Image credit: Koren Shadmi/Engadget

Impossible Foods’ rising empire of almost-meat

How a burger maker became a “platform.”

2902 Shares
Share
Tweet
Share
Save
    Image credit: Koren Shadmi/Engadget

    Sponsored Links

    This April Fools' Day, Impossible Foods was behind a prank video. Customers in a St Louis branch of Burger King were surreptitiously filmed eating the restaurant's flagship Whopper. First they rhapsodized about their love for beef. Then they were told they'd just eaten a plant-based Impossible Burger.

    "It's made of fucking beef right here, you see that?" one customer told the camera -- expletive bleeped out -- peeling back his sandwich to reveal the monochrome disc beneath. "That's impossible. It tasted just like a Whopper should taste," said another. Cue close-ups of flames, blackened grills and fat-spitting patties.

    The minute-long video announced Impossible's biggest partnership yet: a Burger King Whopper made of plant-based meat that sells for $1 more than a regular one. The deal is a stamp of approval from fast food royalty that will eventually insert Impossible's vegan patty right into mainstream America's daily dietary choices.

    I've eaten Impossible meat in gua baos, salad bowls, Lebanese kafta and White Castle sliders. I'm mostly astounded at how plausibly generic it is, how unobtrusively it replaces the ketchup-and-plastic-cheese-smothered slice of gray that usually resides within a fast food bun. How enough heavy spicing or dousing in sauce could sneak an Impossible product past my taste buds, perhaps to be called out in a semi-viral moment of my own.

    Tasted without accompaniments, the product has a convincing chew and toasty burnt edges but a hollow savoriness at the core. As a meat eater, I would not crave Impossible meat. If I craved a burger, though, this could go part of the way to satisfying the urge. Note that in the Burger King video, the customers' astoundment hits not when they taste the burger but when they realize they couldn't tell the difference.

    This is what's revolutionary about Impossible's burger -- not that it's the best you've ever tasted but that finally there's a viable, inoffensive alternative for meat that you can find at a drive-through for less than $6.

    In the trillion-dollar market for meat, inoffensive is a paradigm shift. Veggie burgers have existed in the US since the 1980s; mock meats made by Chinese Buddhists date back to the seventh century. But most meat proxies have historically either not tasted like the real thing or not aspired to.

    In the trillion-dollar market for meat, inoffensive is a paradigm shift.

    We're in a new era of food tech: ahi tuna sashimi made from tomatoes, lab-grown foie gras. Greggs, the UK everyman's bakery, has made a wildly hyped vegan sausage roll, and in 2013 Dutch scientist Mark Post showed off a $325,000 cell-based burger paid for by Google's Sergey Brin. Nestle, McDonald's and Tyson, the US' largest meat processor, are all set to debut alternative proteins.

    These products don't aim to resemble the ascetic formlessness of health foods that trade taste for moral rectitude. But neither are they the soulless nutrition-delivery systems of Soylent and RX bars that trade it for efficiency. The problem with most future-of-food plays is how hard it is to feel any emotion about them. No matter how optimized they are, they're insipid on a sensory level: As Topic wrote about energy bars, "consuming them doesn't satisfy hunger so much as deaden it." These new meat facsimiles aspire to be good enough on flavor, health, price and ethics, proposing the outcome we seldom get in life: Why choose?

    Burgers are a good place to start. Americans eat three of them on average per week, and last year they were estimated to consume more than 200 pounds of meat per capita. The US is both the largest global producer and consumer of beef.

    Leading the wave are two companies. One is Beyond Meat. Founded in 2009, it makes burgers and sausage links from pea, rice and fava protein. It's in Carl's Jr -- the chain once known for its leering Super Bowl ads -- as well as Whole Foods. The company went public this month, its share price shooting up 163 percent on its first day for a current valuation of around $5 billion, the biggest IPO of the year so far.

    "If farmers and ranchers think we can mock and dismiss these products as a passing fad, we're kidding ourselves."

    Beyond was first to the grocery stores, first to sell multiple meat products and first to the Nasdaq. But Impossible has arguably the greater soft power based on something simpler: It tastes more like animal meat.

