Pat Brown, Ph.D., MD, is a seriously smart dude. You may know him as the CEO and Founder of Impossible Foods, but before that, he was a Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University. At Stanford, he and his colleagues developed DNA microarray technology. No big deal. He also co-founded The Public Library of Science (PLOS). In addition to that Ph.D. and that MD, he has an American Cancer Society medal of honor. He’s smart.
He is also an optimist.
After solving a lot of difficult, world-changing questions (e.g., How do HIV and other retroviruses get their DNA into the genome of the cells they’re infecting? How can we use gene expression patterns to classify cancers?), he realized he could use his research and science chops to address seemingly-insurmountable environmental challenges through the food system.
Enter the Impossible Burger: a burger that even the meat-lovingest meat lovers will crave, a burger that is also made directly from plants.
We’re stoked to have Pat at our conference to discuss how and why Impossible Foods is making meat and dairy products from plants and what this approach will mean for the sustainability of our food system. (Psst the conference starts on September 6th, and you can see his – and every – panel in real time on our free livestream!) Read on for his insights from the helm of one of the most innovative companies shaping the future of food.
Why were you convinced that creating a plant-based burger for the mainstream consumer could work?
I created Impossible Foods in 2011 because I recognized the catastrophic destructive impact of the world’s dependence on animals as a food technology. Animal agriculture consumes 25% of global freshwater, it produces more greenhouse gasses and consumes more energy than nearly any other industry, and it occupies half of Earth’s land area, with catastrophic consequences for biodiversity. (Cattle alone now outweigh all wild land vertebrates combined by more than a factor of 10.)
And nothing was denting the skyrocketing global demand for meat. It was abundantly clear that educating, arguing with, or haranguing consumers to replace the meat in their diets with tofu, beans, or veggie burgers was not going to make a dent in the problem. But if we could find a way to produce the most delicious meat in the world directly from plants, we could completely replace the incumbent industry by simply competing for meat consumers based on quality and value.
So we took on the most important scientific challenge in the world today: understanding what makes meat delicious to the consumers who demand meat, and using that knowledge to make the best meat in the world from plants. Based on my experience as a research scientist, I knew that this was a hard problem – requiring the best team of scientists ever to work on food – but I never doubted that it was solvable.
You rolled out the Impossible Burger at Momofuku Nishi and have since expanded to thousands of restaurants across the U.S – and debuted in Hong Kong as well! Why did you start with restaurants rather than grocery stores?
We started with top chefs who are uncompromising meat lovers for one reason: because we could! Global culinary superstars such as David Chang, Traci Des Jardins, Chris Cosentino, and Michael Symon – chefs revered by meat lovers, whose reputations and livelihoods depend on serving uncompromisingly delicious meat to their customers – were eager to put the Impossible Burger on their menus. Their support delivered the most important message we needed to send to our target customers: the Impossible Burger is meat, and it’s delicious meat.
These chefs’ talent and commitment to quality ensured that people’s first experience of the Impossible Burger would be great. In addition, top chefs have tremendous followings and influence, and their support of the product helped fuel our initial buzz. All this was especially important when our production capacity was small and we needed to get the maximum possible “bang” from each burger sold.
The downside of launching in restaurants is that only chefs and kitchen staff get to have the experience of cooking the Impossible Burger, seeing and tasting it raw and experiencing the explosion of flavor and aroma as it cooks and exploring its versatility in all the traditional applications of ground beef. We really want consumers to have that experience too. Stay tuned for more info on that front.
Word on the street is that Impossible has been working on fish too. Why is seafood a priority area (and a great opportunity)?
We are definitely working on fish, which is critically important so we can stop strip-mining, extracting and trolling the oceans of wildlife. And we are working on plant-based chicken, pork, and dairy products. Our goal is to completely eliminate the need for animals as a food production technology, so that means creating uncompromisingly delicious plant-based meats, fish, and dairy foods to compete against every animal-derived food on the market.
Since you began experimenting to create the Impossible Burger in 2011, what has been the biggest aha moment—scientific or business-related—along the way?
Humans have been eating meat from animals since we were living in caves. So I was shocked to discover how little we knew about how and why we crave meat. Our team spent five years studying meat at the molecular level and were able to make fundamental discoveries before launching a product. Our archive of knowledge on this subject is one of the company’s biggest assets.
Impossible Foods’ branding is extremely compelling. How has your team been thinking about the brand’s positioning?
Our brand is optimistic, fun, universal, and inspiring. Our mission is huge: to preserve and restore the best planet in the universe by delivering uncompromisingly delicious, nutritious, sustainable meat for the meat-loving consumer.
What toppings are on your ideal burger?
Impossible to pick! So many great chefs have created amazingly delicious foods with our ground beef. A few recent examples: In May, I had my first White Castle slider in 40 years – in Jersey City, NJ. It was delicious, as were the onion rings. Shortly after that, I was in Hong Kong and had impeccably prepared Impossible minced beef on rice and Impossible dumplings at the Tsz Shan Buddhist monastery, an unforgettable experience. And Traci des Jardins’ gnocchi arabiatta at Davos was magical.
“Impossible to pick!” We get it :)
Hear Pat Brown speak alongside other leaders of the plant-based and clean meat industries on our conference livestream on September 6th.
All images are courtesy of Impossible Foods.