Savour the future: how to make a plant patty that tastes just like beef
Stanford professor Patrick Brown doesn't mince words on the subject of meat-free dishes
As sabbaticals go, molecular biologist Patrick Brown's must be one of the most productive. Brown had a clear goal in mind in 2010 when he took a break from his regular scientific work at Stanford University: he wanted to challenge the livestock industry.
"Meat production leaves such a [carbon] footprint. According to the United Nations, it is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the entire transport industry, including trains, buses, cars, trucks and planes," he says.
Brown, 60, wanted to change that. Beyond working out how much it would cost to mitigate the damaging effects on the planet, he had a more ambitious plan: coming up with a tasty, nutritious - and affordable - alternative to meat.
That quest is now bearing fruit. He returned from sabbatical and established Impossible Foods, a start-up that aims to produce plant-based foods that can recreate the multilayered sensations of eating meat and dairy products.
Its first creation is expected to go into shops next year: a plant-based "meat" that browns on the pan and oozes "blood" juices much the way beef would. And ahead of the roll-out, Impossible Foods has held tastings in Asia of burgers made with its prototype meat, including a private session for Li Ka-shing, whose Horizons Ventures is among several venture capital funds that have invested US$74 million in the three-year-old Californian company.
Brown is presenting his burger as an option for meat lovers rather than vegetarians like himself (he hasn't eaten meat for 40 years).
"It's made entirely from plant. [But] if you call it veggie burger, meat eaters will think it doesn't taste any good ... It's just meat made in a better way," he says.
Tastings for select Hong Kong media show that his prototype burger is virtually indistinguishable from those made with regular minced beef. And Brown believes that by the time Impossible Foods releases the final product in the US in about six months' time, it will taste even better - "the most delicious meat people will ever taste", he claims.
In past decades, the mock meat business has grown mainly to serve vegetarians, producing soya or mushroom-based imitations that were typically heavily seasoned, tasted very different from real meat and were often more expensive.
More recently, a clutch of start-ups have taken a hi-tech approach to producing meat and dairy alternatives. There's Beyond Meat, also based in California; and San Francisco-based Hampton Creek, which specialises in egg and mayonnaise substitutes. In New York, Modern Meadow is grinding out meat and leather with a 3D printer, while Mark Post at Maastricht University in Belgium has been "growing" meat from stem cells in his laboratory with a US$330,000 fund injection from Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
At Impossible Foods, much of the research has gone into figuring out what gives meat its distinct texture, flavour and physical properties, Brown says. "We spent more than three years trying to understand what underlies the sensory properties of meat, milk and cheeses and stuff like that."
In the process, its team of 50 (chefs and farmers as well as scientists and engineers) discovered that heme - an organic molecule with an attached ferrous ion - plays a pivotal role.
Found in both plants and animals, the molecule unlocks flavours when heated with amino acids in protein and sugar, giving cooked meat its distinct taste, Brown says.
"None of the components of meat that give its properties are actually unique to animals. We could get those same ingredients from plants. A red liquid molecule we get from plants is identical to what makes meat red. Every living cell has [the molecule]; it's found in bacteria, plants, animals, you name it.
"The thing that's different about meat is that its concentration of heme is super high. Meat has that unique flavour because there's so much heme."
Of course, there's more to recreating the taste of meat than having lots of heme; there's muscle fibre, gristle and fat. "It has to have a particular juiciness and texture in your mouth. This is one of the things we are working hardest on."
For its current patty, Impossible Foods is using compounds from spinach, wheat and soya. But Brown says many different plants can be used to create different flavours and textures. "Our researchers are trying different plants every day. By the time we launch our burgers, the plants may be different and with better taste and texture."
Despite the technology being in its infancy, Brown says his product eclipses meat with its smaller environmental footprint.
"The use of animals is so ridiculously inefficient, we don't even have to be very good to be better. The energy, land and other components that go into making our burger is much less than what is required to make burgers using animals."
Brown is confident whatever version is marketed will be healthier than real meat. "Our product has no cholesterol, which is a component of meat and dairy [bringing] health concerns. We will give them a healthier fat profile," he says.
"But it's not just about making meat and milk in a way that's better for the planet and healthier for people. It's possible to make food even more delicious for people who love meat."
