can we find it?

Caroline Brogan:              If you Google Imperial Stories, we have created a feature that's very photo-led. We've managed to get lots of lovely photos of Sir David in the labs doing the filming, and some gifs and videos as well, as well as a full rundown of exactly how the filming came to be, and a detailed history of Flip and how Luke constructed him. So yeah, if you Google Imperial Stories, it should be the first item that comes up.

Gareth Mitchell:               Marvelous. Thank you very much indeed for that. That's Caroline Brogan.

                                             So as the year begins, it's the perfect opportunity to look ahead as we've inched another year closer to 2030. Now, that date is on the calendars of many who are working on issues like sanitation, clean energy, poverty, health, and cities and communities. The 17 United Nations sustainable development goals are an ambitious group of global objectives to make significant progress in these cross-cutting areas by the year 2030. So now just six years off, I've been taking stock with Imperial's Global Development Hub. It was launched by the UN's Deputy Secretary General in 2021. Well first, Professor Michael Templeton, co-chair of the hub, has been telling me a bit more about it.

Professor Mike ...:           The way I think of the hub is if somebody from the general public, or let's say a funder or a policymaker, came to you and said, "So what is Imperial College doing to help the poorest and the most vulnerable and marginalized people on the planet?" What would be our response to that? To be honest, the people at Imperial have been doing fantastic work towards the SDGs for a long time, but I don't think we really had a coherent answer to that question until the hub came about. So to really collate and highlight what we're doing to help the poorest and most vulnerable and marginalized around the world, and how we're addressing each of the 17 SDGs with those people specifically in mind.

Gareth Mitchell:               All right, so all kinds of people, all kinds of disciplines are on board. And well, let's hear from a physics related perspective, I'm sure, from Professor Jenny Nelson. She's in the physics department and you are on the hub's advisory board, aren't you, Jenny? So what's on your mind as you sit here now at the beginning of 2024 and look ahead to 2030?

Professor Jenny...:           My research, my background is in solar energy, and my connection with the Global Development Hub is that we've been looking at not only materials for solar cells, and more sustainable materials, but we've also been looking at how to encourage and enable and promote development of clean energy for energy access in the developing world, and how that can be done in a way that's a win-win for looking at the future for the energy transition in terms of co-benefits with health, with water, even with peace and security.

Gareth Mitchell:               How does that go with the sustainable development goals? Because some of them are very specifically around health, but as I mentioned in the introduction, almost by design the goals are also quite cross-cutting.

Professor Jenny...:           Absolutely. I guess the energy transition probably means something different if we're sitting in London and thinking we have to change the way we do things, we have already invested in infrastructure which is not suitable for the future. Or if you're sitting in a place which is yet to build up its energy infrastructure and has the opportunity to develop something which is already by its very nature sustainable, where you avoid wasting energy, where you try to meet demands rather than overproduce in terms of energy. In the development context, I mean, energy access is one thing, but many of the other sustainable development goals are knitted in with energy because there's a relationship between having energy and having education, having energy and having health clinics, having access to clean water. So if you think about these things together, it's possible, hopefully, to find better solutions.

Gareth Mitchell:               And Jenny, you mentioned clean water there, and this really comes back to one of your big interests, relating to sustainable development goal number six, Mike, which is all to do with clean water and sanitation for all. So what about the sanitation side of all this?

Professor Mike ...:           Sanitation is sort of the forgotten bit of SDG6 for many people. Sanitation, when we say sanitation, we mean access to toilets really, and safely being able to dispose of human waste. There's been a lot of progress on access to drinking water, but far less on access to toilets. It's maybe less of a politically sexy thing to do, to say, "I'm going to install toilets", compared to providing water to people. But really, that's the major challenge for a lot of countries now, is keeping the environment safe, keeping human health safe. That's the big challenge, I think.

Gareth Mitchell:               Yeah. What does safely managed sanitation even look like then?

Professor Jenny...:           Well, there is a definition, which is about the fact that it has to be some kind of technology that contains the waste on site safely away from human contact, but that there's also a plan for when that technology needs servicing, that there is a plan for how you look after that. For example, if you have a toilet, like a latrine on-site, which fills up eventually, there has to be a plan for safely emptying that and disposing of the waste safely off-site. Unfortunately, that's the challenge now in a lot of places is that they have toilets, they have on-site sanitation, but a lot of these systems are filling up, or they need maintenance, and the thinking wasn't far enough into the future to think about, "What are we going to do when these systems are done?"