    In a public relations coup, even the Missouri Farm Bureau, an agriculture advocacy group in America's heartland, thinks the Impossible Whopper is a leap forward for the competition. "If I didn't know what I was eating, I would have no idea it was not beef," wrote Eric Bohl, the group's director of Public Affairs and Advocacy. "If farmers and ranchers think we can mock and dismiss these products as a passing fad, we're kidding ourselves. This is not just another disgusting tofu burger that only a dedicated hippie could convince himself to eat. It's 95 percent of the way there, and the recipe is likely to only get better. Farmers and ranchers need to take notice and get ready to compete."

    Now Impossible counts Jay-Z, Bill Gates and Serena Williams among its investors while other rising food disruptors market themselves as the "Impossible of dairy."

    Impossible wants 2019 to be its breakout year. It is about to launch a new sausage product, the first expansion beyond ground beef. The company landed in Singapore this March, following its Hong Kong and Macau releases last year. It aims to be in both grocery stores and Burger King locations nationwide by December (beyond St Louis, the burger is currently available in Miami; Columbus, Georgia; and Montgomery, Alabama). And the company just announced a new $300 million funding round, putting its total capital raised at $750 million for, according to Reuters sources, a valuation of $2 billion.

    Impossible says it wants to ultimately create a parallel universe of ersatz animal products from steak to eggs. "The primary goal is to effectively eliminate the use of animals in the food system," founder and CEO Pat Brown told me. Yet as Impossible ventures deeper into the culinary uncanny valley, it also needs society to discard a fundamental cultural idea that dates back millennia and accept a new truth: Meat doesn't have to come from animals.

    Video: How Impossible turned food into technology

    Impossible CEO Pat Brown is an unconventional startup founder in Silicon Valley. He's not a tech bro; he's a grandfather. He didn't earn his stripes by dropping out of Stanford but from being a professor of biochemistry there for more than two decades.

    Brown was the second of seven children. With his father in the CIA, he grew up in Paris; Taipei, Taiwan; and Washington, DC, before ending up at the University of Chicago. There, he did his MD as well as a PhD and met his wife, Sue Klapholz, who is now Impossible's VP of nutrition and health.

    At Stanford, he invented the DNA microarray, a genetic-mapping tool, and co-founded the Public Library of Science, a free publishing platform for scientific research. "Pat is unequivocally one of the best molecular biologists on the planet," said Samir Kaul, founding general partner at VC firm Khosla Ventures, which gave Brown his first investment.

    Impossible CEO Pat Brown

    But in 2009, Brown took a sabbatical. As he tells it, he wanted to figure out the most important global problem he could solve. He looked at climate change and renewable energy but quickly locked his focus on animal farming.

    Both Brown and Klapholz have been vegetarians for more than four decades, and they went vegan together 15 years ago. When they were in medical school, Brown's go-to meal, he said, was a corn tortilla with shredded cheddar and carrots, warmed up in a toaster oven. "There was essentially no cleanup," he said. "Frankly, I'm not a foodie at all."

    Brown's central purpose became to disrupt the meat economy even though after decades of vegetarianism he can't honestly tell if his product tastes realistically like animal meat. "It was completely incidental that the problem that I was trying to solve was all related to food," he said. "And the way to solve the most important and urgent problem I would say potentially humanity has ever faced turned out to be to figure out how to make the best burger on earth."

    With Kaul's backing, Impossible Foods was founded in 2011. I asked Kaul how he knew if this lauded biochemist would be a strong startup CEO.

    "I didn't," Kaul said. "But I knew that he was so driven by the mission that if he wasn't a good CEO, he would recognize that himself, and he would do what was best for the company and the mission. ... There's only one thing that matters to Pat, which is the mission of this company."

    The UN estimates that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production, about the same as from transportation.

    It would seem almost bad disruptor etiquette not to tout a moral cause with a little hyperbolic flair -- Travis Kalanick has even pitched Uber as a win for reducing carbon emissions -- but Brown's righteous hostility toward the meat industry is still something to behold.

