Almost 10 years ago, as Pat Brown approached the end of his sabbatical, he had a tough decision to make. Would he continue his job as a Biochemistry Professor at Stanford University or would he leave the prestigious institution to work on a plant-based meat startup and take on animal agriculture? In 2011, he put down the books and chose the latter. That moment marked the beginning of what would become of Impossible Foods, a company that is now, nine years later, worth billions.
Impossible Foods Starts With A Simple Mission
“We’ve been eating meat since we lived in caves. And today, some of our most magical moments together happen around meat,” the company’s mission statement reads. “But using animals to make meat is a prehistoric and destructive technology. We’re making meat from plants so that we never have to use animals again.”
Besides, if Brown were to be able to build a company that could even take some of the meat industry’s market share, there would be immense sustainability benefits too. (The company mentions its products require 96% less land and 87% less water, for instance.)
Despite Brown’s lack of business experience, investors funded him, allured by impressive science background and high conviction. Brown didn’t just want to beat out its direct competitors, which were other startups; instead, his eyes were set on the larger, multi-trillion-dollar incumbent that is the global meat industry.
The Team Is Heads-Down, But Sees Massive Inbound Interest
From 2011 to 2016, Brown’s team was focused on getting a product to market. During this period, the team’s research and development efforts went hand-in-hand with investor support.
By the end of 2015, the company had already raised well over $100 million from investors like Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures, and UBS. Impossible Foods even saw an acquisition offer from Google GOOGL, reportedly in the ballpark of $200-$300 million, though those conversations ultimately fell through.
Five Years Later, Impossible Foods Launches Its Flagship Burger
After five painstaking years, the company launched its flagship product, the Impossible Burger, in July 2016. But it wasn’t smooth sailing from there; the company needed to pick a customer demographic to start with.
Because the company’s production capacity was constrained by its two relatively-small facilities, scaling to the masses wasn’t possible. So, instead, Impossible Foods targeted high-end restaurants in areas like New York City and San Francisco, including celebrity chef David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi.
But there was one more big problem: there was simply no way that the general public would be willing to dish out $13.95 for what was essentially a novelty item. The path forward would require Impossible Foods to leverage larger facilities to produce more of its product.
Trajectory Starts To Take Form For Impossible Foods After Oakland Production
So that’s what the company did. In early 2017, the company started working out of its new Oakland, California factory, where the company could reportedly produce over 4 million burgers a month. It was a game-changer.
With supply starting to be able to more reasonably meet demand, Impossible Foods could lower its prices and fulfill larger contract volumes. This opened doors to a strategy that Impossible Foods would continue to leverage over the years. Instead of selling to high-end restaurants, large-scale partnerships with restaurant chains could exponentiate distribution.
Impossible Foods Finds Its Partnerships Playbook For Growth
Shortly after Impossible Foods started working out of Oakland, the company partnered with burger joints like Bareburger and Umami Burger, and followed with a partnership with hamburger chain White Castle.
These partnerships were largely successful. And the pilot with White Castle led to the Impossible Burger being rolled out to all 377 of the chain’s locations.
Come late-2018, the company had reportedly managed to make its mark on the menus of 5,000 restaurants in all 50 states.
And with a proven growth playbook in-hand, the company continued to leverage partnerships to distribute its product, including securing a nation-wide rollout of Impossible Whoppers with Burger King and agreements with thousands of other restaurants, according to a company press release.
Plant-Based Meat Doesn’t Reach Mass Adoption Without Retail
Whether it’s fast-food or high-end restaurants, each have their niche. So what truly allows for mainstream adoption is a retail presence, a principle Impossible Foods both acknowledges and embraces.
Just yesterday, Impossible Foods announced in a press release that it partnered with Kroger to roll the Impossible Burger to all 1,700 of the company’s supermarkets across the United States. “The rollout of Impossible Burger at Kroger represents a 18-fold increase in Impossible Foods’ retail footprint so far in 2020,” the company said.
“Plant-based food remains one of the fastest-growing categories at Kroger. We’re excited to continue growing our selection, especially as more customers than ever are purchasing meat products made from plants,” adds Impossible Foods senior vice president of merchandising.
Covid-19 Accelerates Plant-Based Meat Category
While Covid-19 has a variety of negative externalities, one big one is that it’s hitting meat production. And that’s resulting in fast food joints running dangerously low on meat-based items.
This presents an opportunity to the plant-based meat category, Forbes reports. The article cites a Nielson report that concludes alternative meat sales are “fully outpacing the growth of meat sales.”
As a result, Impossible Foods wagers it can expand its retail presence 50-fold in 2020, a move concurrent with serving “2,700 grocery stores … and thousands of restaurants” nation-wide.
Did Pat Brown see himself building a multi-billion-dollar company that serves retail and restaurant customers at scale back in 2011? Absolutely not — he never inherently wanted to leave academia to do startups.
But his conviction to solve a problem greater than his immediate research got the best of him. And clearly, what began with an “amateurish” pitch deck became something much more.
This article was originally published at Forbes, where I also have a column.