Ethan Brown is betting on a future where your eco-friendly burger is made of plants. The 45-year-old California-based entrepreneur talks about proteins, persistence, and how plant-based meats will mean a better world.
Back in 2009, Brown’s company, Beyond Meat, began by asking some big questions: Why do you need an animal to create meat? And why can’t you build meat directly from plants? Today, his answers have attracted press coverage, accolades and orders from grocery stores across the USA. Our questions aim to understand the man bringing a tech company approach to the dinner table.
Where did the idea for Beyond Meat come from? What was your inspiration?
It started when I was young. My dad is a college professor who has a keen interest in agriculture and the outdoors – and little appetite for urban life. Growing up, he’d break free of the city (Washington, D.C., USA) any chance he got and take us up to our farm in western Maryland. It was supposed to be a place to relax and enjoy the outdoors but he, being who he is, started a dairy operation that grew to a hundred head of Holstein cattle. I attribute the time my dad spent with me at our farm and in the natural world in general as a key determinant of my focus in this area.
I started my career in clean energy, reflecting an interest in climate change. I quickly learned, however, that there is more to climate change than just fossil fuels. Raising livestock has enormous climate implications, to the point where the greenhouse gas emissions created by livestock exceed those of the transportation sector. I felt that if I could apply the scale, investment level, and science and engineering expertise from the clean energy sector to the concept of building meat directly from plants, we could potentially reset the table.
What exactly is plant-based meat?
Most people think that meat, by definition, comes from an animal. But meat can actually be made from plants. Meat’s composition is straightforward at a macro level, a combination of five elements: amino acids, lipids, minerals, carbohydrates (almost none) and water. Instead of running plant matter through an animal to yield this composition, we take these constituent parts from plants and build a piece of meat directly. It will take time to get it right but we have a blueprint, a clear understanding of the architecture of animal muscle, a source for the materials, and a team committed to the step-by-step building of meat from plants.
Could you talk about the benefits of plant-based meat?
There are four major benefits in my mind. First are the health benefits associated with plant-based meat. Beyond Meat products have no cholesterol, no trans fats, no gluten, dairy or genetically-modified organisms. Plant-based meats help reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, which researchers have linked to meat-centric diets in certain instances.
Secondly, as I mentioned, raising livestock has an environmental impact. By some estimates there are more than 66 billion livestock slaughtered annually in the world. Just by breathing, they are respiring carbon that, according to researchers Jeff Anhang and Robert Goodland, accounts for 14 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Add to this figure the emissions impact of all the land that is cleared, the methane that is emitted, the energy inputs required to grow livestock etc., and you have an enormous contribution to climate change. Thirdly, animal-based meat requires significant use of natural resources. One way to quickly grasp this is to understand that over 1500 gallons [6800 litres] of water are required to produce a single pound [450g] of steak.
Lastly, there is the animal welfare issue. Certainly, not all people view animal welfare in the same way, but it is safe to say that a growing number of consumers are taking it into consideration when looking at their consumption habits. “Most people think that meat, by definition, comes from an animal. But meat can actually be made from plants.”
What were your biggest challenges when you first started Beyond Meat?
Our first challenge was to get the product right. I’m a big believer in innovation and science, so we immediately connected with some talented professors from the Universities of Missouri and Maryland to work on developing the best product that we could. As with most new products we had to develop a classic ‘push’ strategy early on. We had a new idea and no brand recognition, so we had to ‘aggressively finesse’ our way into the marketplace.
As with many start-ups, cash flow became our biggest challenge. We once had a raw material order from Taiwan stuck in the Baltimore ports. You need money to have the port release the goods and they charge you a significant fee every day you do not pay. I couldn’t free up the cash as expected, and ultimately had no other option but to rely on my aunt for an immediate wire – something that was pretty uncomfortable. That said, you can learn to be pretty uncomfortable if it’s required by the business. You must have had confidence in your idea – and yourself – at that moment.
Looking back at that incident and many others, you learn not to waste energy being anxious during trying times. One thing I will tell young entrepreneurs is not to run away in the face of adversity. If you believe in your product and what you are doing, great things can come out of tough moments.
What are your challenges now?
Our current challenges are fairly typical of a growing business, where keeping up with demand is a focus and new distribution opportunities are always on our plate.
What about brand awareness and marketing?
I’m a big believer in innovation-led marketing, provided you have a superior product. You can have the greatest marketing plan in the world, but will quickly kill your business if you offer an inferior product. And while we have a superior product today, we are relentless in our pursuit of making it better.
How do you convert consumers?
We need to create a movement and it starts, as with many consumer-packaged goods, with mom. We need to convince mom that plant-based protein is an option. We’re looking to athletes to help with this as well. We have a campaign with athletes called ‘The Future of Protein’. Athletes like the fact that we provide a cleaner source of protein. We also need to build the category through sheer awareness. We hired Jeff Manning, the developer of the ‘Got Milk’ campaign, to help us develop a category awareness campaign. I cannot stress how important I think category growth will be.
How do you plan to take your US success onto an international stage?
There’s massive demand for protein globally. China is a big market, with a growing middle class; but they are in the process of making huge infrastructure decisions with respect to producing protein via cattle, pork, and poultry. We need to make plant-based protein of interest to them – quickly! It’s exciting, but we need a partner.
How has the broader food (and meat) industry reacted to your product, is it seen as a threat?
Look, meat companies are fundamentally agnostic about where the protein comes from. We have not been attacked by meat competitors. My sense is that they are smarter, savvier than that and see some fundamental, perhaps disruptive, changes to their business on the way.
Are there other opportunities to rewrite the rules for the food industry?
When you buy meat today, you buy based on the animal. But what if you defined meats by their composition guidelines – what they were made with, what are the key amino acids and minerals available, so that consumers are buying on new criteria, as opposed to the animal?
Author: John Blomfield. As published in WERTE No. 5, Deutsche Bank Wealth Management's client magazine