    Impossible's company mission is not a feel-good platitude to "bring the world closer together" or "organize the world's information." It's a SMART-fulfilling, institutionally operationalized goal to wipe out animal-meat production by 2035. He has said on multiple occasions that if he could snap his fingers and make every cow on earth disappear, he'd do it in a heartbeat. It would be the "best thing to happen to the planet in 1,000 years," he told me.

    The UN estimates that 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from meat production, about the same as from transportation -- planes, ships, trucks and all. Beef, in particular, has one of the highest carbon footprints, from forest clearing to bovine methane burps to the energy required for shipping and processing the product. The global population is forecast to reach 10 billion people by 2050, and demand for meat is rising in developing countries. Experts have called reducing meat consumption the most impactful thing individuals can do to reduce one's negative environmental impact -- more than buying an electric car or avoiding plane travel.

    The stats go on, but there's no need to dwell on them. Because despite the fact that the entire 330-person enterprise purportedly only exists because of Brown's explicit moral mission, Impossible tries not to outwardly dwell on them either. Since Impossible's meat is almost passable for the real thing, its business strategy deliberately doesn't rely on nagging customers into eating ethically.

    "Ethical consumerism is a failure and doesn't really accomplish what we want it to accomplish," said Michael Selden, CEO and founder of Finless Foods, a cell-based seafood startup. "What you need to do is create things that are ethical and moral as a baseline but make them compete on metrics of taste, price and convenience, which is what people actually buy food on, and Impossible has really embodied that."

    There's a comparison to sustainable energy here: We all need it and we're barely willing to curtail our electricity demands, but if there's a price-competitive, clean alternative, then sure. With food, it's an acknowledgement that -- solely for the guaranteed sensory enjoyment that those who are food secure might enjoy each day -- taste is the key driver to change our habits.

    This leaves Impossible in a nice position. The global economic demand for meat combined with the swelling cultural-political urgency to curtail it could be great for business if you have a legitimate alternative. And the high-risk-high-reward venture capital system demands startups that can pitch themselves as limitlessly scalable. A worldwide problem of this degree means that Impossible can plausibly -- and not disingenuously -- bridge both a business goal of sky's-the-limit growth and a messianic narrative. Brown's social mission aligns with his profit-seeking obligation in ways that can make as much sense to private equity as to Katy Perry.

    Still, even to compete on taste, you have to get your product into people's picky mouths, overcoming decades of anti-vegetarian bias along the way. On this front, Selden said his two-year-old company was inspired by Impossible. "We straight-up say on our deck we're using the Impossible strategy."

    The Impossible strategy is not unlike the Tesla strategy. The basic playbook is to sell your untried goods as a lux, positional product first. If the elite vouch for it, then you just need to wait for culture to carry it downstream to the masses. Neophyte companies have less supply, anyway, and need to sell at a higher cost to those who can afford it -- better to frame this as exclusivity.

    In 2016, Impossible was still pushing prototypes out of the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in New Jersey and was yet to be found in a single restaurant. The company targeted David Chang, the celebrity chef who had been picketed by vegans and once removed every vegetarian item from his menu except one. "The only customer we care about is the hard-core meat eater," said Brown. "He's a meat icon."

    David Lee, Impossible's CFO (and then COO), was connected via a friend of a friend with Chang on a trip to New York that April. Lee met the chef at Momofuku Ko with burger samples, and Chang posted the pink, greasy burger online. "Today I tasted the future and it was vegan: this burger was juicy/bloody and had real texture like beef," the chef wrote. "But more delicious and way better for the planet."

    By July, Chang -- who now has 1.1 million Instagram followers and a hit Netflix show -- was selling the burger at Momofuku Nishi for $12 with fries. "That opened the door for many [high] credibility chefs to want the product," said Lee. "And frankly, that sped our launch."

    After Chang came fellow meat-loving chefs Traci Des Jardins of Jardinière in San Francisco, Chris Cosentino of Top Chef fame and San Francisco's Cockscomb, James Beard Award-winner and Cleveland chef Michael Symon and Brad Farmerie of New York's Saxon & Parole. (Brown said the company does not pay influencers or chefs as a firm policy; restaurants buy the product through distributors like everyone else. Des Jardins and Chang are now advisers who are compensated, but this started only after they put Impossible on their menus).

