by Joachim Marc Christensen

In 2009, professor in biochemistry Patrick O. Brown had a dream job running his own research lab at Stanford University.

His work on improving cancer diagnosis through better understanding how cells and genes work had already earned him awards and acclaim, so he wasn’t exactly looking for a new job. Yet a sabbatical year gave Patrick time to think about how he could best use his academic skills and expertise to “have the greatest positive impact on the world”. With the negative environmental impact of animal farming as the point of departure, Patrick embarked on a journey of taste, smell and texture to change our concept of meat and push the boundaries of what plants can do for our taste buds.

Fast forward eight years and Patrick, or Pat as he usually goes by, finds himself as the founder and CEO of the food enterprise Impossible Foods, who is in the process of revolutionizing plant-based meat. Pat and his team have managed to extract heme from plants – the ingredient that provides the unique, meaty taste – and is now producing a vegan burger which, according to a number of reviews, tastes exactly like a regular, juicy beef-burger (if not better). No wonder the company has secured multimillion-dollar investments from Google and Bill Gates among others.

For its innovative approach to healthier and more climate-friendly food, Impossible Foods was featured in the 2016 Sustainia100 publication and shortlisted for last year’s Sustainia Award. I got a hold of Pat to ask him a couple of questions about his company and its mission to produce better meat with zero animals involved.

What sparked your interest in reinventing “meat”?

It’s hard to believe that something so familiar and ancient could be a terrible problem, but the use of animals as technology for food production is actually, and by a large margin, the greatest and most urgent threat to the health of our planet.  Although this is pretty well recognized by environmental scientists, it gets very little public attention or airtime, because there’s a huge and growing global demand for meat, fish, and dairy foods that’s not going to go away anytime soon and people have always assumed that these foods can only be made using animals. 200 years ago they assumed that the only way to make a carriage move was to hitch it to a horse. I realized that making all these foods, and actually making them more delicious, nutritious and affordable – directly from plant ingredients – was a solvable scientific problem that nobody was seriously pursuing. And if we could do that, the market would take care of the rest, just as the market replaced the horse as soon as a better technology came along. Nobody else was seriously trying to address this problem, so I quit my dream job at Stanford to found Impossible Foods.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when starting up Impossible Foods?

I was used to leading an academic lab in which the research could go in any direction that I thought might be interesting and worthwhile, even when there was no expectation that it would have a meaningful practical impact for many years, if ever. There were always many, diverse projects going on in my Stanford lab, a large fraction of which were exploratory, discovery-oriented and curiosity-driven.  At Impossible Foods our mission was very specific. Instead of “let’s discover something”, the task was to answer very specific questions and to focus on a much more limited set of very specific goals and deliver tangible results on a much shorter timeline. That required more discipline, focus and organization than I was used to. Leading a business – even a mission-driven, R&D-centric business – is very different from running an academic lab. It basically involves shifting from asking questions to finding answers.

The Impossible Burger has become your flagship product. Why did you choose to enter the meat market with the burger?

Ground beef is the most popular variety of meat in the US. Half of all beef sold in the US is sold as ground beef. So it’s the most disruptive product we could choose, has the biggest market, and the burger is arguably the most iconic food in America, which makes it the ideal vehicle for demonstrating to uncompromising meat lovers that delicious meat doesn’t need to come from animals.

You envision a future without animal farming. What will it take to make that happen and what role will plant-based meat play?

The only way animals will be replaced as a food-production technology is by finding a better way to deliver to consumers what they value from meat, fish and dairy foods – their very specific, craveable deliciousness, nutrition, affordability and versatility. Because making these foods from plant ingredients not only has a tiny fraction of the environmental impact of animal technology but also a tiny fraction of the resource requirements it should make these foods far more affordable at scale. And because deliberately crafting the flavor and nutrition from selected plant ingredients gives us much greater control and versatility then we can ever get from the limited repertoire of animals), this approach should yield more diverse, more delicious and more nutritious meats, fish and dairy foods than animals ever could. When that happens, consumer choice will render animals obsolete as a food technology, in the same way and for the same reasons that automobiles rendered horses obsolete as a transportation technology.

Elon Musk open-sourced Tesla’s electric vehicle technology to help boost the market for electric cars. Is it likely we will see a similar move from Impossible Foods? (In particular given your past appreciation of open source through the Public Library of Science)

We intend to make our technology as widely and freely available to the world as possible, as soon as possible. But our first task is to show that it can deliver what consumers want and scale economically. Nobody else can or will do that for us.  And to accomplish that, as well as our long range goal of massively improving the sustainability and performance of the global system, we need investors, which means we need a credible ability to deliver financial returns to our investors, which for now requires that we control the technology we’re developing.

How common will plant-based meat be in 20 years?

A large majority of the meat consumed globally in 20 years will be produced directly from plants, without using animals.

What is your advice to other entrepreneurs with dreams of making this world a better place?

A few thoughts…

A huge, transformative change isn’t necessarily harder or riskier to achieve than small changes. 

Imagine a very different and categorically better world and completely believe in its possibility. Don’t get held back by assumptions that any part of the system can’t be radically changed. If it needs to change to accomplish your mission, then figure out a market-based strategy to incentivize the change.

Your success will depend on delivering something of unique value to consumers who don’t necessarily share your mission. Figure out how to create something that can succeed in the market without relying on the altruism of your customer/consumer.

You can learn more about Impossible Foods on the Explorer and read about the emerging market of alternative sources of protein.

© All photos by Impossible Foods