If I were to offer you plant-based meat to eat, what would be your first reaction? You’d be surprised to listen about a term that is an oxymoron in itself, let alone eating it! Right? But plant-based meat is a reality and a company named Impossible Foods has brought it to life!
What is Impossible Foods?
Impossible Foods is a company that is undoubtedly revolutionizing the way the world consumes non-vegetarian food by developing plant-based meat as substitutes for meat products. These plant-based replacements for meat products are comparatively more sustainable and help decrease the market demand for meat products. hese plant-based replacements for meat products are comparatively more sustainable and help decrease the market demand for meat products. By reducing the consumption of animal products, consumers have enormous power to preserve biodiversity and limit the amount of greenhouse gas emissions at the source.
‘To give people the taste and nutritional benefits of meat without the negative health and environmental impacts associated with livestock products’- says Patrick Brown, Founder, Impossible Foods
Here’s a brief history of Impossible Foods:
Impossible Foods was founded by Patrick Brown in 2011 and is headquartered in Redwood City, California. He is a revered personality in the field of microbiology and holds a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.). As a pure vegetarian and having cut dairy ingredients from his diet, Patrick Brown cogitated on what the biggest environmental concern was and zeroed onto the production of meat from cattle.
When he held a conference to raise awareness about the issue, he noticed that it made a minimal impact. He realized that there was a pressing need to offer a competing product in the open market. He then immersed himself in extensive research about what makes meat such a hugely loved food product and began to develop a process that isolates compounds that make meat ‘feel like meat.’
FUNDING & GROWTH:
Brown's development process was demanding, rigorous and expensive. After attracting an initial seed fund from venture capitalists, he started instituted Impossible Foods Inc. Post this, there was no looking back. The company continued to raise more money each year than the previous year- $3.14 million in 2011, $6.2 million in 2012, $28 million in 2013, $39.8 million in 2014, $109 million in 2015 and so on which it invested heavily into Research & Development. Its most recent round of funding (Series F) in 2020 raised $500 million, bringing its total funding to nearly $1.3 billion.
As company operations kickstarted and Brown went about adding a ‘company to his science lab’, his approach to entrepreneurship was astonishingly similar to his approach towards beef--as if he were building the business right from its first principles. Some of the company’s early decisions left the MBAs utterly puzzled. Brown banned the highly lauded and extensively used Gantt charts because he felt that they failed to account for the unpredictability of new projects.
"Excel is a shitty tool for modeling." He frequently employed Monte Carlo simulation, which is capable of generating thousands of possible outcomes for sales modeling.
PRODUCT LAUNCH & OFFERINGS:
After five long and enduring years, the company launched its flagship product, the Impossible Burger, in July 2016. Since the company had limited production capacity (two small facilities), scaling up to mass production was not possible. So, instead, Impossible Foods targeted high-end restaurants in tony areas like San Francisco and New York City including the popular celebrity chef David Chang’s ‘Momofuku Nishi’. But there was another issue: there was no way that the customers would be willing to shell out $13.95 for what was essentially perceived as a ‘novelty item’.
The burger was not meant for vegetarians. It was meant to convince carnivores to switch to a more environment-friendly and plant-based diet. Since then, it has featured on the menus of several Michelin star restaurants. Popular mass-oriented burger chains like Umami Burgers, Bareburgers, and Whitecastle gladly added the Impossible Burger to their menu.
Ever since the release of the Impossible Burger, the company has worked hard to refine the patty to resemble and taste more closely like an actual meat patty which paved the way for Impossible Burger 2.0.
What's more? Following the launch of the Impossible Burger 2.0, an arch-rival Burger King did a test sale in select restaurants by offering the Impossible Burger on their menu which turned out to be a success. This further led to it becoming a staple offering on Burger King menus across their locations in America. This move drove Impossible Foods to increase its production capacity to approximately one million pounds a month. As of now, Impossible Foods offers a plant-based burger, sausage, and pork.
Impossible Foods’ competitors had a slightly different approach to the problem at hand. More than 30 companies were attempting to grow actual animal protein in minuscule Petri dishes, while startups like Beyond Meat were formulating plant-based patties using gluten-free and all-natural ingredients. But interestingly, only the researchers at Impossible Foods sought to reverse-engineer beef from plants-and had no qualms about employing cutting-edge science and technology in the name of beefiness, including methods that seemed freaky by some farmers' market types.
Using genetic engineering and advanced fermentation techniques, these researchers got yeast to bleed mass quantities of the protein soy leghemoglobin, a compound generally found in soybean roots but is chemically similar to the myoglobin found in our very own mammalian veins. Both the compounds contain heme - and heme is at the core of what makes Impossible possible. Heme looks and tastes like blood, and when added to textured soy protein along with a few other ingredients, it makes for an extremely convincing burger with a rich, meaty taste.
Despite its immense success, the company has had its fair share of controversies. A handful of frustrated employees resorted to writing reviews on Glassdoor, thereby exposing a culture of ‘overwhelming arrogance’ and ‘some of the worst management in the bay area’.
One employee went on to write, “The CEO has good intentions (and is a true scientific genius), but is a terrible business leader.”
The company must also continue to wade through negative perceptions referring to its product as “processed crap that comes in a box.” The company usually does not prefer to talk about the provenance of heme, its magic ingredient, primarily because its production is outsourced to a contractor who makes them in a microbial fermentation plant that has also churned out antibiotics, biopharmaceuticals, and enzymes used in biofuels.
Another widespread controversy that engulfed the company was due to the petitioning of FDA by the Center for Food Safety, an environmental group, to keep Impossible meat out of groceries, contending that heme has not been subjected to sufficiently rigorous testing.
RETAIL EXPANSION & FUTURE SCOPE:
While COVID-19 was touted as one of the most daunting times in the history of mankind that catapulted myriad negative externalities, a major one is that it has hit meat production adversely. Subsequently, fast food joints are running dangerously low on meat-based items. This presents a mammoth opportunity for the plant-based meat category. As a result, Impossible Foods can use this as bait to expand its retail presence multifold, a move concurrent with the mission statement of serving “2700 grocery stores and thousands of restaurants” nation-wide.
Fig: Global Plant-Based Market Stats by Technavio
The company is now also planning to widen its product range by conducting research to further its offerings. While Impossible Foods is unequivocally trying to achieve the impossible, the technology they employ in their development process will definitely find application in the future if land and water become scarce resources owing to alarmingly increasing rates of global warming.
Impossible Foods is evidently taking a measured approach to retail, by selling only in small chains as of now. This slow rollout makes it slightly vulnerable to the predatory competition: Beyond Meat is already present in 28,000 U.S. groceries, and Nestlé, Tyson, and Don Lee Farms have recently launched simulated-meat products. The beef industry is also fighting back, with lobbying in nearly 24 states to ban the phrase ‘plant-based meat.’ Impossible Foods would not have the newest technology forever, either, with newbies working on gadgets like 3-D printers that make steak. And the company is burning cash as it expands its production facilities and develops new offerings, from breakfast sausage to pork and fried chicken.
This is only the beginning of a new era of high-tech, genetically engineered foods. In the near future, our planet will have to weather a climate in chaos. In such a scenario, the focus should be on improving efficiency so that maximum people can be fed without the need for more land, water, and fertilizers or pesticides.
Humanity will most definitely have to cut back on its meat consumption. Companies like Impossible Foods challenge to change this status-quo more dramatically than any company possibly in history has ever done it. It remains to be seen if their plant-based offerings can actually satiate the taste buds of meat loyalists. But it surely is the dawn of a new epoch!
Author: Rashmi Singh