Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown is on a mission to reinvent the human relationship with one of our most primal foods: meat. Here’s what he’s learned so far.
Meat doesn’t have to come from animals. That’s the radical perspective shift that Ethan Brown, founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, is trying to sell — and not just to vegetarians: He wants to put plant-based meat at the center of plates all across the world, including via mainstream channels such as fast food restaurants.
“A large segment of the population loves [animal] meat but is beginning to realize that there are reasons they may want to consume less of it,” Brown explains. High meat consumption has been linked to health problems ranging from heart disease to cancer, and animal agriculture is a huge water user and a major contributor to climate change, pollution, and deforestation — not to mention the violence involved for workers and the animals themselves. But Brown insists that even people attuned to these issues can continue to enjoy meat. That’s because Beyond Meat’s goal is to offer them a “plant-based meat” indistinguishable from its animal-protein equivalent.
At the core of Brown’s plan is the idea that we’ve been thinking about “meat” all wrong. While we usually define meat by its origin — chicken, cow, pig, etc. — Brown wants people to think about “meat” in terms of physical and chemical composition. “At a high level, meat is basically fat, protein, and water,” he says. If you can source those elements from plants and assemble them in the architecture of animal muscle with the same aroma, taste, and structure, he asks, then “Who’s to say that’s not meat?”
So far, Beyond Meat’s plant-based chicken strips, burgers, and beefy crumbles have earned a loyal following from the vegetarian community, positive reviews from food critics (Alton Brown called the chicken strips “most impressive”), and a roster of professional athletes who swear by the food’s power to keep them fueled. The brand’s latest offering, an ultra-realistic hamburger patty called the Beyond Burger, sold out in an hour on its launch day at a Boulder, CO, Whole Foods Market.
Meanwhile, the brand has also attracted big-name supporters: Its high-profile investors include Bill Gates and Twitter founders Biz Stone and Ev Williams, whose Obvious Ventures put in $17 million. Former Oracle president Ray Lane, Seth Goldman of Honest Tea, and former McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson sit on the board, and the company’s scientific advisors include researchers from Stanford, UCLA, and NYU. With star power like that behind him and business on track to double in 2016, Brown just might have a chance of achieving his audacious goals. We caught up with him to hear more about his vision for the company and understand his strategy for changing how the world thinks about meat.
Is it fair to say that your mission at Beyond Meat is to make animal agriculture obsolete?
Ethan Brown: My mission is to create meat directly from plants so you no longer need to use the animal. How the meat industry changes, I have less influence over that. Proving that you can do this is really my mission.
BROWN'S TOP 3 PIECES OF ADVICE
FOR MISSION-DRIVEN ENTREPRENEURS
1. Get rid of your safety net
“Part of that includes investing in the business yourself; you make decisions differently when you put your own savings into it. Put yourself in a position to have no option other than to be successful, and you’ll be really surprised at the lengths you’ll go to.”
2. Be humble
“Don’t be one of these companies that thinks they can just hire a bunch of smart people out of good schools and disrupt an industry. Hire people who understand the industry, give them the support they need, and listen to their wisdom — your life will be easier. I’ve watched companies that haven’t done that and they do silly things. They waste a lot of money.”
3. Make sure the business’s mission is what you want to accomplish in your life
“For me, [Beyond Meat’s] goal is central to how I define myself as a person. If you feel you’re truly on a mission in your heart and your spirit, you can tap into something that’s much greater than just building a successful business for monetary reasons.”
How will you know you’ve fully accomplished your mission?
EB: There are two things. One is a very objective outcome, which is to have gotten this right from a scientific perspective, to be able to provide center-of-the-plate protein in the form of meat that has not come from an animal, where 99 out of 100 people say that they are completely indistinguishable. That is success.
From a market perspective, I have a very personal goal. My kids are 11 and 12. By the time they graduate high school, I want them to be able to go to any major fast food chain, whether it’s McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, etc., and have a Beyond Burger or equivalent, whatever we’ve iterated to at that point, and have it be a non-event. Not have it be something special or novel or unique, but commonplace in the same way that a Big Mac or a fish fillet is today.
Impossible Foods has a similar mission, and launched a realistic plant-based burger at a restaurant in New York in July 2016. Is having competitors in this space now good or bad with regard to your mission?
EB: I think it’s good. The meat market in the United States is almost $200 billion. There’s plenty of space for multiple companies, and if there’s more than one company, it will encourage people at the academic level to get into this field.
It’s also good for our team to have a credible competitor. In our conference room, for a long time we had a sign that said, “There’s someone, somewhere working harder than you to do the very thing that you’re trying to achieve.” I believe that type of mentality is really important. You can’t assume that your goal isn’t going to be achieved by somebody else. You always need to be working the hardest that you can in the most focused and disciplined manner if you want to be the group of people that gets this right.
For about two million years, we’ve been consuming meat — since even before we were defined as homo sapiens. Meat really contributed so much to who we are: Many anthropologists will attribute the size of our brain, for example, to the high nutrient delivery of animal meat. Everything about meat is important to our culture. So if we’re going to be the first group of people to separate meat from an animal, we have to have an almost religious commitment to that idea. Because [eating meat from animals] is something that we’ve been doing for so long, to create a new form of meat directly from plants will be a very significant event in human history.
