Tell us about yourself! What’s your origin story?
I am a first generation American from New York City. Born to working class parents from the Caribbean islands of Grenada and Jamaica, I was raised with a strong work ethic and an emphasis on education. At the age of 13, I was very fortunate to get recruited to attend Trinity School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side by a non-profit called the Oliver Scholars Program which matches high-achieving Black and Latino students with some of the nation’s leading private schools.
My Trinity experience was a foundational one. Not only did I learn to think outside the box in deeply critical and thoughtful ways, but it was there that I first came face to face with glaring inequities as a function of race and class, traversing an elite K-12 institution — now in its fourth century — by day, and shuttling back to my insular, predominantly black, working class Brooklyn neighborhood by night. It was at Trinity that I began grappling with the concept of food democratization, recognizing the link between nutrition and public health and beginning to question the drivers that lead to disparate outcomes both in the US and globally.
I graduated from Trinity School in 2001 and headed off to Dartmouth College, graduating in 2005. I then proceeded straight to law school at Cornell, graduating in 2008.
Today, I am Special Counsel at the global law firm of Covington & Burling LLP which has a preeminent life sciences practice across a number of legal and regulatory areas. In fact, Covington is the only firm ranked “Band 1” for Life Sciences across Chambers’ US, UK, Europe, China, and Global surveys. At Covington, our team is comprised of a number of former FDA lawyers, including many senior officials. I collaborate with my colleagues on a range of cutting edge food and drug matters with an emphasis on food technology. I craft regulatory strategies to facilitate the commercialization of new food technologies and I counsel companies through every stage of the production and distribution lifecycle – from premarket clearance through manufacturing, advertising, labeling, recalls and unanticipated regulatory scrutiny. I enjoy authoring articles on trending legal issues and this has led to me being called upon for my insights on emerging regulatory developments by publications ranging from the The Wall Street Journal to Forbes.
How did you get involved in the food space?
I remember the first time I stepped into a supermarket on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, near Trinity School. The fresh fruit, meat and vegetable offerings were staggering in comparison to my neighborhood grocery in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. At the time (the late 1990s), gentrification hadn’t yet arrived in my Brooklyn neighborhood. And I didn’t know it growing up — but I lived in a food desert. Healthy food offerings came few and far between. At the same time, I also became aware of disparate healthcare outcomes as a function of race and class.
Through a combination of coursework and internships, I explored the connection between these issues from an academic standpoint and became eager to affect real change. After completing a public policy internship examining these issues during my time at Dartmouth, I decided to attend law school.
Because issues of social justice and public health have guided my career decisions for as long as I can remember, in 2009, I seized the opportunity to join the USDA at its headquarters in Washington DC to get an insider’s perspective on how the US regulates food and protects the public health. There, I worked on a range of issues, including — but not limited to — food safety, labeling, organic standards and biotech issues.
As a regulator, I became intimately aware of new food technologies on the horizon. Five years later, I decided to enter private practice to learn more from the other side of the table, leveraging my years of experience from the USDA. Since 2014, I’ve advised both FDA and USDA-regulated entities on a range of complex and emerging food and drug regulatory issues. And, as I’ve built my practice, I’ve focused on start-ups and household brands around the world that are mission-driven to sustainably produce foods to meet the earth’s rising population and to reduce inequities in who gets wholesome, nutritious food thereby leading to a better-fed, healthier society. In this way, I’ve been fortunate to align my personal passion with the regulatory work I do as a lawyer every day.
What are some causes you’re passionate about?
I care deeply about education and about diversity.
Education is the pillar of success on which my Caribbean immigrant family stands and has led me to where I am today. I’ve called Washington DC home for the past 11 years and during this time, I’ve mentored at-risk youth in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Today, I also serve on the Board of Trustees of the Harmony DC Public Charter School which focuses on STEM and targets Washington DC’s underserved youth.