    These cosigns gave Impossible the opposite perception of second-tier traditional vegetarian meat. Partnering with high-end chefs also helped the company control the experience -- selling directly to consumers can risk them messing it up and blaming the company -- and let the team draw on chefs' experiences to iterate their product. Training servers not to mention the V-words -- vegan, vegetarian -- helped Impossible control the message.

    As much as the intense R&D of bovine biomimicry underpins the company, Impossible also grasps that food is a deeply cultural product. Culture is a reason many think animal meat has some inherent value over substitutes: A recent study showed that 65 percent of consumers would choose a beef burger compared to 21 percent choosing plant-based even if they tasted the same. Culture is why Google's attempts at Meatless Mondays on campus triggered protest barbecues. Culture is why meat is frequently marketed as muscle-building masculinity, why yellow mealworm larvae is not commonly on supermarket shelves despite its comparable protein quantity to poultry, why bacon and AR-15 rifles apparently amount to a political identity. (One progressive think tank told Politico that banning meat polls worse than any other issue. "It's up there with giving VA benefits to ISIS," Data for Progress co-founder Sean McElwee said.)

    A recent study showed that 65 percent of consumers would choose a beef burger compared to 21 percent choosing plant-based even if they tasted the same.

    Impossible's carnivorous company culture even extends to an overeagerness to mock traditional vegetarian foods, at times as much as Big Meat.

    At a meeting last month at its Redwood City, California, headquarters, Brown was reviewing a brand book the company sends to restaurants that instructs them on how to sell Impossible meat.

    Rachel Konrad, Impossible's chief communications officer, who was running the meeting, explained to Brown the need to educate its restaurant partners: "You inevitably have someone in the company who's like, 'Oh yeah, my freakish vegan daughter-in-law, she's talking about this product all the time. We should make it for her. Let's do the sprouts burger on a gluten-free shit bun, right?'" she said. "You just need to reset them." The team then went over dos and don'ts: "We don't say vegan, we are for meat eaters," "We don't meat-shame," "We are not political."

    They're not denigrating the choice to decline animal meat -- morally, Konrad later said, vegetarians are "already doing the right thing" -- but denigrating a certain genre of chichi vegetarian food and the culture that comes along with it. "We're not vegan fundamentalists," Brown told me.

    The meat fetishization continues on the company's website, which is stacked with images of thick burgers oozing cheese and an unnecessarily oversize mound of chili cheese fries, sour cream avalanching down its gradient. Lee told me that more than 90 percent of Impossible's customers are "hard-core carnivores."

    Vegetarians, whose menu options are generally scarce, are bound to hear of Impossible anyway, so they hardly need to be targeted aggressively. And companies like Beyond and Just market this way too. But Impossible's stance can come across like someone determined to prove to the cool omnivore kids that they're not friends with the quirky vegans.

    "Vegetarianism has typically been seen as a diet of deprivation, and Impossible Foods is coming at it from exactly the opposite direction," said Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute, an advocacy group for new meats, and former PETA activist. "Many vegetarians will try to convince you that meat doesn't taste good, or they'll try to convince you that you should deprive yourself. ... Impossible comes along, and Pat says, 'No, meat tastes amazing. Kudos to you, vegetarians: We're not talking to you. And here is this other product that we're creating that will give you everything that you like about meat but produced without the harm.'"

    "100 percent vegan"

    Once restaurants get their hands on it, the product is totally out of Impossible's control, and one can still spot joints touting a "100 percent vegan patty" or an "Impossible veggie burger."

    How they cook the meat is also totally up to them, and there's no vetting process for chefs. "Some of them will do a terrible job with it," Brown told me.

    Still, any Impossible product on a restaurant plate furthers Brown's mission. "If they wanted to serve an Impossible Burger with five pounds of bacon on it, as far as we're concerned, if the Impossible Burger in that ridiculous concoction replaces a cow-derived burger, it's a point for our side," he said.

    After the first patty rolled out with Chang and co. in the summer of 2016, the company started to work on its next iteration.

    This product is halal, kosher and gluten free. It can be grilled as well as steamed or stewed -- essentially cooked the same way as ground beef from a cow.

