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Impossible Foods CEO Describes His Vision for a Meatless Future

The following is an edited version of Pat Brown’s 2018 Hustle Con talk. Watch the full video of his speech here.

10 Minute Read

It’s a little strange that I’m here purporting to be a kind of business expert because I’m still a complete freshman in the business world. I think half the people in the audience probably could teach me more than I could teach them about how to function in that world. I definitely have as much to learn as anyone here. Ten years ago, the last thing that I would imagine myself doing was founding a business…because I had essentially no interest in business. My only interest in food was, you know, just eating it. When I wasn’t eating it, I was just not that interested in it.

I was completely unqualified for this gig, and at the time I had what was really my dream job…I had a research lab that I loved and great students and great funding, and a very secure job. Basically my job description was to invent and discover things. That was literally what my job description was, and it was what I would have created for myself if I had the choice. Why would I give all that up to do something that I was unqualified to do?

This here is a scenic view of Mars. 

This is the second best planet in our solar system, and it’s probably the second best planet that we could travel to in our lifetime, within 50 light years of earth. But it sucks. It has no breathable air, no liquid water. It’s winter all the time, but there’s no skiing, and dim light, and nothing but rocks and boulders as far as the eye can see. It’s a sorry excuse for a planet…We got the good planet…You won’t find anything like this anywhere within 50 light years of here. We have liquid water. We have air we can breathe. We have mind-boggling biodiversity and beauty, and we take it for granted that this is just where we live.

You know, earth is 4.5 billion years old. When it was 4 billion years old, we couldn’t have lived on it for five minutes. There was no oxygen in the air. It was only when the first land plants appeared about 400 million years ago that the oxygen levels got at all into the range where animals could survive. This is not something we can take for granted, and the lives of our children and future generations basically depend on how good a job we do of taking care of this because there’s no alternative.

We’re doing a crappy job of it and this is why. This is for all practical purposes the reason why this planet is in jeopardy…The problem is––actually it’s not the problem––but the driver of the problem is we love meat. Since prehistoric times––well, in prehistoric times, it was essential for survival. We hunted animals to survive because basically it was a very efficient way of getting high nutrient density food with relatively little labor…

But today, we don’t need meat to survive. In fact, people who don’t have any meat in their diets by and large are substantially healthier than people who do––but we love meat.

To satisfy the growing demand for meat, we’ve built an industry that today kills 11 cows, 15 sheep, 17 goats, 47 pigs, and more than 2k chickens every second…To produce these humongous quantities of meat requires a huge fraction of earth’s natural resources, and it takes a tremendous toll on the global environment.

I won’t drag you through all the ways in which that’s true. Just say that it’s responsible for more greenhouse gases than every car, bus, truck, train, airplane, rocket ship, boat––all transportation combined. It consumes more water and pollutes more water than any other industry on earth. It currently occupies about half of every square mile of earth, of land on earth, that’s not covered by ice or water.

The land that is devoted to raising animals for food, either growing crops to feed them or grazing them, is greater than the total area of North America, South America, Australia, and Europe combined. That’s how much land we’re using for this. That’s all land that once supported biodiversity, diverse plants and animals, that’s basically now been homogenized to a few crops and the kinds of grasses that can sustain intense grazing…

As soon as I learned about this problem, I thought, “I’m going to give up the best job in the world and do what I can to fix it.” That’s kind of the one take-home lesson that, if there is a take-home lesson from any of this, is that, you know, when I looked at this problem and realized what a big deal it was, I looked around… Actually my first instinct was, “Someone’s got to do something about this.” And it didn’t seem like anyone was doing something about it, so [I decided] I’m going to go around and try to convince someone to take this problem on. I went around to food conferences and stuff like that and I said, “This is a huge opportunity for someone. It’s a huge problem, a huge opportunity. Someone is going to make a bundle of money if they take on this problem.”…

The problem I wanted to fix was this massive scale of the system we use to produce food from animals. What made it a real problem is that for most of the people on earth, for billions of people, the food that we get from animals is really an essential part of the pleasure of living. They’re not going to be willing to sacrifice something that contributes as much as meat and fish and dairy foods due to their quality of life.

Even when I’ve gone to these environmental conferences that there’s like lifelong environmentalist as far as the eye can see, every single one of them is going out for a steak after the conference. I’m not kidding. They’re wonderful people and they understand the problem, and they’re not being assholes about it. It’s just that it’s really, really hard to make major changes in the diet that you’ve had all your life. You just have to accept that we are not going to solve this problem by persuading people to change their diets or making it a moral or political issue…

I have a question for the audience. Don’t worry, I can’t see your face, so I won’t judge you––but do you love meat?

Yeah. All right. Good. Future customers.

Now, do you love meat in part because of the way we make it from animal cadavers? Is that part of what you value in the meat? It’s a serious question actually.

No? OK.

Do you love meat in spite of the way we make it?

Yes. OK, good.

That’s virtually everywhere I’ve gone around the world, pretty much, including middle America, that’s the way people feel about it. They love their meat. They’re never gonna give up eating it, but they don’t love the way that it’s made. They just live with it. That really defines the problem in a useful way.

This is about a $1.5 trillion business. [That’s] why it was possible for me to raise money for this project. 

The problem isn’t that people love meat, of course––it’s that we’re making it the wrong way. The solution is to develop a better way of making all the foods that we get from animals, but not just something that’s almost good enough.

In order to succeed, we need to make foods that consumers around the world decisively prefer based on all the characteristics that give it value to them––taste, nutrition, affordability, convenience, and so forth. If we can do that, if we can do a better job of making the best meat in the world and just put it on the market, that’s the most decisive way to solve the problem.

