When Pat Brown was working in his research lab in 2009, he had "zero" intention of starting a business — much less one that would win United Nations backing and investment from the likes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
No, his goal then was "simple."
"I basically decided I was going to look for the most important problem that I could have the opportunity of solving," he told CNBC Make It.
But when the former pediatrician-turned-Stanford professor discovered what that problem was — namely the "catastrophic use of animals in our food system" — he realized he had to go "all in."
Brown is the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, a California-based food company attempting to revolutionize the way we think about animal agriculture with its plant-based meat substitute, commonly known as the "Impossible Burger."
He started the business in 2011 after his academic research led him to discover the detrimental impact of meat production on the planet.
Meat production is considered by far one of the world's greatest contributors to climate change, not only for the level of greenhouse gas it produces, but also the water and land consumption it requires. However, despite growing awareness around the issue, Brown noted that education had done little to curb consumers' insatiable appetites for meat.
So, bailing on his academic career — and colleagues — the then 56-year-old set about creating an alternative product that could give the same experience as meat.
"The only way to solve the problem is to give consumers what they know they want, and make it our job to find a better way to produce it and find a better technology than cows and other animals," said Brown.
A few years later, the Impossible team believed they'd discovered the solution in a molecule called heme. Found in abundance in both animals and plants, the molecule is responsible for carrying oxygen in living organisms and giving blood its red color. By augmenting the molecule in plants, researchers found they could create a product that looks and tastes like meat.
And so, in 2016, the Impossible Burger was born.
By using plants rather than traditional meat, Impossible Food's website claims production of one of its burgers saves the equivalent of 75 square feet of land, one half tub of bathwater and 18 miles of emissions in a car compared to a regular beef patty.
Having developed that technology, Brown said his company had to be the one to get it out to burger lovers — in spite of his own lack of business experience.
"I didn't want to trust that just some regular business would do it right," said Brown.
Fortunately for Brown, however, investors saw something in his proposition. Over the years, the business has racked up $396 million from backers including Bill Gates, Google Ventures and Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing's Horizons Ventures.
Of course, Impossible Food is not the only business that's created a plant-based meat alternative.
Beyond Meat is one major player which has amassed a loyal following from its plant-based "bleeding" burger. Started in 2009 by Ethan Brown, the company is a joint winner, alongside Impossible Foods, of the United Nations' Champions of the Earth Award, in the Science and Innovation category. Both companies share a number of high-profile investors.
However, despite their shared ideologies, Brown said their products differ vastly and he currently sees little value in collaboration.
Instead, he said the business is focused on research and development to improve not only its burger, but also to develop new products including plant-based steaks and fish.
"There's so many things that you have to get right — and the dominant thing is deliciousness. The second most important thing, I think, probably is versatility, and then, of course, nutritional value," said Brown.
After several years of iteration, in January 2019, the company unveiled a new version of its flagship product, dubbed the Impossible Burger 2.0. In addition to containing 30 percent less salt, 40 percent less saturated fat and fewer calories, it also replaced its core ingredient, wheat, with soy protein, making it gluten-free.
The use of soy, a type of bean protein native to East Asia, has come under criticism over recent years as a key driver of deforestation. But Brown insists that by using the product as a direct source of protein — rather than as animal feed, as has typically been the case — Impossible Foods can speed up an otherwise "inefficient" process and reduce the overall use of soy.
"Pigs do a very inefficient job of turning it (soy) into meat," said Brown.
"If we replaced all the meat in the world with our product made primarily from soy, the amount of soy cultivation would be vastly reduced," said Brown. "We're going to drive reforestation by greatly reducing the demand for soy, even though soy is a major ingredient in our product."
That agenda is going to be especially important in areas that have been hardest hit by deforestation, such as parts of Asia. Incidentally, the region is also Impossible Food's next battleground.
"Asia is responsible for more than 40 percent of global meat consumption. And so if we're going to achieve our mission, we have to be serving consumers in Asia as soon as possible," said Brown.
In March this year, it reached Singapore, where it will initially be available in eight locations – including Potato Head Singapore, Prive Orchard, Bread Street Kitchen by Gordon Ramsey. Those outlets will offer both the original burger, as well as a host of Asian-inspired dishes.
"Burgers have always been featured; we wanted to be a bit different from the rest," said Chef Robin Ho of Prive, who has re-imagined the ground beef substitute as a Singapore-inspired Impossible Satay Slider (around $11) and an Impossible Meatball Spaghetti (around $14).
Impossible Foods' targeted global expansion is part of Brown's wider strategy to demonstrate the product's versatility beyond the classic American burger.
Brown said he believes that will provide a vital step in the company's mission to get its product onto shelves and into homes, so consumers can test it for themselves.
"Getting it into retail will give users a real at-home experience, and I think that's going to have a major positive impact," said Brown, who hopes to achieve that goal within the next year or two.
More than at any other point, that move will see the company come head-to-head with the meat industry incumbents it is trying to defeat.
As with the rest of Impossible Foods' roll-out, Brown said he does not expect subsidies or government support in that battle, just the opportunity to give consumers more choice over the products they consume.
"We just want a fair chance to compete in the marketplace and let consumers choose. It's very hard in the U.S., politically, to be against that," said Brown.
The CEO said he's confident that his products will be able to compete on price with higher-end meat products within two to three years.
"It's our job to make a product that's more delicious and better for consumers than what they make," Brown noted. "If we succeed, everybody's better off. And if we don't succeed in making a better product that consumers prefer, they have nothing to fear."
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