Asia: A target for a mission
By Jordan Lee
As the world’s population increases, demand for meat is bound to grow exponentially and unsustainably. The human population currently clocks in at 7.7 billion and is estimated to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, with Asia accounting for 60% of this number (Worldometers).
Meeting the enormous demand for meat is no small feat and leaves no small environmental footprint. A study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that a kilogram of beef takes 15,415 liters of water to produce.
Over the years, vegetarianism and veganism have seen a boom in Asia, ushering in companies like Impossible Foods, which hopes to occupy the prime spot in the market. Impossible produces plant-based products, using proprietary technology to create substances that are remarkably similar to the look, texture, and taste of real meat. They are used as meat substitutes for any recipe, without the negative environmental impact that arises from traditional farming.
Impossible Foods Senior Vice President Nick Halla has over ten years of experience in farming, commercial food development, and renewable energy. He was drawn to the company because its mission aligned with his own: spearheading the development of cleantech to bring about a more environmentally sustainable world. Jumpstart spoke to Halla at RISEConf 2019 to understand Impossible’s trajectory as it expands its footprint in Asia.
Since Patrick O. Brown founded Impossible in 2011, the company has seen its products appear on the menus of more than 8,000 restaurants throughout the U.S., Hong Kong, Singapore, and Macau. With an average annual revenue of US$85 million, Impossible has secured almost $700 million across 12 rounds of funding from investors such as Bill Gates, Serena Williams, Viking Global Investors, and most recently, Horizons Ventures. The company’s focus now is scaling its production and pushing its R&D further.
“The only way we are going to change the way consumers and meat-eaters look at these products is to make a product that they like better than the meat they get today,” says Halla. “It has to be a product that is more delicious, more nutritious.”
Impossible has spent eight years working to understand what makes meat attractive to consumers. Rather than imitating a veggie burger, it is trying to break through to meat eaters with a product that delivers the same sensory experience. Such efforts have led to the discovery of the heme protein, which is responsible for the uniquely meaty flavor and aroma found in Impossible meat.
“Asia is where 44% of global meat is consumed today, and [demand] is growing very fast. Food safety and food security are big challenges,” says Halla.
Given the market size, Impossible needs to expand its reach to Asia in order to achieve their vision of overhauling the global food system, which requires some adjustments to its previous strategies.
“To start breaking that stigma that plant-based meats are going to taste like a veggie burger, we started at a higher price because that’s a signal of quality,” adds Halla.
Impossible sold its meat at a premium to eminent chefs in Hong Kong and globally to launch the product, building credibility through the endorsements of the world’s top food connoisseurs. While the strategy of expanding through chefs and restaurants still holds, the product’s cost will be reduced in SEA, as it is imperative to keep the product accessible to generate demand.
Understanding the culinary culture in a country is a vital step for Impossible before they decide on the appropriate localization strategy. Some of the biggest global meat markets include the U.S., China, the European Union, and Brazil. These sizeable markets–particularly China–need to be addressed promptly for the company to capitalize on first-mover advantage.
“China is much more complicated than Hong Kong is, so we have to do more work in places like China to understand the consumer,” says Halla. “The consumer in Guangzhou and the consumer in Beijing are also quite different. The culinary scene is very different.”
Overcoming the perception that plant-based meat is made from tofu or beans is another challenge for Impossible, and the company has loftier goals than being labeled an ‘alternative’ to meat. Halla cites the example of Tesla; in the automotive industry, electric cars were once described as an ‘alternative’ to gas-fuelled vehicles, but Tesla challenged themselves to create the best car, not just the best electric car. This exercise in design and branding changed consumers’ perception of electric vehicles. Similarly, Impossible aims to deliver a product that can be used in equal measure to that of meat by high or low-end restaurants.
“A lot of our work was to be able to build a product that can transcend that dichotomy, where it can work in places like Momofuku, but also work in places like Burger King, which have very different customer needs,” says Halla.
Now that the course is set to replace animals as a source of food by 2035, Impossible has a great deal of work to do. One of their most successful products, the Impossible Burger, is an excellent testament to the company’s long-term vision. Each burger uses 96% less land, 87% less water, and releases 89% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to that of your traditional patty.
“I think there’s a bright future for our food system,” says Halla. “It’s going to be majority plant-based because that’s more sustainable and efficient. To feed seven, going on ten billion people, we have to have that.”
Jordan Lee is Jumpstart’s Journalist in Residence.