    Impossible 2.0 ingredients:
    • Water
    • Soy protein concentrate
    • Coconut oil
    • Sunflower oil
    • Natural flavors
    • Two percent or less of: potato protein, methyl cellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12

    It also lists 21 ingredients, including soy protein that forms the bulk of its "meat," coconut and sunflower oils to mimic animal fat, methyl cellulose to bind it all together, and soy leghemoglobin, aka the "heme" that Impossible likes to say is the key to a meaty flavor.

    Celeste Holz-Schietinger, Impossible's director of research, said the company uses no artificial beef flavoring. "The amino acids, the sugars -- upon cooking they react with heme to generate the entire profile of meat. We do not go and add in individual flavor compounds," she said. The product, according to Impossible, replicates the causes of what gives meat its properties, not the symptoms.

    Impossible meat is not only highly processed food but also perhaps a level up for consumable simulation. A Cheeto or Twinkie is unambiguously synthetic. The Impossible burger utilizes sensory illusions -- the heme that makes the burger "bleed," the oil that gives it the satisfying sizzle -- to make you think you're eating the real thing.

    The heme is grown through genetically modifying yeast in a process called microbial fermentation. Soon the company will start using genetically modified soy as its main protein. Somehow, in an age of clean labeling, traceability and "If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It," Impossible has erroneously been labeled organic and all-natural in confused burger chains.

    Somehow, in an age of clean labeling, traceability and "If You Can't Say It, Don't Eat It," Impossible has erroneously been labeled organic and all-natural in confused burger chains.

    "[Brown] has done a really good job getting people to eat a GMO veggie burger, cause that's basically what it is," said Selden. "That sounds awful, and everyone should hate that. ... He's shown that it's possible to take these two concepts that are unpopular and still make them desired with the right messaging."

    The optics of genetic modification (GM) in farming have never fully recovered from the 1990s. In 1998, Monsanto, agribusiness public enemy No. 1, tried to introduce genetically modified soybean seeds, which were resistant to its Roundup weed killer and could only be used once. Critics labeled them the Terminator, the company had to vow not to use them in 1999, and Roundup is still the subject of thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto for allegedly causing cancer: The company was recently ordered to pay more than $2 billion to a couple in California.

    Exposés like Fast Food Nation, The World According to Monsanto and Food, Inc set the stage throughout the aughts for today's Whole Foods, conscious-eating era. "Chemicals" are now consumers' top food-safety concern even as a consensus around the definitions of "clean label" and "processed" remains elusive. Despite the controversies, GM crops are now commonplace: More than 90 percent of US-grown soy is GM, with genetically engineered corn topping 80 percent.

    "With our product, GM is really critical for making the heme," said David Lipman, Impossible's chief science officer. "And we're open about it. When you're secretive, that's a problem."

    Last year, Impossible faced a mini controversy when it came out that the FDA would not recognize heme as safe after the company voluntarily asked for a review. But it's hardly torpedoed enthusiasm for the company outside vehemently anti-GM groups like Friends of the Earth.

    Impossible's burgers may be stealthily vegan, but so are Oreos. They have less cholesterol and saturated fat than a regular meat slab, but they're far from a health food. So what sets Impossible apart from the hyper-engineered Frankenfoods that savvy consumers purport to be rejecting -- or, rather, sets it apart from being perceived that way?

    As 2019 came around, Impossible was ready to share the new-and-improved Burger 2.0, phrased like a software upgrade. The venue it chose for the debut was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

    At the Las Vegas circus of gadgets, an annual staple for tech companies and media, the company distributed thousands of free sliders from a truck outside the city's convention center. Kanye West reportedly sampled a taste, and the product reeled in plaudits, including three official Best of CES awards. (Engadget adjudicates these awards in partnership with the Consumer Technology Association, and our entire on-the-ground editorial team of 24 was involved in the judging discussions, including myself.)

    At a press conference with burgers grilled on-site, Brown made his pitch for why Impossible was launching a product that had no circuitry or screen at a tech conference. Modern food, he said, is the consequence of thousands of years of innovation in supply chains, in safety, in taste testing, in processing. Impossible was here to "save humanity from the greatest threat to the survival of the planet in human history," referring to animal agriculture's environmental impact. "We're not just a technology company," he said. "We are, right now, the most important technology company on earth."

