The “Tesla” of Food: the explosive growth of Impossible, and its grand ambition to save world by cutting out the cow

Quick background on Impossible… 

Impossible is redefining how we make meat: without animals

If you think about it, meat is really just the product of several key components: water, fats, proteins, and carbohydrates – including key vitamins, amino acids, minerals and iron. And all these can be sourced directly from plants (including “heme”, that critical ingredient that makes meat taste and smell like… meat), eliminating the need to involve cows, chickens, pigs or fish entirely. 

Launched in 2011 by California-based scientist Pat Brown, Impossible seeks to address the massive issues posed by animal agriculture (specifically eating meat) by producing a sustainable alternative that tastes just as good (if not better) and costs just as much (if not less) than the “real thing”.  

Impossible’s hypothesis? Customers will choose plant-based meat if it doesn’t compromise on taste and price. Rather than focusing on the vegetarian and vegan market (which constitute a small minority of consumers), Impossible is targeting the 95% of humans who eat meat. Kind of a big target market. 

And boy was Impossible right about the potential of plants to replicate all the qualities of meat we love. Since they launched, Impossible is so popular that they can barely keep up with demand.   

Growth is rapid: you can now find Impossible at 9000+ restaurants. And investors are chomping at the bit to get in on the plant-based fun: the company has raised $750 million (USD) to-date. 

Oh, and have you tried the Impossible Whopper now offered by the burger chain behemoth Burger King?  

Why this is SO EXCITING… 

Animals are the least efficient medium to get food. It takes 23 calorie inputs to produce one calorie of beef – not to mention the process of industrial agriculture has been criticized for its inhumane practices and large-scale degradation of natural resources (see “On SDGs and Sustainability”). 

Despite the rational arguments put forth to go veg, past attempts to offer more sustainable, plant-based alternatives have failed to compete with meat in terms of mass adoption (sorry, tofu).  

Now, Impossible has tapped into voracious consumer demand at a scale that can make a big dent in our global food footprint – and even redefine how we produce protein staples (cough, cough waaaay more sustainably) in our diets.  

“People will only buy something if it is better, not if it is sustainable. No compromises on deliciousness!” 

Henry Woodward-Fisher – International Launch Manager at Impossible Foods

Meet Henry… 

Henry Woodward-Fisher, International Launch Manager at Impossible, is quite the one-man operation. He’s launching Impossible across its first markets in Asia – Singapore and Hong Kong – with plans to expand to the rest of Asia (which, by the way, constitutes 46% of meat consumption globally), and hence an integral part of Impossible’s international growth.  

As part of Impossible’s launch strategy, the company partners with famous chefs -famous for their meat dishes to prove the quality of the plant-based product to meat lover (eg. Singapore’s Michelin Restaurant CUT or Little Bao in HK). For example, the company launched first with star Chef David Chang (of NYC Momofuku fame) who notoriously denounced the meatless dish. 

In many ways, Impossible’s initial launch strategy (partnering with high end restaurants) mirrors that of Tesla: by first targeting a small set of upscale customers with a high-quality product, and eventually taking on the mass market (and in doing so, promoting taste and cultural hype over the products’ sustainability benefit). 

While Impossible is working to launch retail soon, launching first and high-end well known restaurants was a deliberate decision: win, win for the chef and Impossible. Chefs provide them with Impossible with credibility and in-turn, Impossible is offering these chefs visibility.  Not to mention, the more Impossible is available, the more it is fostering demand for these restaurants.  

On the Market Opportunity… 

The “meat eater” market is estimated at $1.5 trillion And demand for meat has grown by an impressive 30% in the past 15 years due to a growing population and increasing prosperity in the developing world. And, given projections for the population to reach 10 billion by 2050, this market will only continue to expand. Especially in Asia, where a growing middle class wants to spend their excess cash on meat. 

On SDGs and sustainability… 

The company aims to replace the need for animals in food production by 2035. Thank goodness, because current industrial cattle farming practices are far from sustainable. 

Source: IMPOSSIBLE 2018 impact update report

Animal agriculture is the second largest man-made contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions (due to cattle-generated methane) and accounts for about 20% of the global water use (with 98% of water use attributed to animal feed) and takes up 83% of global agriculture land. The process of raising cattle also results in massive deforestation, alongside large quantities of fertilizers consumed and manure produced resulting in soil infertility, biodiversity loss, and diminishing clean water availability. 

By offering a plant-based alternative, Impossible has sustainability baked into its product. The more it sells, the more resources (vis a vis beef) it conserves (see below): 

Source: IMPOSSIBLE 2018 impact update report

What’s next? 

Besides world (burger, dumpling, taco) domination? 

Impossible has plans to expand to Europe, and is currently navigating some of the European food regulations.  

Additionally, there are talks of Impossible branching into other plant-based meats such as fish (in part motivated by the immense opportunity for environmental impact). 

Our big takeaways  

  • Taste and price always win: IMPOSSIBLE food wants their burger to taste better than what you can get from animals. And while sustainability of the product is a nice-to-have in consumers’ minds, this trait  alone doesn’t drive a shift in consumer choice at-scale.  
  • Benefits of pursuing blue ocean strategy: IMPOSSIBLE doesn’t target vegetarians (smaller market size), but people that love meat and look for high quality meat.  
  • Tesla approach: Start small and high-end. Build up hype and maintain highest standards for quality. Then scale.  

In case you are fascinated by these topics: 

Sources: 

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