Advocate for a Food Frontier
Davide Dukcevich, A96, never expected his knowledge of prosciutto to bring him to where he is today. But the third-generation leader of a family charcuterie business is now a private investor championing cellular agriculture, an innovative technique to create meat from animal cells grown in labs.
Earlier this year, Dukcevich contributed $1 million to research led by David Kaplan, a distinguished university professor and the Stern Family Endowed Professor of Engineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dukcevich’s gift provides aid for graduate students, as well as other support for research that will have significant impact on the burgeoning field. Cellular agriculture is regarded as a timely frontier amid the climate crisis and a growing world population.
“I can’t think of a better investment,” said Dukcevich. “I always thought there must be something else on the horizon for the meat industry. There needs to be a seismic shift—one that is going to feel on the order of Kodak to photography or Apple to the personal computer. To me, laboratory-grown meat is the future.”
Dukcevich’s gift is inspired by Kaplan, an internationally recognized leader in biomedical engineering. His research has led to groundbreaking insights into biomaterials, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine and has generated more than 150 patents.
Last year, a consortium of universities, led by Kaplan and Tufts, was awarded a five-year $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to establish the first national institute for cellular agriculture. Today, at the Tufts University Center for Cellular Agriculture (TUCCA), Kaplan and his team are leveraging the university’s interdisciplinary strengths at the School of Engineering, the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, the School of Medicine, the School of Arts and Sciences, and Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine to explore improving aspects of cell-based meat, including its shelf life, nutritional content, texture, and flavor. Their research is also laying a scientific foundation for the field and preparing the workforce needed to carry it forward. (Tufts’ certificate in cellular agriculture is believed to be the first in the country.)
Dukcevich’s gift arrives at a pivotal moment. Cultivated meat production is seen as an alternative source of sustainable protein to feed a world where the population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. And cellular agriculture is regarded as an essential part of the fight against climate change, reducing carbon emission and intense pressure on precious land and water resources associated with traditional farming.
Dukcevich grasps the urgency and excitement of the work that lies ahead, and Kaplan is grateful to have found a kindred pioneer. “Davide’s gift is transformative,” Kaplan said. “Gifts from individual donors allow us to pursue novel ideas and bioengineering solutions that are otherwise challenging to support from traditional funding sources, allowing us to more rapidly advance the field for greater impact.”
A Pivotal Next Step
Raised in Rhode Island, Dukcevich said his Tufts liberal arts education—including an unforgettable summer at the Tufts European Center in Talloires, France—“gave me some of the happiest years of my life.”
A history major, he gravitated toward questions about ideas and events that ushered in profound change. After getting a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern, he was a staff writer for Forbes for four years before joining the family company, Daniele Inc. Its origins go back to his grandparents, refugees from Croatia who settled in 1945 in Trieste, Italy, where they mastered the art of curing meat. Their company grew into one of the largest specialty food businesses in Italy.
Dukcevich’s father, Vlado Dukcevich, in turn, brought his own brand of entrepreneurial zeal to the United States, founding Daniele in Pascoag, Rhode Island, in 1976. By 2012 the family was constructing its fourth manufacturing plant.
Yet even as the business was shipping thousands of pounds of prosciutto, salami, and other products to high-end markets, Dukcevich worried about the meat industry. He was concerned about animal mistreatment at larger industrial operations and the rapid loss of the Amazon rainforest for cattle production. And his conscience was troubled by an industry that expedited the deaths of millions of animals. (The movie Babe, though marketed as a tale of a hero piglet, is one film he can’t watch without crying, he said.)
Then in September 2019, a private equity fund purchased the family business, valued at more than $400 million. Dukcevich took a year off, living in Switzerland and pondering his next step. The answer came by way of a fateful podcast he listened to during a walk in the woods.
He remembers listening with deepening fascination to the story about scientists growing protein from animal cells. The work required no animal slaughter. Instead, animal cells were taken via biopsy and cultivated into edible meat in bioreactors.
“It really set me back on my heels,” he said. “The concept made so much sense.”
Creating the Future at Tufts
As Dukcevich devoted himself to “discovering the whole new world of lab meat,” his research led him to Tufts. “I hadn’t been back in nearly 25 years and suddenly, I thought: How cool that this is happening at Tufts!”
In time, he met with Kaplan and his graduate students and postdocs to learn more, and Dukcevich’s conviction that he wanted to be involved deepened. “David is clearly brilliant but also patient and humble,” Dukcevich said. “He will explain science so you can understand it. And you can see the sparks in his eyes when he’s talking about his work and its potential.”
Kaplan is grateful for the support of donors like Dukcevich as his team explores how to create a product that consumers will want to buy and eat.
Meat from animals contains a variety of cell types and a complex mix of proteins and sugars, all of which contribute to its taste and texture, he explains. Replicating that is a challenge.
“We have a long way to go yet to get it right,” he said. “But when we meet a champion like Davide, it is not only a meaningful investment in our lab but also redoubles our optimism, knowing that others see the promise in the work we’re doing.”
Dukcevich hopes that his gift will motivate others to support Kaplan’s efforts. “My whole career has just been about practical decision making, and my gift is just as intentional: Let’s keep the momentum going,” he said. “I really want the young minds who are working with David to keep focused on improving the world. How wonderful it would be if Tufts is the place where we start that dialogue about the future we imagine—and can begin to make right now.”