Gareth Mitchell:               Right. Jenny, a lot of this is making sure that the right people are sitting around the table having these discussions, and more to the point out in the field working with each other to make stuff happen. This brings in partnerships, it's a big part of the hub and what it does, so from your perspective, what's the importance of partnerships here?

Professor Jenny...:           Well, I think the importance of partnerships is that you can pay attention to the right problems. I'm very experienced in research into solar cells, but whenever we then think about enabling energy access in the field, once you understand what the demand looks like, what the needs are like, then quite quickly you realize that the most important question has got almost nothing to do with the things we used to think were important, and then much more to do with, what does the demand look like? How do you manage the demand? How can you improve the matching between solar supply and demand?

                                             There's much more to say about that, but if in the end what you want to do is to help bring about, let's say universal energy access to clean energy by 2030, or 2035 if we were less ambitious, if we want to do that, we need to understand where the obstacles are. And having contacts with people, with companies, with NGOs, with universities in the regions that we're working with, they can help us to understand what the problems are that need to be solved. And they can be quite different from where we start, and they may require quite different skills.

Gareth Mitchell:               But then in terms of how you see the world in 2030, and we keep bringing it back to sanitation for you, Mike, because I know it's one of your big interests, I mean, out of many, how is that going to look, do you think? How do you hope it'll look in 2030?

Professor Mike ...:           I don't think we're going to meet the goal unfortunately, because I think the progress is still too slow. There are a lot of challenges, I think new challenges in sanitation, so for example, how climate change affects sanitation, how do we do sanitation in areas that might be more prone to flooding in future, or to droughts? Which are not things that people in sanitation have thought about for very long. Those are some new challenges that I think are going to come in and might set some places back that have made progress.

Professor Jenny...:           The good thing is that renewable energy technologies like solar, and in certain places wind, are proving to be affordable, modular, expanding rapidly. So we certainly can expect to see energy access grow, we can expect to see renewable energy generation grow. We probably won't meet the goal because of the challenges in universal. So I'm definitely very hopeful about the nature of renewable energy generation, how that's going to grow in the developing world, possibly even more than I am about the developed world, because there may be fewer blocks in the way. I hope that by thinking in a broad way about benefits to other sectors, and about how different agencies can work together, that we can avoid making backward steps along the way.

Gareth Mitchell:               Jenny Nelson. And we also heard there from Mike Templeton.

                                             Well now, fancy tucking into some cultivated meat? Well, it's already being made. Already approved in some markets around the world, but not yet in the UK. One exciting startup in the cellular agriculture space is Multus, whose founders all met while at Imperial College. Part of the company's origin story is an Imperial competition to encourage startups and innovation. It's the Faculty of Natural Sciences' Make a Difference competition, or more simply, FoNS-MAD. It's Imperial's only competition offering undergraduate students a funded lab placement to develop a startup idea into a proof of concept, and it aims to equip students with the skills, knowledge, and resources, and some contacts, to develop low-cost technologies for the benefit of society.

                                             Well, a quick heads up. The deadline to register a team in this year's competition is actually this Friday, if you're listening on the day that this podcast comes out. So the deadline to register your team, that's Friday the 26th of January, and I'll give you full details about how to register your team and all that after we've heard from Reka Tron, who is co-founder and chief operating officer of previous FoNS-MAD competition winner, Multus.

Reka Tron:                         We're creating the key ingredients to make cultivated meat affordable and sustainable. What it actually means in practice is we're creating feeding materials to feed to animal cells, that can then be grown into cultivated meat, or cell-based meat, which is actually like meat, but rather than cutting down the animal, you end up growing the meat up from animal cells. So we're just making the feed for those cells.

Gareth Mitchell:               You mentioned cultivated meat, so at the end of the process, do you end up with something that looks like a steak? How does that work?

Reka Tron:                         Yeah, you can end up with a steak, you can end up with a meatball, you can end up with salmon. There are so many different companies, there are more than a hundred companies around the world that are making all sorts of types of animal meat, all sorts of types of cuts. It's a very exciting field in that front.

Gareth Mitchell:               What is the purpose of it then? Is it just for people who don't like the feeling of real meat from an animal, or is it environmental, or a bit of all those things? What is the motivation?

Reka Tron:                         Yeah, I guess there are three key motivations to this. The first one is environmental. We know that the current livestock agriculture has a dramatic impact on the planet, producing more greenhouse gas emission than the entire transportation sector. Clearly, if you can remove that burden, then that's fantastically impactful. The second one is on the ethics side of it. A lot of people don't want to eat meat because of the ethical side of growing animals who have certain feelings. And the third area is definitely the global health impact. We see that there are lots of zoonotic diseases popping up, diseases that originate from animals, it's definitely a really big point on the global health side as well.

