More Than Meat: Impossible Foods’ David Lee And Nick Halla On The Future Of Plant-Based Food
While meat substitutes are not a completely new idea, there are only a few plant-based food producers that manufacture "meat" that sizzles and tastes like the real thing. The launch of Impossible Foods in Hong Kong is game-changing; not only does it offer an alternative for vegans and vegetarians, it could potentially revolutionise the city’s meat-heavy diet.
“I have been intrigued by Impossible products because it sears and bleeds like real meat,” said May, chef and founder of Little Bao.“The Impossible Foods team offered me some samples to try and it was surreal. It cooked and seared perfectly and could be served to an exact doneness like beef.”
Uwe Opocensky, chef and founder of Beef & Liberty, also expressed his excitement, stating, "Impossible meat is a very versatile product. You can do the same recipes as you would with beef. I have tried so many different dishes already; ‘beef’ tartare, scotch eggs, sausages and more.”
Backed by Bill Gates and Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, Impossible Foods recently closed another successful funding round raising an additional US$114 million in financing, making a total of US$396 million in funding since it was founded in 2011 by Stanford University Biochemistry professor Patrick Brown.
Ahead of their launch in Hong Kong, we sat down with Impossible Foods’ COO & CFO David Lee and chief strategy officer Nick Halla to talk about meatless burgers and where they see the plant-based food sector in the future:
Nick, you joined Impossible Foods as its first employee, how has the journey been for Impossible Foods?
Nick: It was both a tough and interesting journey. When our founder Dr. Patrick Brown had the idea of Impossible, he quickly realised that our reliance on animals for food is by far the biggest threat we have on our world and our environment. The company was started under that premise and we had to come up with new ways of making food.
So, the first several years were focused on creating a new platform for understanding what actually makes meat, fish, and dairy taste like they do, and what happens when they cook. We had to figure out the sensory properties that appeal to customers. We went from a platform to launching the product to market in 2016, and the next phase of our journey is launching globally.
Your key investors include Bill Gates and Li Ka Shing, did you meet with them in person? How did you pitch them your business?
David: In the company’s early days, Patrick and Nick did an incredible job of painting a vision of how large the mission and the business could be. They’ve spent a lot of time with Bill Gates and served him many burgers as well.
The company has transformed from a mission-driven, science-based organisation to a firm that has demonstrated product-market fit at scale in supply chain and manufacturing. Many investors that came in during the US$114 million funding round are institutional, global sovereign wealth funds like Temasek Holdings and Sailing Capital, a large, sophisticated Asia-based global investor.
They are investing not for the promise of the technology, they are investing for the realisation of commercial results from the technology.
What initial reactions did your investors have when you first showed them your product?
David: Anything that is breaking the mould, disruptive and innovative, there will always be naysayers. But what I’ve been surprised at is that so many of the people who have tried it are shocked by how good it tastes and feel so good about their choice that they became our advocates.
Impossible Foods has done a great job in getting people interested in plant-based food with a meatless burger that tastes, smells, and bleeds like the real thing. That’s half the battle, but how are you going to continue to make this meat-free revolution a successful one?
David: Our mission is getting consumers to drive the change. We are betting on the consumers and would like to see Impossible meat served in many different forms globally. The heart of the revolution is that we are uniquely positioned to offer an alternative for meat eaters' cravings. We are not asking for any behavioural change, we are just going to compete on their terms and be a better product.
Nick: Now we are not limited by what an animal body can do. We can create way better products than animals can. What’s going to drive the revolution is that consumers will choose a better product for its nutrition, sustainability, and affordability.
You mentioned that you would like this plant-based food revolution to be a consumer-driven one, but what plans do you have as a plant-based food producer in terms of making plant-based food the new norm?
Nick: During the first few years of Impossible, we focused on building a unique platform designed to do everything an animal does for food but more delicious, more nutritious, and more affordable as we scale.
One great thing about Impossible’s current product is that it can be used in many different forms; chefs and restaurants are serving Impossible in dozens of applications including burgers, meatballs, meatloaf, tacos, dumplings. We have early prototypes of fish, chicken, pork, cheese, and more which we will bring to market in the coming years.
Where do you see the plant-based food sector will be in the next five years?
Nick: The world’s appetite for animal-derived products continues to climb and consumers are increasingly looking for delicious, more sustainable options. The entire market for animal-based protein is huge (US$1 trillion), and Impossible products—all made from plants—are meant to capture the demand for meat, dairy, and fish by fulfilling the cravings of the meat-lovers.
Venue: The Lounge, JW Marriott Hong Kong