    At CES in Las Vegas, Impossible distributed thousands of free sliders from a truck outside the convention center.

    Impossible's appearance may have taken some attendees by surprise. But the company consistently makes use of the most utopian ways Silicon Valley sells itself -- optimized, transparent, engineered, rational -- to set itself apart from being a processed-food company, with the potentially bad rep that entails.

    The tech ethos runs right through the organization. Its senior executives are either scientists (both Brown and Lipman are trained physicians) or Silicon Valley veterans (Konrad from Tesla, Lee from Zynga, president Dennis Woodside from Dropbox and Google).

    And like so many of its startup brethren, Impossible calls itself a platform. Livestock are just a poor nutrient-conversion device, from grain and water to meat -- "a terrible prehistorical technology," said Brown.

    Impossible's real intellectual property -- and competitive advantage -- is a knowledge database on how different kinds of meat work on a molecular level and how plant proteins can be manipulated to mimic them. (The company Motif Ingredients and Friedrich's Good Food Institute are two organizations working to open source this kind of IP.)

    "If someone said, 'We want you to make chicken wings' or something like that, I think it's not inconceivable that in under a year we'd have a manufacturable prototype."

    The more this knowledge base swells, the better Impossible can tweak and improve its product. "That's our secret sauce -- that unlike the cow we are going to be getting better every single day from now until forever," Brown said. "That's really our core advantage over the incumbent technology, which is fundamentally unimprovable. And so we want to exploit it to the max."

    The "platform" also informs its understanding about other proteins, from steak to chicken, fish to dairy. "Meats are very similar," said Holz-Schietinger. "Obviously the perceptions of them are pretty different. But the biochemistry of animals is similar, so the molecules driving the flavor and texture are similar."

    A few years ago, Impossible created an egg -- yolk, shell and all -- and cooked fried egg sandwiches at the company, said Klapholz. "If someone said, 'We want you to make chicken wings' or something like that, I think it's not inconceivable that in under a year we'd have a manufacturable prototype," Brown said.

    Brown's optimism goes even further. I asked if Impossible could compete with, say, Wagyu beef. "Oh absolutely," he said. "There's nothing about Wagyu beef that makes it intrinsically harder for us to do than some Nebraska, Angus cow beef."

    Positioning the company as platform, not burger slinger, makes sense -- as does the slow drip of tantalizing but noncommittal product teases. Once Impossible reaches a critical mass of financial capital plus anatomical knowledge, it's possible that it can nimbly shift resources to crush any rising startup -- say, a synthetic lamb chop maker -- that might threaten it, the same way Google or Facebook does when a new app threatens to steal eyeballs. Whether or not Impossible releases new products of its own volition anytime soon, there is now a disincentive for other companies to enter this potentially lucrative market.

    Once Impossible reaches a critical mass of financial capital plus anatomical knowledge, it's possible that it can nimbly shift resources to crush any rising startup.

    Still, right now, Impossible's work is not complete on the burger, probably the lowest common denominator of meat. Beyond that, and beyond high-end whole cuts of rib eye, the even bigger Impossible dream is of a new kind of post-animal concept meat.

    "What if we could make a ground meat product that, OK, cook it well done, [it's] still juicier. That would be better, right?" Lipman said. "For people [who] like bacon on their hamburger, what if we could make something that had some aspects of pork flavor and some aspects of beef flavor?"

    If, shepherded by companies like Impossible, we truly reach a point where we've scrubbed any cultural fixation with the sacredness of the animal, it figures that Impossible would want to make meats that don't even resemble food as we know it. Animals would no longer be the point of comparison -- a benchmark that, by definition, Impossible cannot surpass anyway.

    That tactic also differentiates it from another competitor on the horizon: cell-based meats.

    Lab-grown from muscle-tissue cells, companies like Memphis Meats have something Impossible never can: Their products are exactly the same as animal meat. "A fair number of people want to eat animal meat no matter how good plant-based meat is," Friedrich said. He projects that these consumers will make up "at least 20, 25 percent" of the market. "It could be more than 50 percent." No product has hit the market, and though prices have come down since Post's $325,000 burger, they remain unpalatably high for most restaurants.

