Growing a New Future for Wagyu

By Masahiro Yoshida, MBA ’23

By: Janice Endresen
Masahiro standing in a white lab coat in front of metal shelving.

Masahiro Yoshida, MBA ’23, posing at the Ohayo Valley lab

Last summer, I had the good fortune to work for Ohayo Valley, an early-stage food tech startup focused on creating cell-cultured Wagyu meat, a high-end type of Japanese beef that is known for its white specks of fat marbled throughout the meat. It was exciting to work at a startup that could have significant environmental impact by eliminating the need to raise animals for food thus using significantly less land and water, emitting fewer greenhouse gases, and reducing agriculture-related pollution.

The company is still in the research and development phase, so they had a heavy emphasis on conducting scientific experiments but wanted to ensure that they were still making financial progress in a tight economic situation. As a result, all the employees are food scientists, except for me; Iworked on the business side of the company.

As a business development intern, my role on the team was to provide a market analysis, identify strategies to help the fundraising process, and to create connections with Wagyu users and distributors. I was able to pursue this opportunity thanks to the  Social Impact Internship Fund (SIIF) provided by the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

The intersection of Wagyu and business

My internship role involved data collection culminating in a go-to-market strategy. I gathered market data and conducted an initial market analysis using secondary data to clarify the demand trend of Japanese Wagyu, U.S. Wagyu, cell-cultured beef, and alternative meat like Ohayo Valley’s products for the San Francisco or California market. I also conducted approximately 20 in-depth interviews with restaurant owners, chefs, and retailers to further understand Wagyu trends in the Bay Area. To gather customer opinions, I created a consumer perception survey that garnered more than 400 respondents. From this market data, I created an initial go-to-market strategy focused on consumer and user perception of cell-cultured Wagyu and made an action plan for the future execution of the business strategy. These experiences pushed me out of my comfort zone and led me to make valuable contributions to the team.

For instance, I connected with a restaurant owner and excellent Japanese chef from Berkeley, CA. I met him while interviewing Wagyu users in the Bay Area to assess the whole landscape of potential channels in the market. He knew many prominent chefs, including two Michelin-star chefs, along with high-end grocery store managers who determine which new products to put on their shelves. As a result of this strong connection to him, I made many contacts for Ohayo Valley.

The unique culture of a startup

Several things surprised and impressed me throughout this summer experience. Immediately after starting my position, I was amazed by the amount of responsibility and autonomy I was given. I was expected to work independently with oversight provided through weekly meetings with the CEO. She had an intensive travel schedule throughout the U.S., meeting investors and attending food tech-related conferences, and I was expected to support her as much as possible.

I quickly realized that in a small early-stage company, every person has a unique role to fill and it is critical to make daily progress without a safety net such as mentors or managers. This structure gave me a high sense of responsibility. The culture was unlike my experience working for the Japanese government, where I worked before joining Johnson. In the government there was always a manager or supervisor to get approval from and a system to split up responsibility within groups of people.

Learning about the private sector

My internship gave me a new perspective on government regulations. As a civil servant, prior to my MBA, I understood the importance of the government in regulating the private sector, including the food industry, regarding product safety and transparency. Ohayo Valley’s cultivated meat product is directly impacted by government regulations, since there are no existing procedures to inspect and label cell-cultured meat products.

This experience was insightful, as I was able to experience how the private sector reacts to regulations. I always used to try imagining what the private sector thinks of government regulations, but my knowledge was limited. I now know that firms are more sensitive to government actions and lobbyists than I previously thought. Moreover, I now understand how government regulations can impact the private sector, especially startups. For example, if the government is slow to act, a company could lose any competitive advantage it might gain by entering the domestic and global market as early as possible. I now fully understand the importance of government acting quickly to help establish domestic firms in new markets so they can compete with companies from other counties.

A brief reflection

My experience as an intern allowed me to have a unique summer experience and enabled me to use my newly acquired MBA skills to develop Ohayo Valley’s business model while at the same time helping to establish the new industry of cell-cultured meat. I appreciate the support from the Social Impact Internship Fund and the staff of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise. This summer experience was one of the best memories of my MBA experience.

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About Masahiro Yoshida, MBA ’23 (Two-Year MBA)

headshot of Masahiro Yoshida.

Masahiro Yoshida is a class of 2023 Two-Year MBA student at Johnson, where he has focused on Sustainable Global Enterprise. He is particularly interested in food tech, including cultured food and gene-editing technology to create more sustainable food. Before attending Johnson, he worked for the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, where he concentrated on communications with food companies to support the food industry in Japan.