Gareth Mitchell:               So is your product, the cultivated meat and the related products, are they regulated and approved then for sale? For instance, can I just go to my supermarket today and buy it in this country, or in other countries?

Reka Tron:                         Unfortunately, in the UK, no, but in the US, in California, there are two companies that have obtained their regulatory approval from the FDA and the USDA in the US to sell their products. They're still available at very limited scale, and only at very specific locations. In Singapore now, for over three years actually, it has been approved and there have been quite a few butchers, street food trucks, and exciting restaurants that have sold cultivated meat there. And just, I think yesterday or the day before, Israel has approved cultivated meat now as well. It's very exciting.

Gareth Mitchell:               So there you are running this really exciting startup, but the story begins, doesn't it, with the FoNS Make a Difference competition when you were an undergraduate here at Imperial College? Just tell us that story briefly.

Reka Tron:                         Yeah, well actually, the story began even earlier. Within the Synthetic Biology Society of Imperial, there was one of these brainstorming competitions to find solutions to solve the big problems of the world, ambitiously. That's where I met my now two co-founders and we started looking into the field of cultivated meat. We wanted to initially just start researching at Hackspace because we won a small £500 pound grant from the society. Unfortunately, we realized that that is not a lot of money and you can't go very far with that. So we ended up searching for other opportunities, other mentorship, lab spaces, opportunities to really build something.

                                             That's where we found FoNS-MAD as well. FoNS-MAD was a very unique opportunity in the sense, as a finalist, we ended up getting access, over the summer, getting access to one of the labs at Imperial. We were based at Thomas Meyers' lab, who was extremely helpful, and gave us lots of tips and ideas and taught us really how to do research. By the end of the summer, we managed to create a very, very minimalistic proof of concept that we ended up successfully presenting.

                                             But also during that summer, because of FoNS-MAD, because FoNS-MAD gave us a public presence, because there was an article written about all the finalists, we managed to get into conferences, one in Boston that ended up exposing us to all of the industry and all of our potential customers, meaning that we could actually put our name out there and get quite significant traction through that. So yeah, that was quite a pivotal moment for us.

Gareth Mitchell:               There are some important dates coming up then. So people listening to this who may want to register a team, the deadline is actually this Friday, as you listen to the podcast, that's the 26th of January. So I think the message is, "Look, just get your registration in because then you have a few more weeks to work out what your proposal's going to be." The proposal deadline is on the 16th of February 2024, so the priority is just get your team together and then put a proposal together, you've got a few more weeks to do that. But Reka, as people do that, what is your advice then for great success in this competition?

Reka Tron:                         I think the most important point is to ask for help. Reach out to people, reach out to professors, reach out to other people who you think might have any ideas for even brainstorming what the idea should be. But also, once you have an idea, explore the field and don't hesitate to reach out to ask for tips and advice. People are very kind and very happy to help whenever asked, usually, not everybody, but most of the case.

Gareth Mitchell:               That's previous competition winner, Reka Tron. Now, if you want to find out a bit more about the competition, then full details are via the FoNS homepage, that's the Faculty of Natural Sciences homepage, and you'll see there a big green banner on the right-hand side. So you click on that, you go through to that, and then you can click on Get Involved, or otherwise you can just search for FoNS-MAD get involved. Either way, you should be able to find details about that competition pretty well. And as I said there in the interview, the deadline to register a team is the 26th of January, but you have until the 16th of February for your team then to submit your outline proposal form. So definitely go for it, it's well worth it, you've heard that incredible interview there from Reka Tron and her story, and well, you really should apply. Go for it.

                                             That's it for this edition and for the Imperial College Podcast in its present form. Yes, we've been at it ever since 2007, right back in the early days of podcasting. But after well over 200 editions we're bowing out. Well, kind of. The arrangements behind the scenes are changing, so now we're looking at different ways of keeping the pod going. So the message is, do keep subscribed to this feed and keep an eye out for new editions.

                                             Actually, this could be an opportunity for you to get involved so that we can all keep the pod alive. If your faculty, or department, or school, institute or center wants to be part of our future, or you just want to let me know what you think of the podcast, then do give me a shout, won't you? It's Gareth Mitchell, I'm G.Mitchell@imperial.ac.uk, or of course you can find me on the college directory.

                                             If you've been with us for just one edition, or right from the beginning, nearly 17 years ago, it's been such an honor and a privilege to keep you informed, and perhaps even keep you mildly entertained. And I have to say a huge and very heartfelt thanks to Haley and all her colleagues in central comms who've made this possible every month too. So from all of us, it's goodbye for now.