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.