At the Tuesday morning press conference, Pat Brown was speaking as if the world were on fire.
As the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods talked to journalists, industry groups and analysts on the Zoom call, a video loop of the Amazon rainforest burning played behind him. Brown, a career scientist and passionate evangelist for replacing animal-derived food with convincing substitutes from plants, was crusading for the company’s newest project: Getting career scientists to leave behind whatever they are doing and start working for him.
“Scientists and engineers, we want you,” Brown said. “The most important scientific and engineering problem in human history. A great environment, great resources, great colleagues. You can’t beat it, OK? Leave your stupid job and come join us.”
Impossible Foods, which has raised a total of $1.4 billion since it was founded in 2011, according to Crunchbase, is looking to double its R&D department and hire more than 100 scientists in the next 12 months. The company has immediate openings for 50 scientists, engineers and R&D professionals, and will be adding more listings in coming months. The company is also recruiting 10 “Impossible Investigators.” These positions are described as an alternative to faculty positions at universities. These scientists will be given the opportunity to use some of Impossible Foods’ research funds to tackle projects that can further the company’s mission of reforming the food system.
In 2020 alone, Impossible Foods has raised a total of $700 million. The company has been in rapid expansion mode this year. The company’s plant-based meat product, which started exclusively in foodservice, went from being sold in about 150 grocery stores at the beginning of the year to more than 11,000 now. A pork product launched in January, and Impossible Sausage is sold at every Burger King in the United States, as well as other foodservice institutions. And Impossible Burgers hit shelves at 200 grocery stores in Singapore and Hong Kong on Tuesday, marking the company’s first Asian grocery expansion.
Impossible Foods CFO David Lee said at the press conference that bringing in more scientists for R&D would bring the highest return on investment for at least the next 12 months, and probably much longer after that. Investors in the company, he said, put their money into the company because they believe in Impossible Foods’ mission.
“We’re leveraging the power of consumers. That means we have to have the very best products that increasingly get better, and new products in every category that meat-eaters crave,” Lee said. “So simply put, it’s good business for us to invest in the technology that gives us the mission that we intend.”
Brown knows all about leaving research that many would consider important behind.
Before starting Impossible Foods, he was well known as a medical doctor and researcher who had done groundbreaking work on the genetic replication of HIV, co-founded the Public Library of Science and researched cancer. But taking a break from the research, he looked at where he thought he could make the biggest difference in the world, and he felt it would be disrupting the animal agricultural system.
Using a chart that is featured on Impossible Foods’ new scientist recruiting website, Brown explained that by inventing a system to replace the way animals are currently used for meat, dairy and eggs, humans can turn back the clock on global warming. Although it appeared that the fires in the Amazon that were his press conference background were raging, he said the video was actually running backwards, symbolizing that it is possible to reverse damages caused to the environment by animal agriculture.
“A large fraction of even the scientific and engineering community really doesn’t have frankly a clue about the urgency and importance of the project that we’re doing,” Brown said. “And so what we want to do is to really get the word out, OK? That whatever else you may be doing, however interesting and important you may think it is … is a drop in the bucket compared to the impact that you can have by helping us on this project. This literally is the most urgent and important scientific engineering project in human history, and we want to get the word out about that.”
Brown took time explaining why the issue goes beyond food science — and said that all kinds of scientists are needed to help the company in its quest to replace the industry that relies on animals for food. The food system, he said, has been largely unchanged for the last millennium, and is a “wasteland for meaningful innovation.” However, he continued, the fact that many of the ways people get food haven’t changed means there is tremendous opportunity to disrupt it and make a difference.
Brown often says — and he reiterated it on Tuesday — that his company’s main goal is to replace animal used for food by 2035. And although this is a relatively short time frame, Brown said on Tuesday that it can happen as long as the technology is there and the new product is advanced enough to displace what was previously there. After all, automobiles quickly replaced horses and buggies, and digital cameras essentially replaced those with film in just a decade. Scientific professionals working together, he said, can achieve this goal.
“It’s not like we need to solve this problem eventually. If we’re going to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, we need to solve it fast.”
Founder and CEO, Impossible Foods
Impossible Foods is not interested only in food scientists. After the press conference, Chief Communications Officer Rachel Konrad told Food Dive in an email that they are interested in adding biochemists, physicists, mechanical engineers, molecular engineers, data analysts, neurobiologists or experimental psychologists to their team. The company isn’t necessarily looking for specific technical profiles, and instead wants curious people who are interested in solving problems.
Brown isn’t the only Impossible Foods scientist who left behind research in another discipline to work in food. Smita Shankar, the company’s vice president of research and development and head of the new biomanufacturing unit, left a career in biological research as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco to work at Impossible Foods in 2013.
At the press conference, Shankar said she went to Impossible Foods because of its broader mission and to work with Brown.
“In essence, we are constantly building from first principles to design the platform to allow us to make all of these future food products,” Shankar said.
The company also showed off a prototype of one of its future products on Tuesday: Impossible Milk.
Brown said this is an important product for Impossible Foods. Like ground beef, milk also comes from cows, which he said are the largest agricultural polluters. And while there are many plant-based milk alternatives on the market today, Brown said they tend to be the kind of thing people who don’t consume dairy milk will “grudgingly drink.” Existing plant-based milks are inadequate, he said.
“Our intention is not to just make another plant-based milk to add to the shelf full of plant-based milks,” he said. “… It’s to make something that for a dairy milk lover is better than anything that comes from a cow. That is an unsolved problem. And it’s critical to our mission. And so that’s why we’re doing it.”
Impossible Foods’ Senior Flavor Scientist Laura Kliman appeared on the Zoom press conference behind a table of glass beakers filled with plant-based milk, dairy milk and Impossible Milk in the company’s test kitchen in Redwood City, California. She showed the creamy texture of the Impossible Milk, then poured some into coffee. The Impossible Milk clouded the coffee and didn’t turn show any granular clumps, like plant-based milks tend to do. Kliman also showed some froth made from Impossible Milk.
Several in the company stressed that the Impossible Milk was just a demonstration, and it is not a product they are currently preparing to launch. In an email to Food Dive, Konrad said the company is still experimenting with prototypes for Impossible Milk, including testing out different ingredients. The company will consider moving to commercialize Impossible Milk once it meets or exceeds dairy milk’s standards for taste, nutrition and versatility.
Impossible Milk was the only prototype shown at the press conference, but Kliman ticked off other projects the company is working on. They’re also currently working on Impossible Steak, as well as chicken, bacon and fish. No plans or time frames for getting any of those products were shared.
However, Brown said that the company will be working quickly to get products developed. After all, 2035 is just 15 years away.
“We’re serious about that. That deadline, that speed is of the essence,” Brown said. “It’s not like we need to solve this problem eventually. If we’re going to save the planet from environmental catastrophe, we need to solve it fast.”
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