Washington - Patrick Brown founded Impossible Foods with the goal of supplanting the meat industry. He believes the United States' 230 million omnivores can be made to trade their hamburgers and steaks for a plant-based equivalent, scienced into being.
That vision may yet be a long way off - even Brown admits as much. But next week the concept will get an important early test: Impossible Foods is opening its first large-scale facility in Oakland, California.
The plant, which is slated to begin producing burgers this summer, is the first concrete sign that Impossible Foods and its flagship offering are anything more than utopic moonshots. The plant will prove whether the concept can scale, which has implications for public health and the environment.
It also has consequences for the emerging "clean meat" industry, of which Impossible Foods is an early (and highly visible) player. Unlike Boca or Morningstar, which sought to corner the vegetarian market, these companies aim to appeal to hardcore meat eaters by creating a meaty plant-based product. Beyond Meat, a vegetarian brand, has dipped a toe in those mainstream waters with its beet-juice-"bleeding" Beyond Burger. This week, the start-up Memphis Meats announced that it had successfully created a lab-grown chicken strip - at a whopping price per pound of $9,000.
But few of these companies have proved that they can commercialize. With this new facility, a spokesman for Impossible Foods said, the company's production capacity will increase 250-fold - allowing it to supply 1,000 restaurants by the end of this year.
"The mission of the company is to make the existing method for producing meat obsolete," Brown said, several weeks before the factory's ribbon-cutting. "That means we need to be competitive everywhere. And soon we will be."
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A former biochemistry professor at Stanford, Brown became interested in industrial meat production after learning that meat is a major contributor to climate change: livestock accounts for nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations.
Brown became convinced that, given enough time and resources, science could engineer plant-based "meats" that look and taste like the original. Since 2011, he has received more than $180 million in investments from the likes of Bill Gates and Google Ventures to pursue the project.
His first offering is the Impossible Burger: a patty composed largely of wheat and potato proteins that - thanks to an iron-containing molecule called heme - looks, handles and (reportedly!) tastes quite a lot like ground beef. The burger has caught the eye of several high-end chefs, including New York's David Chang and San Francisco's Traci Des Jardins, who have put the burger on their respective menus for roughly $15 apiece.
But Brown still has to show that he can churn out burgers en masse - and that red-blooded meat eaters will buy them.
First, Brown and his team will need to optimize their supply chain and manufacturing process to bring the price of the Impossible Burger on par with conventional beef.
One early challenge was sourcing. Brown initially extracted heme from the root nodules of soybeans, but that process, at scale, costs a fortune and releases a lot of greenhouse gases. Impossible Foods skirted the issue by engineering yeast that produce heme, which now can be created in vats.
The product also has to catch on with average and middle-income Americans. Brown is after the old-school meat eater, who is motivated largely by price, taste and convenience.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State and the president of the Institute of Food Technologists, says this type of consumer might prove difficult to convince.
"So much is going to play out in psychology, more even than in chemistry," Coupland said. "Meat is an incredibly gendered thing to eat. How is that going to play out? Are you picking the light beer by having this stuff? It's too early to tell if it's really going to take off."