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Impossible Foods, the "Most Important Company in the World" is Here to Save Earth


Impossible Foods is creating plant-based burgers that tastes just like the real thing – a goal its CEO says will stop climate change and redefine meat.


One of the most popular cars at CES 2019 – the world’s largest tech event – wasn’t self-driving or electric. It didn’t have a screen across its dashboard, or four legs to walk around. It was a food truck parked outside the Las Vegas Convention Center cooking up a veggie burger.

For many, you had to taste the Impossible Burger to believe it, as word of mouth quickly spread that the plant-based patty could go toe-to-toe with any restaurant-grade beef. Even at the world’s gathering place for all things technology, thousands were blown away by the creators Impossible Food’s take on some of the world’s oldest tech: meat without the animal.

Looks like meat, cooks like meat, tastes like meat.

The Impossible Burger doesn’t taste like tofu, veggie patties, mushrooms or other typical food that companies pass off as a vegetarian alternative. Impossible Foods’ fake beef is born from a laboratory, where food scientists combined high-quality plant ingredients with the molecules found in meat that creates its taste. Unlike most bean or veggie burgers, which lack the texture or savory taste of meat – also known as umami – biting into an Impossible Burgers is juicy and has the soft yet firm texture of a burger. If you squeeze it, it will even bleed red like meat.

CEO Patrick Brown says the burger will not just disrupt the meat industry, but completely restructure it. When he started Impossible Foods in 2011, he set out to curb the deadly environmental impacts that livestock and meat production cause, hoping to “completely replace animals in the food system by 2025,” he said in a one-on-one interview with i3.

“Impossible Foods – and I’m not being ironic – is the most important technology company in the world,” Brown said. “We exist to address the greatest threat humanity has ever faced to the viability of our planet, which is the catastrophic use of animals as a source of food.

“If we don’t solve this problem, we are literally on a rocket ship towards environmental apocalypse.”

Any CES attendee (or steak aficionado) might roll their eyes at another company's claim at self-importance, but Brown’s statement goes beyond ego. Climate change is a five-alarm fire, sometimes literally. A recent NASA study found that 2018 was the fourth warmest year on record, with the past five years filling in the other top years. Researchers said climate change caused 15 different weather disasters in 2017, including both droughts and floods, according to The Washington Post.

As the temperatures warm, scientists unanimously agree increased carbon dioxide and greenhouses gas emissions are caused by massively-unsustainable industries like such as meat makers.The land, factories, transportation and water used to create a burger is demanding and inefficient, according to Impossible Foods. The meat industry has an equal environmental impact than the entire transportation system combined, using more water than any other industry, and taking up roughly 45 percent of all of the Earth’s land for livestock-related purposes.

Brown sees cutting out meat as the easiest and farthest-reaching way to cut down your carbon footprint, and Impossible Foods wants doing so to be just as delicious.

“We’re serving this incredible valuable market that is obviously hitting the limits of scaling technology – that’s manifestly one of the least efficient technologies on Earth – and it's completely clear all these problems are solvable, ” Brown said.

WHERE’S THE BEEF

CEO Patrick Brown founded Impossible Foods in 2011

In a country that lines up for hours for Shake Shack and made more than one TV show about competitive barbeque, if your fake meat is going to sell, it better taste like meat. Impossible Foods went through 100 different iterations and recipes each month trying to find the perfect patty. Impossible Foods doesn’t market just to vegetarians – they want their product to be enjoyed by the most hardcore of carnivores.

Two years after the release of the first product, and seven years since beginning work on the Impossible Burger, Impossible Foods announced the Impossible Burger 2.0, a new and improved version. Announced at CES 2019, the new recipe is tastier, cheaper, more sustainable to create and resembles meat more than ever. Impossible Foods was the first company to exhibit at CES that strictly produced food – and their arrival at the show was not a surprise to Brown, who says the “thousands of years of research” behind food is just impressive as the development behind cars or computers.