As a quick analogy, although I think this is pretty intuitive to you, for tens of thousands of years, horses were the definitive technology for power and transportation. If you asked someone to 200 years ago what the future of transportation would look like, they highly likely would’ve told you the horses will probably be faster.

The first mechanized transportation came along in 1830. This was the first commercial locomotive, and it famously ran a race with a horse in 1830 and lost, slightly lost, to the horse. But the important point here is that it never lost again because the horse never got faster.

Once you switched to a technology from a completely unimprovable technology, like basically animals as power or as food, to one that is improvable in multiple dimensions, as soon as you’re running close, the race is over. You know you’re gonna win.

Impossible Foods started out as a mission and the mission basically was to replace the world’s most destructive technology by 2035 by making the most delicious, nutritious, affordable meat, fish, and dairy foods in the world and letting the market do the rest.

This became a company. The mission of getting rid of this technology became a company when I realized that the solution was market-based. The first step was convincing someone to invest in this as a business, which I had never done before. But fortunately, I happen to live on the Stanford campus, which was within a short biking distance of half the venture capital in the world.

I could just in less than 10 minute bike ride pop over to Khosla Ventures and knock on their door. Didn’t really do that, but walked in and gave my pitch. It was a completely amateurish pitch deck and it’s kind of like.. I’m going to show it to some people at the company at some point because it’s so embarrassing in retrospect, but basically this was my first slide.

It was about the mission––and the next nine slides were about the mission and why it was so important. It was not until the 10th slide that I said anything about how this could function as a business. But fortunately that 10th slide basically had, you know, $1 trillion on it, which was that magical moment when they reached for their checkbooks.

Anyway, when I launched the company… I should also add, what I knew for sure was that this was going to succeed. I believed it was totally doable, and I was completely determined. I was not going to let this fall short of complete success, but I didn’t know how we were going to do it. I just knew it was doable.

It was evident from my deck that I really didn’t know how I was gonna do it. I also didn’t know how to run a business. It was obvious to the investors once they saw how bad a job I did of pitching to them. But anyway, this is another slide in my pitch deck to just move this on, which was some ideas about how we might do this and what the technology would look like. One of the ideas was that this… I’m not going to go into the science behind this. You can ask.

Heme might be the magic ingredient for flavor. I had what I thought it was a brilliant idea, which is that there’s this heme… Heme is the thing that makes your blood red and carries oxygen in your blood. It’s found in lots of high quantities in animals, low quantities in plants.

But the one place in plants where there’s a decent amount of it is in what’s called the root nodule of nitrogen fixing plants. There’s a protein called leghemoglobin that has heme. I did a calculation. I realized that there’s enough leghemoglobin in the root nodules of the US soybean crop to replace all the heme and all the meat in the US diet. I thought, “Holy crap. This is such a great idea. Once they harvest the soybeans, we’ll come across the field and harvest the root nodules, and it’ll cost us almost nothing. It’s genius.”

These are root nodules. You can see they look like meat inside.

A small amount of pea root nodules, like one ounce of pea root nodules, you can get all this red juice. That’s heme. OK. Then, the first year of the company, we spent probably more than half of our startup investment pursuing this idea, which involved basically making multiple trips to Texas and Minnesota, the soybean farms, and amassing these giant piles of soybean roots and developing these root globber contraptions to recover the root nodules and extract the leghemoglobin from them.

After more than a year, we realized this is a ridiculous idea, but we’d spent like $1m discovering that. But it wasn’t a waste of time for a couple of reasons. First of all, the only way that we could learn that this wasn’t the best way to do it was to try it and realize it was a terrible way to do it. It was also a great way to build a team because there’s no better way to build a team than to be, you know, working on this kind of ridiculous project where you find yourself with your small group of colleagues at the start of the company at 4am mopping up the floor of some godforsaken pilot facility in south Texas. It really helped us bond as a team. But we realized that wasn’t the way to do it.

We figured out a way to produce heme using yeast, and that enabled our R&D team to establish what we’d sort of only suspected, which is heme is the magic molecule that makes meat taste like meat. It’s basically the explanation for why meat recognizably tastes like meat and unlike anything else on earth. It does it by catalyzing chemical reactions that turn these simple nutrients into flavor molecules and so forth. I won’t go into the science.

The job that we assigned ourselves was study meat the way I would in my previous life have studied a disease to figure out in molecular terms how it works. Then once you know that to figure out how to make the best version of it––you know, using a new set of tools. Now, our R&D team, which was the best group of scientists ever assembled in the food world by far, did that task.

About two years ago, we decided we knew enough to launch our first product, which was raw ground beef, which we chose because it’s the most disruptive product we thought we could make in the US…This product, they were serving it in the food trucks. I encourage you to try it and email us if you have any comments on it––but here’s how I know we’re going to succeed. Basically the cow has been working on this for a million years, and we’ve been working on it for about six years.

At this point, I would say by a lot of criteria we’re running even with the cow…This is where mechanized transportation was in 1830, and we’re getting better every day and the cow has not. Just the mission here, the original motivation or a big part of it was to reduce the environmental impact of the food system. Even at those early stages, where we hadn’t fully optimized this for sustainability, producing our burger based on an independent life cycle analysis uses a quarter of the water, an eighth of the greenhouse-gas emissions, and less than 1/20th of the land to produce the same thing from a cow, and that’s going to get better.

Today, there are people who are actually talking about the need to establish a human colony on Mars, so that will be ready in case we totally mess up this planet, in case we make earth uninhabitable. But the thing is that Mars is already uninhabitable and earth is awesome. All we need to do is to keep from turning earth into Mars and we’re good.

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