    Unsurprisingly, Brown does not think much of the competition. "If I thought there was any potential in that technology, I would be its hugest advocate. But the truth is, there's zero potential in that technology," he said. "It's irreducibly expensive is the bottom line."

    Like Impossible, the cell-based companies pitch their food as "cleaner" than traditional meat -- no antibiotics, no factory farms. Both have perceptual issues to deal with -- creating cell-based meat is essentially a process of cloning sheets of animal muscle without the eyes or internal organs -- as well as regulatory ones. There's a race between the two: how rapidly plant-based meats can taste realistic versus how quickly cell-based meats can be affordable.

    What's in a name?

    The closer we get to faithful simulacra of animal products, the more an optics war over the nomenclature of these new, non-cadaverous foods is inevitable.

    "Cell-based" is commonly used (but all meats have cells); "clean meat" is favored by the startups that compare it to clean energy (but unsurprisingly, animal-meat producers aren't keen on the connotation that their meat is "dirty"). "Cultured" meat sounds elitist while "lab-grown" meat has Frankenfood connotations that might weird customers out.

    Meanwhile, the traditional meat industry has been fighting any use of the term "meat" tooth and nail, wary of the proliferations of almond/oat/cashew "milks" that have fast cannibalized dairy. They succeeded in getting a bill passed in Missouri last year that outlaws the term "meat" for anything but an animal product (21 states are considering similar regulations).

    St Louis, Missouri, of course, is also where Burger King chose to first pilot the Impossible Whopper.

    Impossible's new sausage prototype took about three days to develop, Brown said. The tweaks from the beef formula are subtle: the same heme in smaller quantities, no potato protein, a slightly modified cocktail of amino acids and vitamins. "The basic architecture is the same," Lipman said. "It is a descendant. It's evolutionarily related."

    In Impossible's test kitchen, I watched the sausage patty sizzle into a brown sear as realistic puddles of pink liquid pooled on top. Dolled up with fennel, onion, garlic and nutmeg and wedged within a breakfast muffin, it had the slight funky richness of sausage. Like the burger, the taste was shallow. It had the right bouncy texture, but buried under the seasoning I couldn't get a clear lock on the inherent meat flavor.

    I could easily say the same about fast food animal meat. Partnerships like Burger King and White Castle are a turning point for Impossible in terms of its mainstream adoption, but it's well-armed for the competition.

    To become a staple consumer product in 2019, Impossible's major hurdle is not flavor but scale. To deliver to 7,000 Burger King restaurants across the country -- as well as supermarkets -- requires a sophisticated, precise supply chain.

    To become a staple consumer product in 2019, Impossible's major hurdle is not flavor but scale.

    "If a restaurant does not get delivery that day, they lose that whole day. It's gone, and it has a significant impact on their bottom line. Now extrapolate that into a company of this size," said Dan Altschuler Malek, managing partner at Unovis Partners, which manages New Crop Capital, a VC fund that invests in rival Beyond Meat. "They cannot promise their consumers that and not deliver. And for them to deliver, it means 'OK, I have a set of manufacturing facilities, they're already plugged into my distribution network, there are redundancies in place, there is enough on the back end to make sure that the raw supplies are available.'"

    Funneling perishable products across the country daily is a challenge for any food company. Beyond noted the same issues in its IPO prospectus, pointing out that it's dependent on a limited number of vendors for raw materials.

    Right now Impossible only has one manufacturing plant, a former Just Desserts building in Oakland, California, that opened in September 2017. (The heme is made at a separate facility, but Impossible declined to discuss where.) More than 70 employees at the factory churn out 1.5 million pounds of fake meat per month, but that will have to increase by an "order of magnitude" by the end of the year, said Chris Gregg, Impossible's now-former chief supply chain officer. "We are scaling as absolutely fast as we can and continuing to add capacity and people and looking at alternatives."

    Brown says that the inherently lower resource costs of making Impossible meat versus raising a cow mean that it's only a matter of time before economies of scale kick in and Impossible's product matches the price of a supermarket patty. On its current projections, said Brown, that's "very plausibly within two or three years."

