Kehlan Kirwan talks with Nick Halla, chief strategy officer of Impossible Foods. With backers including Bill Gates, the food start-up aims to replace meat at your table and use science to create the foods of the future.
Give us a little insight into what Impossible Foods does.
We started out about five and a half years ago looking at the question of how we feed the world today, the scaling population and the growth in food consumption.
We really have to change the way we produce food. The way we produce food for consumption is highly inefficient and leaves a huge environmental footprint.
So we asked if there was a way we can look at the plant-based world and pick out the pieces we need to recreate some of the most environmentally impactful meats and dairy products, things of that nature. Then, find their equivalent in plant-based inputs.
We’ve built a company that now has nearly 130 employees, mostly scientists and engineers. Their job is to find out what makes up meat and dairy and then convert that into the experiences that people love.
So what makes up the Impossible Burger, which seems to ‘bleed’ like a meat burger?
Everything in our product is natural plant-based proteins and nutrients.
The beauty of it is that we have an amazing team of talented scientists which allows the making of very simple natural solutions for how to make products like the Impossible Burger, which is our first product out on the market. The burger itself has mainly five components.
Water, just like meat would have, is the biggest component. Coconut oil is the fat source. Then there is wheat protein and potato protein.
Then we have the hemeprotein which you mentioned in your question. We learned early in the studies that hemeprotein, which is very prevalent in beef, was the key part that drove all the flavour chemistry and all the aromas that make up what meat is.
We use a protein called leghemoglobin, which comes from legumes. This protein allows for the exact same chemical reaction to take place in the cooking process of the burger, matching that of a meat burger.
What was the journey from concept to an actual business?
Well, it starts with the basic premise. Dr Pat Brown was a medical researcher at Stanford University.
He took a sabbatical, looking at how he could have the best impact on the world for the remainder of his career. If anybody was going to solve this problem it was going to be Pat Brown, who is just a brilliant scientist and a visionary. I joined him from the start to say how we actually build a business to do this.
The first couple of years we had to find investors who were in it for the long term. For the first two years we didn’t even work on product development, it was about building those tools to allow us to actually begin to create the product. It took us five years to develop the product, but we did it very methodically.
First we needed the tools, then we needed to start building the product, then you make it scalable and sustainable.
Then you build a marketing plan to make it deliverable. So, from an investment point of view, we’ve been able to pull in great investors who understand what we’re trying to do.
Was it hard to find long-term investors?
Pulling investment is never easy anyway.
When we really knew who we were and what we were targeting, articulating that to investors really helped in bringing them on the journey with us. We were able to get the top investors to come on board with us. So Khosla Ventures, a firm which specialises in science-based start-ups, came on board. When they did, we hadn’t built the technology yet that was going to allow us to begin to even test product, let alone make it.
Bill Gates is a visionary, looking at how he can use his influence to try to make the world a better place. Google Ventures is looking for ways to build new big businesses, but is willing to take that longer-term viewpoint.
Horizon Ventures, out of Hong Kong, is a fit because we do have an international focus as well. It is a very mission-orientated, philanthropic organisation. UBS and Viking Global are bigger financial institutions. The animal products industry around the world is worth $1 trillion. So to change that size of a system means selling that long-term vision.
Was it a gamble to mess with a food that many people hold dear?
It was a very concerted choice, we knew what we were doing.
Internally, we set the bar very high. The only way we’re going to change the way we make food and the way people experience the food today is to set the bar extremely high.
So, the burger is on this pedestal and the meat is very much front and centre. So if we can do that, which now we have and we’re in the market, then we can do a lot more things.
It’s great for building a consumer brand and really showing the impact that we can have.
How do you now decide on what products you bring out in the future?
Well, I guess that’s the beauty and the difficulty with starting to build a platform. The first couple of years of building the company was about creating dairy-based products. We chose ground beef as a strategic product, it’s iconic in the American market.
We’ve made prototypes of steak, chicken, fish and cheese. Then it comes to the selection standpoint of what do we commercialise? We’re going through that process every day as we work with the science team and the business team.
Right now we’re working on scaling our Impossible Burger as quickly as possible because it’s had such a big impact, but we will have other products coming in the pipeline.
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