I always joke with the scientists here that it’s a lifetime employment project for them, because I don’t think we’re going to be perfect any time soon — why would you? [Humans’ relationship with meat] took many years from an evolutionary perspective to get to where it is today. To think that over the seven years of the company’s history we could get it all right, that’s naïve.
Are there particular role model CEOs or leaders you look to for inspiration in leading this kind of innovation?
EB: I’m blessed to have a strong board. But I also look to the athletic world quite a bit for thoughts on management — how to get people focused on a single goal, and how to get them to believe in that goal and to block out distractions and other priorities. Anyone from John Wooden to Phil Jackson. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that work of how to organize people around a single goal.
Is there any particular practice that you’ve taken from the sports world?
EB: It’s basic human values that ultimately lead to a successful team. Are we sharing the ball? Are we sharing credit? Are we respectful of one another? Do we give everyone an opportunity to express who they are and to attain their own self-
realization through the company? Those are the things, at the end of the day, that matter more than someone’s capability on a spreadsheet.
I’m envious of the singularity of focus that a lot of athletic teams get to have. They start the season, they say, “I want to win the NBA Championship,” and then they organize themselves around that. It’s that relentless pursuit of a single goal that I think is so important.
Global industrial-scale-anything is hard to do without pretty serious negative externalities. How are you guys balancing achieving your goals regarding growth and market penetration while still mitigating Beyond Meat’s own impact on the environment or communities or workers?
EB: There’s a saying I share a lot: “The world is as we make it.” We have the ability to influence what kind of world we’re living in. Providing a plant-based meat in a way that’s harmful to the environment is just not consistent with the type of world we want to live in, so we’re not going to do that. Every chance that we get, we try to apply that lens of, “Let’s do this as sustainably as we possibly can.”
But I will say I’m a fan of this idea that you can’t serve too many masters. It’s very easy to get caught up in the trap of trying to do that. We often get asked, “Can you make all your ingredients organic?” “Can you have an ingredient list that is no longer than my pinky?” and things of that nature. You can try to do that, but if you also want to serve mass market, you’re going to get off track.
I try to think about it from a very broad perspective — if we can get this right, we can truly create meat that fills the center of the plate for mainstream consumers throughout the world. By virtue of being so much more efficient in how we produce that meat, it will be a huge win for climate change and for natural resource use. It doesn’t mean we have the freedom to ship our product in Styrofoam, but at the same time, I’m focused very much on that goal. We certainly do lose some early supporters who say, “I wish this was organic,” or “How can you possibly use plastic in your packaging?” But I think you’ve got to tackle one thing at a time.
How does workplace culture fit into that equation? Is that something that could be one of these “too many masters,” or is that a key to achieving your goals?
EB: I’m laughing because… we have a lot of extremely bright scientists here from the best universities, the best institutions, etc. And I remember walking in one day and on one side of the lab they had the heat on. On the other side, they had the AC on. I was like, “Guys, we’re trying to solve climate change here.”
It was just by mistake. They hadn’t figured out the system yet. But it’s little things like that. What messages can we send? “When you leave a room, take the lights down.” “Do you really need AC on this particular day?” Everywhere you go in the company you’ll see signs about what our goals are. I’m looking at them in one of our conference rooms. There are four posters up. One is, “Positively impact climate change,” one says “Improve animal welfare,” another says “Address global resource constraints,” and the last one says “Improve human health.” We’re trying to build a company where the motivation for doing this is always front and center.
You’ve been talking about your product being fairly indistinguishable from animal meat on a chemical level. How is it both better for your body and exactly the same?
EB: This is part of the reason I’m very thankful to have these talented scientists with us. We said to them, “Make it indistinguishable [from animal meat] from an experience perspective and from a positive nutritional perspective, but you can’t put in tons of saturated fat and you can’t add cholesterol.” How do you then make it as enjoyable without those fat levels? It’s a real challenge. My kids eat this product every day. I want to make sure I’m not loading them up with tons of saturated fat. There’s ways you can get there, but it creates a tougher set of boundaries than if you just said, “Hey, make this thing taste great.”
What trends do you see for your industry moving forward?
EB: Something that’s amazed me over the last seven years is just how much more pull there is for these products than there was when we started. Today, our biggest issue is production capacity; we just don’t have enough of it. That was not always an issue. There were years where we overproduced and couldn’t sell everything we made. It’s completely different now.
I think you’re going to see more and more plant-based eaters and more and more plant-based protein on the plates of mainstream consumers. It’s incumbent upon us to make that product indistinguishable from its animal-
protein equivalent. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to be successful. If we can continue to research and innovate and get it to the point where there’s no tradeoff whatsoever, I think you’ll see a very sizable part of the US population consuming plant-based meat on a regular basis.
What’s giving you hope?
EB: Consumers want this to be successful. They’re rooting for us. At the end of the day, people sit down and think, “Okay. This choice is more sustainable. Obviously, it’s more humane and it’s better for my body. I want to make this choice.” People are inherently drawn to try to do the right thing. If we can get the science right and get it to where taste and aroma and texture is as satiating as an animal protein, people will make that choice; they’ll make the right decision. That gives me a ton of hope.