The idea is not to ask people to stop eating meat - what they want to do is attract consumers to a meat that is created differently, he says.
When it launches, Brown expects the meatless "meat" will be sold at about the price of premium ground beef found in high-end stores because initial production will be small.
But when the company is ready to scale up production in about two years, "we aim to price it below the cost of mass-market ground beef - it's entirely technically feasible".
Impossible Foods will probably build its production facilities "somewhere in Asia or China", Brown says.
To grow the business, they are getting advice from Horizons Ventures, which will help develop a strategy for the launch. Set up in 2002, Horizons has invested in more than 60 hi-tech businesses, including Hampton Creek, Misfit Wearables (which designs and manufactures products using sensor technology) and DeepMind, which makes artificial intelligence learning systems.
The low-profile fund doesn't release details of its operations or rates of return. But from its investment patterns, Horizons Ventures typically looks for promising start-ups that have already secured significant seed capital, and require a major injection of funds to make technological breakthroughs or move into mass production.
Brown didn't know about Horizons Ventures until a scientist friend introduced him to businesswoman Solina Chau Hoi-shuen, who directs the US$8.2 billion Li Ka Shing Foundation. They met in May and "very quickly, Horizons expressed interest in investing", Brown says.
Many of Li's investments in innovation technology, including early stakes in Facebook and Spotify, have paid off handsomely. Whether Impossible Foods will do the same remains to be seen. There's certainly no lack of ambition: while focusing on refining their beef patties, the team plans to use plant-based materials to replicate mutton, chicken and pork and milk.
Brown has a record of engineering disruptive changes. In the early '90s, he invented DNA microarrays for studying how genes are expressed and showed other researchers how they could use the knowhow. And in 2000, he and two other scientists launched Public Library of Science (PLOS), the free, online journal that has been a driving force for open-access scientific publishing.
Brown is certainly hoping that his company's plant-based "meat" will disrupt the livestock industry.
The seed is sowed: when a burger goes on the backburner
He came, he tasted, and he was inspired. Last week, tycoon Li Ka-shing got a bite of the meatless burger produced by Impossible Foods and declared himself impressed. "This is truly incredible."
Using heme protein, technology can now turn a plant-based burger into something like the real deal, Li says, referring to the imitation meat from Stanford scientist Patrick Brown's California-based startup.
"As the British sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke once said, 'the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them, into the impossible', just like this Impossible cheeseburger."
That's why Li used the occasion to announce the Techcracker Lab, a scheme to subsidise 100 local students and teachers on a trip to see tech ventures in Israel
Jointly organised by the Li Ka Shing Foundation and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, it is a six-day programme during which participants will attend creativity workshops and visit tech start-ups at various stages of development. The participants will meet students and teachers of Technion as well Israeli tech entrepreneurs, and Li hopes the exchanges will drive them to greater success.
Complacency, he says, is a very costly attitude - because no matter how good they are, no one can afford to remain at status quo.
Li has long been a big supporter of tech ventures in Israel.
Horizons Ventures, his private venture fund, has taken stakes in more than 25 Israeli companies. In 2011, the fund invested US$30 million in Waze Mobile, the Israeli startup that Google later bought for US$1.1 billion.
Coming from the tech heartland of Silicon Valley, Brown says non-conditional public research funding has helped scientists like him make the impossible possible. "One thing the US government has done for many years has been to give grants with no strings attached ... for the sole purpose of making discoveries."
Brown also credits the more relaxed schools in the US for nuturing his creativity.
"One thing good about the education system in the US is that a lot of time is spent not studying. The most important part about my education is play."
When people in curriculum development ask for his ideas on teaching creativity, he often tells them, "You already have that and that's called recess - when they let you out into the playground and have fun.
"A big part of being creative is having the freedom to not do anything in particular and wait for ideas to come," Brown says. "The way to be creative is to daydream."
A nature lover who runs 8km daily, Brown says he often get his best ideas when he's exercising.
"I just run along the trail and daydream and think about useless stuff. Every now and then, I get an idea that might not have anything to do with what I am working on.
"You also need to believe it's possible. If I get a good idea, I think I can do it. I don't know where the money will come from, or how I will do it; I have not solved all these problems but I know what can be done. Then I start working on it."
And that's how you make the impossible happen.