Embracing diversity is, of course, key to success. In my role as a lawyer at a top US law firm, I work hard to help recruit black and other diverse lawyers to the food and drug field through both formal and informal outreach. Throughout my career it has proven true time and again that the best decision-making stems from teams that combine unique perspectives as a function of experiences, viewpoints, and backgrounds.
What is your favourite part of being in the legal sector?
I enjoy the people, the energy and the versatility that comes with being a regulatory lawyer. In my role as counsel, I engage with fresh-faced, high energy, brilliant scientists and policy experts in the US and around the world. Applying my knowledge of the US food regulatory framework to evolving, cutting edge technologies continuously pushes me to think outside the box.
For me, the great fun of my work is diving into the science behind the products and services my clients are developing and offering — products and services that make the world tick, and that will change the world for the better. I feel fortunate to have landed where I am today.
Where do you think regulation in the alternative protein and cell based spaces is going? What should we be aware of?
I think US regulators are making great strides in accommodating new technologies into existing frameworks. In the case of cell-based meat, for example, US regulators have moved at a record pace — holding public meetings, issuing a formal agreement outlining oversight and creating interagency working groups focused on developing the details of how the FDA and USDA will oversee this sector. It’s been remarkable to see, and I feel fortunate to be part of the evolving regulatory conversation.
Where do you see the alternative protein space going in the next 10 years? What changes are occurring in the food industry?
With reports that plant-based meats will experience a compounded annual growth rate of 28%, making it an $85 billion market in 10 years, all indications are that alternative protein — as a whole — is set for continued success. Increasingly, we’re seeing these technologies successfully pass FDA muster and we’re seeing nations around the world like China and Japan eagerly diving in to facilitate the commercialization of new technologies.
What are some cool trends and new opportunities you’ve noticed through your work? (Can be across many other industries.)
From where I sit, it has been fascinating to witness the formation of a truly global movement around the future of food. Food tech accelerators like Big Idea Ventures are leading the charge, with cohorts in New York and Singapore. In this regard, I feel fortunate to serve as a mentor to Big Idea Ventures.
The information sharing across continents will certainly serve to facilitate the increasingly rapid commercialization of new food technologies. Just last month, I gave a talk to a Japanese cohort of food tech stakeholders at Tama University’s Center for Rule-Making Strategy. In presenting and discussing the US regulatory perspective, I also obtained insight into Japan’s current thinking on the regulatory front. The evolving global regulatory conversation which necessarily meshes science and law will ideally result in regulatory frameworks across the world that set similarly stringent but not onerous rules and policy.
What are you reading these days?
Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Tipping Point explores the science behind viral trends in business, marketing, and human behavior, and The Water Dancer speaks to some of the underlying issues that have recently been laid bare across the US as we confront systemic inequities, as a function of race, in American society. Next up on my list is Together by Vivek H. Murthy, MD.
Any advice or words of wisdom for early stage entrepreneurs?
Assemble the right team, stay organized, ask the right questions and always bring integrity to your work. As an entrepreneurial young lawyer myself — building out a growing Food & Drug practice — I abide by this very advice.
Early stage entrepreneurs would also do well to incorporate regulatory considerations into their product development strategy early and often. Doing so will serve to streamline commercialization efforts down the road.
Brian P. Sylvester is Special Counsel at the global law firm of Covington & Burling LLP where he advises food, dietary supplement, cosmetic, and OTC drug clients on a broad range of regulatory, legislative, and compliance issues before FDA, USDA, and analogous food and drug regulatory bodies. His practice additionally encompasses veterinary pharmaceuticals and biological products, animal feed, and pet food. Drawing on his tenure as a regulatory lawyer with USDA, Brian has particular experience counseling clients on strategic considerations around engagement with and advocacy before USDA and FDA on a range of complex issues, including those of first impression. He is a prolific author and frequent speaker at industry-leading events in the U.S. and around the world, and is regularly called upon to offer insights on trending legal issues by publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Food Navigator-USA, among others.
You can reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @food_attorney