    Impossible is not yet profitable because, executives say, of the amount of money it ploughs back into the highly research-driven organization. "We definitely make money at the plant level. We are choosing to spend a great deal for our expansion and to continually improve our R&D," Lee said. "Could we be profitable? Absolutely. We could be cash flow positive by the end of year if we wanted to."

    According to the company, about one in three of the 330 employees are scientists, and it's spent more than $100 million (of some $475 million in funding until the latest new injection) on research and development alone. "The future of our business is in the hands of the R&D team," Brown said. "We'll never compromise on R&D."

    After the novelty, must-try factor has worn off, what would make you choose the Impossible over animal meat on a menu?

    Research and development, along with long-term strategy, has become Brown's main role too. This March, Dennis Woodside, a former COO of Dropbox and CEO of Motorola Mobility, was announced as president under Brown to steer the company's operations, including manufacturing, supply chain, sales, marketing and HR. He's a tech old hand who took Dropbox public. "He knows how to operate at a Fortune 500 public company scale," said Lee.

    Despite their outsize cultural cachet, Impossible and other meat alternatives still only occupy a carpaccio-thin slice of the meat industry, even as the global market for meat substitutes is estimated to hit $5.8 billion by 2022. Impossible can strike up restaurant deals across the country, sharpen its delivery mechanisms and tweak its formulas. But after the novelty, must-try factor has worn off, what would make you choose the Impossible over animal meat on a menu?

    Decent taste, price and convenience is a given. The company is also savvy at making the customer feel healthy, morally satiated and part of a desirable brand -- reasons that won't win an eater over by themselves but shore up the essential criteria. Perhaps this string of nebulous, well-meaning cultural factors can serve as a tiebreaker when picking between almost-equal products. Like certain e-commerce companies (Away, Casper), Impossible's product may not be absolute best of class, but it's competing in a product category -- fast food -- that I personally don't care to spend undue time optimizing for.

    Brown's arguments that superior tech will evolve our romanticization about animal meat are not unfounded -- the same way we now mostly read off screens, not paper, and travel by car, not horse. But while Brown is probably glib about how quickly people will divest their emotional attachments to food -- foodie culture is very much alive in 2019, potentially more than ever -- I've yet to see why culinary exceptionalism will hold out much longer than those other technologies. The march of technology is that of the natural being replaced by the efficiently synthetic.

    In that kind of world, perception matters the most. As the company with first (or second) mover advantage, Impossible is the force currently at the wheel, trying to guide us through this collective transition from real meat to realistic replicas. Its bet -- and hope -- is that we're ready and willing for it, and that Impossible can create the food of our times.

    If that's the case, the rise of Impossible Foods says a lot about what, today, can make food exciting. It's food that makes us feel like we're saving the planet while still pandering to the caveman by simulating animal gore. Food that's processed to the point of sensory deception but inspires more trust than a 100-percent beef burger. Food that can at once signal virtue and indulgence. Which is to say that the rise of Impossible Foods says a lot about us.


    Credits
    Features editor: Aaron Souppouris
    Copy editor: Megan Giller
    Illustrations: Koren Shadmi
    Photography: Impossible Foods (product shots); Katy Perry (Instagram); David Chang (Facebook)

    Video
    Writer and presenter: Chris Ip
    Camera: Brian Oh and Kyle Maack
    Editor: Brian Oh

    All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
    Comment
    Comments
    Share
    2902 Shares
    Share
    Tweet
    Share
    Save

    Popular on Engadget

    AI can gauge the risk of dying from heart conditions

    AI can gauge the risk of dying from heart conditions

    View
    OnePlus 7T Pro may debut on October 10th

    OnePlus 7T Pro may debut on October 10th

    View
    'Minecraft' now has 112 million players per month

    'Minecraft' now has 112 million players per month

    View
    Central banks to question Facebook over Libra cryptocurrency

    Central banks to question Facebook over Libra cryptocurrency

    View
    Verizon will launch home 5G everywhere mobile service is available

    Verizon will launch home 5G everywhere mobile service is available

    View

    From around the web

    Page 1Page 1ear iconeye iconFill 23text filevr