Health and Wellness

Impossible Foods CEO on finding meat's magical ingredient, pitching VCs and convincing meat-loving chefs to serve a vegan burger

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How Impossible Foods turned a plant-based burger into a $4 billion brand

In 2011, at the age of 57, Stanford biochemistry professor Pat Brown took a leap faith and quit his job to launch plant-based "meat" company Impossible Foods. He did it because wanted to help solve one of the world's biggest problems before he retired.

"The use of animals as a technology in food production is, by a huge margin, the most destructive technology on earth in the history of our species," Brown tells CNBC Make It.

Today, Impossible Foods, best known for its juicy, meat-tasting vegan burger, is valued at more than $4 billion. Its burgers are served in more than 17,000 restaurants worldwide, including via partnership deals with Burger King, White Castle and Starbucks. It's also sold in 8,000 grocery stores,

Here, Brown talks with CNBC Make It about his life before Impossible Foods, his first investor pitch meeting and where he sees the brand going. The interview has been edited together for length and clarity.

Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown in 2019
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images

CNBC Make It: Today, you are the founder of Impossible Foods. But talk to me about life before Impossible Foods.

Pat Brown: I grew up – assuming that I ever did – about 50% of my childhood was in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and the other 50% was split in Paris [France] and in Taipei [Taiwan]. And I wasn't a very good student. I was capable, but I had very little interest in school. Fortunately, when it was time for me to go to college [in the 1980s], it was a time when the fraction of people who tried to go to college was a lot lower. So I was able to get into the University of Chicago, which is where I went for undergrad and then I stayed there for my M.D. and Ph.D. [in biochemistry]. 

I wanted to have more of tangible impact on the world ... so I decided to go into biomedical research. And then I did a pediatrics residency, so I spent three years as a pediatrician in Chicago, at Children's Memorial Hospital. I'd have a 36-hour non-stop day. But I loved it because you felt every moment like you were helping people.

Let's move forward to 2009. You were 57 and a professor at Stanford Medicine, Stanford University's medical school, and you took a sabbatical. How did that lead to the creation of Impossible Foods?

I used the [sabbatical] to try to figure out, what's the most important problem in the world is that I might be able to contribute to solving? The use of animals as a technology in food production is, by a huge margin, the most destructive technology on Earth in the history of our species. And once I realized that, it was a no-brainer.

Relatively quickly it became clear that you are not going to solve the [meat consumption] problem by regulation, education or trying to persuade people. Even most environmentalists that go to climate and environmental conferences are eating steak for dinner. They're not going to stop eating foods that are a big source of pleasure in their daily lives.

So that meant that the only way to solve the problem is to understand what consumers love about these foods and do a better job of delivering it than the current industry does. That means competing in the marketplace and pulling the economic rug out from under that industry. I had to start a company to make those changes and that's why I founded Impossible Foods.

What was your first pitch to get funding for Impossible Foods like?

You can't walk a block in Palo Alto [California, where Stanford is located] without tripping over a venture capitalist. I went to talk to three of the big VC firms but I was naive about what drives venture investors. It's not the same thing that drives me, it turns out.

The message that really snapped them to attention is that the there was, at that time, a $1.5 trillion global market being served by a technology [meat production] that has fundamentally not been improved since prehistoric times. And it's just waiting to be taken down by better technology.

But that was kind of like my last [pitch deck] slide. Now, I am much more upfront about this, saying that is a humongous prize for whoever can develop the technology to replace animals in the food system.

How did you create the Impossible Burger?

The premise was this is a scientific problem. We needed to understand in molecular detail how meat works.

From a nutritional standpoint, the problem was already solved [by plant-based] protein. Just to put it in perspective, the global soybean crop occupies .8% of Earth's land area and produces 150% as much protein as in all the meat consumed globally. And it uses way less fertilizer, pesticides and water than the animal agriculture industry. And it's cheaper by far.

The unsolved problem is deliciousness. So we had to study: What makes meat delicious?

We hired molecular biologists, biochemist, biophysicist and basic scientists because the the problem was not making food. It was understanding how this particular food works to create those emergent properties that people crave. So, they got started working on understanding what makes meat delicious.

And how did you find the magic ingredient, heme?

When you cook meat some kind of magical happens – there's an explosion of aroma and it's flavor profile becomes completely different. When you have an explosion of chemical activity like that, to me that suggests that there was a catalyst in there.

What I knew was that heme – besides being the molecule that carries oxygen in your blood making it red – is one of the best catalysts in nature. And it's staring right at you, because it's responsible for the red or pink color of meat. So, it's just screamingly obvious.

You can basically take vegetable broth but if you throw in heme, it tastes like meat.

When you first introduced Impossible Burger, why did you market it to restaurants as opposed to consumers? 

We debuted it with a handful of world renowned, uncompromising chefs, the first of which was Dave Chang, who once made a big splash by banning on principle every vegetarian item from his menu. So this guy is a meat guy to the bone, and the perfect person for us to launch with. Someone like Dave Chang, Traci Des Jardins, Brad Farmer and Chris Cosentino, these very meat-focused chefs, wanted it on their menus. So you would be insane not to take advantage of that.

Where do you see Impossible Foods going?

I think last year we increased our sales by about threefold. This year, it's very likely to be more than twofold. In order to achieve our mission [to eliminate the need to make food from animals], we have to grow on average about twofold every year for the next 15 years.

More than 90% of the people who ever want impossible burger are current meat eaters. We need to convince them to try [Impossible Burger]. Once we do that, I think we're in.

Check out: Americans spend over $5,000 a year on groceries—save hundreds at supermarkets with these cards

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