Started by Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick. O. Brown in 2011, Impossible Foods began with just one simple question: ‘why does meat taste like meat?’. In 2016, after years of extensive research, they launched their first product in the US: The Impossible Burger. Not only does the plant-based burger have a similar taste and texture to that of meat, it cooks and grills in an almost identical fashion. And what’s attracted the most attention is the fact it ‘bleeds’ like real beef.
Impossible Foods initially raised funding rounds of $75 million and $108 million from a range of investors including Google Ventures, UBS, and Bill Gates. In August 2017, $75 million in additional financing was raised after they reached their key objectives, with Bill Gates investing additional money. In 2015, The Times reported that Brown turned down an offer of $300 million to buy out Impossible Foods. And, in 2017, they opened a new factory in Oakland, California, and according to Business Insider, the factory will produce at least one million pounds of meatless burgers per month (that’s four million burgers total). Clearly, they are a company on the rise.
Their fast-growing success is largely down to the way they are tapping into a new world where people have a heightened awareness of what they are putting in their body, and also the sustainability of their food. The mass-consumption of meat has sparked alarm worldwide, with Americans more conscious than ever that they are eating more and more meat, and how unsustainable that is. The NPR reported that in the US, the average individual consumes 270.7 pounds of meat a year, with a devastating toll on the environment. As a result, vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, and Impossible Foods are tapping into this culture, promising a future where people can enjoy the meat taste, without the environmental consequences. They couldn’t have arrived at a more convenient time for exponential growth.
So, are they set to change the way we consume meat? We spoke with Impossible Foods’ Chief Strategy Officer, Nick Halla, ahead of our Chief Strategy Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8, about how they are disrupting the food industry.
What's unique about Impossible Food's strategy?
Dr. Brown had the idea for Impossible Foods about seven years ago, and it was an extremely ambitious mission from the start. He had spent 25 years researching cancer, genomics and medical diagnostics, but took a sabbatical to find out exactly how he could have the biggest impact on the world. He quickly realized that our reliance on animals for food was by far the biggest environmental threat to the planet. Animals are an extremely inefficient food source, as farming them uses up a lot of resources and they produce a huge quantity of gas over their lifespan. Our strategy from the start has been to create a better system of taking plant-based nutrients and converting them into foods that people love. Our goal is to produce better foods than the everyday food we get from animals today.
The first several years of the company were all basic research in order to understand what actually makes meat, fish, and dairy products so good. Questions like, why do they transform as you cook them? As we began to understand those fundamentals, then we'd investigate the plant-based world and build new tools, picking the vital pieces out and recreating products that can compete against animal products, in terms of taste, affordability, and nutrition. That was the strategy from day one.
When we started approaching the market about two or three years ago, we decided ground beef would be the first category of food that we were going to start making a plant-based version of. To launch our first product, we ended up working with the top meat-loving chefs in America to deliver the 'Impossible Burger' and start building our credibility with a great tasting product. We've now been expanding across the US over the last several months and are in more than 800 restaurants.
How do you make the food taste so authentically meat-like?
The beauty of the platform is that by understanding the fundamentals, we can create simple solutions in the end. For example, we learned that there's one protein in meat called heme that drives all that complex flavor chemistry as you cook. Heme is really the magic of meat flavor. Once we learned this, we found a plant based heme protein called leghemoglobin from legumes that drives those exact same flavor chemistry. For us, it's really about creating the dynamic sensory experience and transformation as you cook - that's the only way to get the complexity of that meat flavor.
The food industry is incredibly competitive. What are the challenges of making a successful strategy in that really competitive industry?
My background is in agriculture and food. I grew up on a dairy farm and then I worked at General Mills as a research engineer for four years developing new products and manufacturing systems. So I'm pretty familiar with how agriculture and food works. And one of the critical aspects of Impossible Food is our entirely different approach, the way we've built a whole new way to make food. This is how we will outcompete the meat, fish, and dairy market because our approach is very, very different to the approach of the rest of the food industry. No one else does plant-based food like we do. Our approach to learning and our focus on the fundamental chemistry of the meat has allowed us to create a product like no one else has. We focus on recreating the taste and texture of meat and dairy products raw, cooking, and cooked; for example, cheese that melts and stretches like real dairy does. By breaking it down to it's really fundamental, basic properties we have successfully managed to create scalable and protectable solutions.
There's a McKinsey statistic that claims 70% of business strategies don't reach the expected results. What do you think makes a successful business strategy?
For us, it's about testing our hypotheses as quickly as possible, I think that's what has really made our strategy successful. There are a lot of times where we are completely wrong and if we can test quickly and effectively then we can learn faster and optimize the strategy as we go. Strategy is something that needs to be dynamic. It has to be two things; you need to make sure decisions very clear when made and that you are dynamic and willing to adjust as you learn based on new information.
What are the biggest traps companies tend to fall into when they're implementing a new strategy?
There's always the challenge of looking at a sunk cost as a sunk cost and really thinking 'what is the best way forward from here?' When there's a lot of momentum building, it's hard to change direction, and I think this is where a lot of large company’s stumble. When you have a successful business and then the market starts changing, but all the momentum you built is in the direction you're already going, it can hard to change trajectory. Companies need to really look at what the reality is today, where it is going tomorrow, and what the best strategy going forward is, which is much more challenging to do.
How do you think the food industry is going to change over the next five years?
I think the food industry will always find a way to follow what consumers are demanding. Today, consumers are demanding more transparency and so the industry will continue to move in that direction, from the farm to fork. Consumers want to know more about what is in their food, people care more about their health, so this trend will continue to influence the industry. We're thinking about how we deliver products to consumers to meet all their demands, and I think that's increasingly going to focus on what the products themselves mean from a worldwide impact perspective. The pressure the food industry is putting on the land and the oceans is becoming more and more clear, and consumers are becoming more aware of the effects of what they eat; this will influence the industry a lot over the coming years as it adapts to these demands.
So, you believe that sustainability is set to become a focus of a food companies’ strategy?
I believe it'll definitely increase. Amazing taste is always going to be the most important thing, but focusing on aspects lower down the chain is becoming more vital, with a focus on sustainability, health and nutrition. This is a movement you can see growing, for example, Whole Foods focus their strategy on sustainable food and even Walmart are moving into and driving the organic industry, as well as Amazon. So now the industry is getting ready to see a change to the whole system as it follows the sustainability trends. However, it's not going to be a one-size-fits-all system and the taste is always going to be the driving factor.
Hear Nick’s full presentation ‘Doing the Impossible: corporate strategy that breaks boundaries’ at our Chief Strategy Officer summit in San Francisco, May 7 & 8.