EDITOR'S BLOG: Disruption matters
Jan. 8, 2018
by Joel Crews
Impossible Food's recipe for competing with traditional meat companies includes key ingredients that warrant attention.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – I recently got an up-close view of a disruptive food brand. Having spent the better part of a December day in sun-drenched, venture capital-rich Redwood City, California, at the headquarters of Impossible Foods, I came away with a new perspective and literally a taste of entrepreneurism and why the Silicon Valley approach to creating a food business shouldn’t be ignored. Business models based on developing slaughter-free replacements for traditional meat warrant the attention of animal-based agriculture’s stakeholders. This new breed of competition claims to address the environmental impact related to today’s food production while providing a solution to feeding the world’s population tomorrow. Plant-based food companies like Impossible are appealing to a growing customer base that identifies with its mission while enlisting a talented workforce that is passionately committed to the mission.
Pat Brown, a medical doctor who moved his own cheese during a 2009 sabbatical from a career as a biochemist at Stanford Univ. to start up Impossible Foods in 2011, is laser focused on completely replacing animals as a food source by 2035. Brown, and a team of about 300 employees, have their sights first on replacing ground beef with its Impossible Burger. Next, it plans to create plant-based replacements for pork, chicken, seafood and cheese.
“We are figuring out how to produce the best meat and fish and dairy foods we can possibly make from a consumer value standpoint,” he told me. “Obviously the competition that matters (or is standing in the way) is the current livestock and fishing industry.”
Impossible’s eco-friendly and well-funded pursuit of a slaughter-free, meatless, plant-based burger is gaining momentum among investors and consumers. The company launched the Impossible Burger 18 months ago and it’s now on the menu of more than 340 restaurants. A dedicated production facility with a weekly capacity of 1 million lbs. of wannabe ground beef opened in September and Brown promises more strategically located plants are part of the near future.
Brown accepts and expects today’s Impossible Burger to be improved. The current version, which is designed to look, cook, smell, chew, taste and even “bleed” like its animal-based counterpart, is a far cry from the prototype rolled out in 2016. I saw a demonstration of how the burger is made, including its secret sauce: leghemoglobin (“Heme” or “plant blood”), which gives the burger its juicy mouthfeel. Based on what I tasted, it is a formidable substitute for real burgers.
The burger’s recipe is constantly tweaked, taste-tested, and reinvented. When I was visiting, formulators were on the 15th version since the inaugural rollout in 2016, with many more renditions expected.
The non-descript, multipurpose office space that serves as Impossible’s HQ and houses its R&D center, food lab and test kitchen, is abuzz with activity. Inside is a team of marketing gurus, food scientists, biochemists, chefs, environmentalists and at least two executives with medical degrees.
The Redwood City facility is bustling with bright-eyed, energized, denim and hoodie-clad employees buzzing about in a casual, almost college dorm-like environment. Couches, stand-up work stations and laptop computers seem to facilitate spontaneous meetings and idea sessions among the eager-to-achieve workers. Brown too, is eager to compete with animal-based food companies.
The competitive landscape, he says, is adversarial but in the same way that General Motors and Ford are adversaries. “It’s not warfare; it’s competition in the market,” he says. Since Day 1, he adds, Impossible has maintained “collegial” and “even friendly” exchanges with people in the meat and dairy industry. Brown’s company is seeking partnerships with farmers who currently depend on livestock-based agriculture to instead, supply it with plant-based raw material.
“I think it’s too easy and it’s kind of glib to view it as purely antagonistic,” he says of the competing industries.
When it comes to innovators and would-be competitors in the meat and poultry industry, processors are wise to keep an eye on their collective rearview mirrors to ensure disruptions don’t morph into interruptions. Objects in mirrors can be closer than they appear.