Impossible Foods, maker of the plant-based Impossible Burger, said it plans to double the size of its research and development team over the near year as it seeks to eliminate animal farming.
The company’s mission is to help reverse global warming and halt biodiversity collapse caused by what it calls the “world’s most destructive technology — the use of animals to transform plants into meat, fish, and dairy foods.” It will do so by expanding its investment in technology and adding its Impossible Investigator program, aimed at wooing scientists to help solve the problem. And the company argues that “vaporizing” animal foods remains the best way to stop climate change. It will do that through products like plant-based milk, which is in prototype form.
The company said its flagship Impossible Burger has already started to displace sales of animal-derived foods, whose production is one of the biggest generators of greenhouse gas emissions and loss of animal wildlife. Rivals include Beyond Burger.
Impossible Foods has about 50 openings for scientists, engineers, and other R&D professionals to join existing projects in Silicon Valley; more will be posted throughout the end of the year and beyond. The company currently has more than 600 people. Impossible has raised $1.5 billion since its founding in 2011, including $700 million in two rounds this year, which it will use to fund the expansion of its technology platform and R&D team.
The company was started by CEO Patrick Brown, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and a former Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He left his job leading an award-winning Stanford biochemistry lab to start Impossible Foods in 2011. Around 2016, as the company hired chief financial officer David Lee, it started hiring people for business operations and making appearances at CES, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas.
In a panel this morning, Brown said, “We are a food company on the outside. Inside, Impossible Foods is the most important scientific project in human history. We realize the only way to [save] our planet from environmental catastrophe is to create a new food platform.”
Lee said the biggest return the company can make is in R&D, as it will lead to more products over time. Brown said that, besides milk, the company is working on plant versions of chicken and fish.
The Impossible Investigator program asks scientists at all career stages to envision an all-new research program within the broad scope of Impossible’s mission. They can propose anything from short-term strategies to accelerate the optimization of plant-based milk or steak or fish, to longer-term ideas for a vastly improved supply chain of plant proteins and other ingredients.
Impossible Investigators may have backgrounds in the life sciences, physical sciences, or diverse engineering disciplines — or they may be data analysts, neurobiologists or experimental psychologists who can advance the understanding of the sensory perception and hedonic and behavioral responses to food.
“We want to get the word out that whatever else you may be doing is a drop in the bucket compared to the impact you can have on this project,” Brown said. “A lot of people get confused and baffled that food is involved.”
I’ve been regularly eating the Impossible Burger, which tastes like beef but is made of plants. It’s turned into a weekly habit. Last weekend, I ate an Impossible Burger with McDonald’s french fries. And I don’t miss the beef. It costs more at the moment, but Brown said that will change over time. Earlier this year, the company lowered its prices by 15%, and he predicted prices would fall below animal counterparts in a few years.
Earlier this year, the company launched Impossible Sausage, also made from plants. It is available at thousands of restaurants and 200 locations in Hong Kong.
According to data from consumer insights company Numerator, the vast majority of Impossible Burger sales come at the expense of animal-derived meat. Impossible has more than 250 patents and patents pending. Last year, the company had 3,000 applications for its available internships, chief communications officer Rachel Konrad said.
During the event today, the company showed how it could make plant-based milk that foams and which you can put in your morning coffee. The milk is in prototype form. Brown said that the most destructive mammal is cattle, which number around 1.7 billion around the world. They’re inefficient at producing food, given the grazing they do and pollutants they give off. Replacing cow milk, going beyond the poor-tasting soy milk, is important to the overall mission, Brown said.
Brown said people have the impression that food is a “wasteland for scientific innovation.” But he said it represents the biggest opportunity to roll back the catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
One of Impossible’s earliest discoveries was that a single molecule — heme — is primarily responsible for the flavors and overall sensory experience of eating animals. It is the abundance of heme that makes meat (both meat from animal carcasses and Impossible meat from plants) delicious and craveable. Brown said people prefer Impossible Burgers by 2-to-1 over regular beef.
Heme, which makes our blood red, is an essential molecular building block of life, one of nature’s most ubiquitous molecules. It is most familiar as the molecule that carries oxygen in your blood. In addition to its presence in animal muscle, heme is found in virtually all the food we eat. It is not only safe to eat — it’s required for life. Brown described it as a “magical” molecule that is responsible for the bloody taste of raw meat.
To satisfy the global demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental impact, Impossible Foods said it developed a sustainable, scalable, and affordable way to make heme — and therefore meat — without the catastrophic environmental impact of livestock. The company bioengineers and ferments yeast to produce a heme protein naturally found in plants called soy leghemoglobin.
The heme in the Impossible Burger is identical to the essential heme humans have been consuming in meat. And while the Impossible Burger delivers the taste of beef, it uses far fewer resources.
The company said making the Impossible Burger uses about 87% less water, generates about 89% less greenhouse gases, and requires around 96% less land than conventional ground beef from cows.
“This is doable, guys, and there is only one way to do it,” Brown said.
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