It’s been hard to miss Impossible Foods over the past year. With its rapid growth and entry into the mass market with products at Burger King, the Silicon Valley-based startup has become a media darling. Gentry had a chance to go one-on-one with Impossible Foods CEO and founder Pat Brown at the company’s headquarters in Redwood City, where he shared his vision for the future, his thoughts on the competition, and how the company decides which meat-alternative product it plans to release next.
What is the most misunderstood thing about Impossible Foods?
There are tons of misconceptions, not so much about the company, but people’s initial reaction is, “How can you possibly make food from plants that tastes like meat from animals, only better?” It’s because they’ve never seen it.
There have been other efforts…
There’s a bit of a misunderstanding there because no one has ever made an effort to make meat that is uncompromisingly delicious to a meat eater, and no one else has still because they start out with the preconceived notion that you just can’t make what meat lovers care about from plants. Instead what they’ll do is make something that’s a nice try, and then for people who are actively looking for an alternative, they can say, “Well, we’ve got this.” But it is in no way competing on deliciousness.
We are the first and still the only company to say, “This is doable, but it’s really hard and we’ve got to hire the best team of scientists in Silicon Valley and one of the best teams of scientists in the biotech world to work on what, at the time, was and is still considered the most important scientific question in the world: What makes meat delicious and how can we deliver it from plants?” Really great scientists understand it’s doable, it’s challenging, and it’s why they want to work on it, because it’s a really hard problem.
Did you have any companies in mind as role models or advisors when you started Impossible Foods?
Not really. There’s quite an advantage to being an outsider. It’s not incidental that a lot of real innovations in pretty much any field come from outsiders who aren’t burdened by the assumptions of the incumbent.
So, you looked at how it should be done, rather than how it has been done?
Exactly. I wasn’t interested in creating a better meat product per se, but in saving the world from environmental catastrophe, and doing it by competing in the market with a product that isn’t just decent for vegetarians, but for meat lovers as well.
When I founded the company, I didn’t hire food industry people because I believed we should assume that every single thing the food industry does is wrong; that they are the last industry we should try to learn from because we’ll learn all the wrong things. We do have people from the food industry, like production and packaging, and even there you see ways you can do things better, but we also don’t want to reinvent anything we don’t have to.
Impossible Burger CEO Pat Brown
Photo by Margot Hartford
You mentioned that an Impossible Foods chicken product will be out in a few years. Is that what’s coming next?
Stay tuned. Our technology platform isn’t beef specific. We’ll do what is best for our mission and what’s going to help the business be successful and achieve our mission. We’re doing beef because from an environmental standpoint it’s by far the most destructive, and to the extent we disrupt that industry we get the biggest bang for our buck. The beef industry occupies about 40% of the continental U.S., including both croplands that could be used to grow food for people instead of animals, and rangelands that can’t grow crops but are important for carbon sequestration and biodiversity. A plant-based meat transition would mean both less total cropland and would release rangelands from grazing disturbance (supporting a return of carbon capture, removal of a greenhouse gas source, and the return of biodiversity). This transition does not require more cropland; it requires far less, since corn and soy aren’t needed to feed the animals, and it requires no fragile, non-arable rangelands.
How are meat producers responding? I’m wondering if we’ll see something like a mix of beef and plant burger?
At least one did try that, but it’s really the worst of both worlds. Our focus is on our great products and we don’t try and control what others do.
Do competitors help push your overall mission forward?
There is no upside for us to compete with plant-based alternatives to meat; that would only be a win for the meat industry. But the competitors we have are not a big problem because their market is much smaller. They can never do what we can do. I wish they made better products; I say that sincerely because every time someone eats a crappy product that purports to be a meat replacement, it sets us back.
Three years from now, what’s a good metric to show you’re on the right track and have been successful?
The biggest thing for our long-term success is progress in R&D, our future product pipeline, and continued improvements that grow the number of consumers—particularly meat-loving consumers—buying our products. Secondarily, I would say is the extent to which we are putting stress and uncertainty on the incumbent industry, and we see signs of that already. The thing that they fear and couldn’t really imagine, but now are starting to recognize, is that their consumers are waiting for plant-based products to be good enough and they’ll abandon [meat]. We’re already seeing that. They are also seeing that they have no chance to compete, because the economics are structurally better for us while their costs can’t go down; it’s a very low-margin, commoditized business.
Survey Says Plant-Based Meat Favored by Younger Generation
In a coup for Impossible Foods, Burger King recently announced it’s added a meatless “Impossible Whopper” to its menu. Impossible Foods already sells its plant-based burgers to Walhburgers and White Castle (which offers the Impossible Slider) and to many other restaurants that range from fast casual to high end.
A recently released independent survey reviewed consumer’s attitudes towards plant-based meat. The survey of a thousand people in the U.S. showed distinct differences among age groups. For example, while two in 10 Baby Boomers (aged 54 – 72) said they ate plant-based meat at least once a month, over half of Gen Z’ers (aged 0 – 21) said they ate plant-based meat at least once a month.
“The biggest surprise we’ve seen is how the plant-based meat category has been growing, but also the change in mindset with millennial parents teaching their kids at such a young age about the positive impact it can have on the environment,” related Esha Shah, Senior Manager of Consumer Insights at Impossible Foods. The environment wasn’t among the top 10 reasons for choosing plant-based meat products in an earlier (2016) survey, but now it’s top three with Gen Z.
The media event surrounding the survey’s release was also a take-your-kids-to-work day, and a horde of children joined the press for presentations and a Q&A with company executives under a giant tent followed by a buffet lunch that included—of course—Impossible Burgers and fun desserts.
Impossible’s CEO and founder Pat Brown told the children that he has “a huge reason” to be optimistic about the future. “I am going to promise you that by the time you guys are adults, the meat you eat will not be coming from animals,” he said.
Following the event, Impossible got a visit from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, an avowed meat eater. But according to Bloomberg, Perdue said the Impossible Burger tasted “very good,” and that it was a “good facsimile” of real beef. The success of plant-based alternatives to meat could be a boon for U.S. farmers.
Impossible emphasizes that it continues to invest heavily in replicating the taste of traditional burgers and it considers that taste to be a distinct competitive advantage. In all its surveys over the past several years, Impossible said taste is by far the number one reason consumers give for purchasing specific foods. “We’ve discovered the reason meat tastes like meat,” notes Brown.
Investors are taking notice. The company raised $300 million in a recent round of fundraising, bringing its total funding to over $750 million.