During CES, Impossible Foods said it served about 12,000 free samples from its food truck to anyone who wanted to try. At the same time, Fifteen other top-rated chefs from highly established joints like Momofuku CCDC in Washington D.C, announced they added Impossible meat to their menu. Even Kanye West snacked on a sample during the last day at CES. Impossible Foods received massive praise at the show from tech-specific websites, with Engadget, Mashable and Digital Trends including it in its “Best of” CES lists, while Gizmodo and the New York Post sang its praise while gobbling it up.

“Impossible Burger 2.0 tastes so real it made this vegetarian’s stomach turn,” a CNET reporter wrote.

People don’t love meat because it’s made from animal carcass and requires 75 square feet of land to make, Brown explained. They love it because it’s delicious. One of the biggest barriers to get people to eat less meat is finding a version just as good and affordable.

“To meat lovers around the world, as long as they keep the things they love about meat – the deliciousness, the versatility and all that kind of stuff  – changing the way we make it is not some incredibly difficult transition. It’s something that they welcome,” Brown said.

By “disrupting” the burger, Brown and his team have found a way to improve on the centuries-old technology of “meat.” Already, the burger contains no gluten, no animal hormones and no antibiotics. It’s kosher and halal-certified, has no cholesterol and less fat than a burger, but just as much protein and iron.
The magic behind Impossible Food’s product is the heme they put in its product, an “iron-containing molecule” found in blood and animal fat tissue that gives a burger its All-American flavor, Brown said. Impossible Foods get its heme from the roots of soy plants instead. The plant’s DNA is then genetically engineered into yeast and then fermented, vastly increasing the amount heme – and flavor.

Compared to ground beef, this process uses 75 percent less water, generates 87 percent less greenhouse gases and requires 95 percent less land, according to an Impossible Food blogpost. All the land once used for livestock would eventually recover as well, he said.

To accomplish their environmental mission, the company is also making its product as accessible as possible. Select White Castles are selling $1.99 impossible burger sliders – pricier than the $0.71 original, but closer to the $1.56 chicken slider. Eater called it “one of the country’s best fast-food burgers, period.”

“When we are as good as the best meat, we’re not going to stop there,” Brown said. “A year later we’re going to be better. We can make meat better than any cow can make it.”

A MEATY PROPOSITION

Hoping to make an impact on environmental issues, Brown started Impossible Foods after roughly 30 years as a biochemistry professor and renowned geneticist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Stanford University. He already made his first foray into commercial vegan food with Kite Hill, a dairy alternative he started in 2011 that received $40 million in investment from General Mills last year.

With only rudimentary research with heme and a group of early employees, Brown went to investors in 2011 even though he had yet to developed a final product. VCs still clamored at the chance to shake up the meat industry – a $1.5 trillion industry expected to double in 10 years, Brown said. Plant-based substitutes were worth $1.5 billion last year, according the New York Times, a 22 percent increase from last year. Then in 2017, Impossible Foods raised $75 million, thanks in part from Bill Gates and Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing as investors.

Since then, Impossible Foods has slowly improved its flavor, texture, nutrition and versatility in the kitchen.


“Not only did our R&D team established [heme] as the magic catalyst for meat flavor, they figured out all the other things that needed to go into it to produce the full flavor experience,” Brown said. “And they figured out a way to produce it at scale with incredibly high performance and very minor environmental impact.”

Brown’s scientific background also extends to the company itself, which he runs more like a university lab than an ordinary Silicon Valley startup. Every Wednesday, he hosts all-hands meetings, where employees learn what’s new in each part of the company, whether it’s the tech behind the burger or the marketing of it.

Alongside the CES hype, Impossible Foods is now working to get the upgraded version in stores later this year. R&D are also hard at work developing pork, chicken and fish versions. They’re even creating a fake steak. The wider their net, the more impact they can make. And even with all the talk of impending environmental doom, Brown is more than hopeful Impossible Foods can get ahead.

“Hopeful is putting it mildly. I am completely confident, he said.

Jeremy Snow

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