Green Queen founder Sonalie Figueiras and I recently sat down with Nick Halla, one of Impossible Foods leading figures, who has been instrumental in helping visionary founder Pat Brown build the now world-famous Silicon Valley food tech. Fun fact: Halla was Impossible’s first hire back in 2009. Now based full time in Hong Kong, he currently serves as the Senior Vice President for International Markets, responsible for leading Impossible’s global strategy and expansion.
It goes without saying that Impossible is now one of the- if not the– most recognisable plant-based brands on the planet, with its bleeding burger patties now served at thousands of restaurants across the US and Asia. The company has raised an eye-popping US$1.3 billion total in venture capital so far, and by some accounts, may announce a Series G in the near term future.
Below, we speak to Nick about everything from how he met Impossible’s founder Pat Brown to why the brand has resonated so strongly with millions of consumers. We also chat about the company’s upcoming Asia plans, what they do with their hundreds of millions in funding, whether an IPO is on the cards and how the coronavirus has affected Impossible’s strategy.
GQ: When did your journey with Impossible begin?
NH: I joined Impossible 9 years ago. I was Pat’s first hire and business partner. It has definitely grown a lot since then. We thought a lot about how we could really make an impact, and we knew that first thing, we needed to be able to compete with meat on taste. We weren’t looking to hit the vegan community and vegetarians, but we wanted to target the meat eaters – and to do that we needed to be able to get head-on-head with meat on taste.
GQ: You joined Impossible very early on.What did Pat Brown say to you that convinced you to join him on his Impossible journey?
NH: I met Pat through our first investor in a solar energy company I was working at, and at the time I was at grad school in Stanford. All I knew at that point was that there was a professor who was going to start a sustainability-related project. He showed up [to our meeting] in a backwards baseball cap and I could tell that down to his heart he was a good person. A few things resonated with me. [For Pat], it was never about money, it was about having a positive impact on the world. Then we went into all the reasons why, the impact that animal agriculture has – it takes up 45% of arable land surface, uses 20 to 30% of freshwater, produces more greenhouse gases than all transport combined. At the time, no one was talking about this. Sustainability simply meant things like waste reduction and energy efficiency. No one was talking about food and sustainability.
Pat was taking a sabbatical from Stanford about a year and a half before that. His background is really in cancer and genomics research, [he] was an extremely successful professor. He took this time to focus on how to make an impact, and initially started with renewable energy, then later figured out it was animal agriculture. This was in 2009. He was pitching this to companies to do something about this – Big Food companies – and was telling them that this will be a big opportunity for the insanely inefficient animal protein industry.
But the challenge was that long-term research and development is not what Big Food wants to do. A ten-year path before a business can be several million dollars in scale – which is typically what big companies need to operate within their systems – is just not viable. So Pat realised that the only way to get this across was to start his own company and compete on the market. It isn’t just the big food industry where this happens – it’s the same in the pharmaceutical industry, where the real innovation comes from smaller biotech companies, and then they get bought.
GQ: What makes Impossible so different from your average plant-based meat alternative?
Everyone has tried a veggie burger before, so a lot of people have a latent plant-based anxiety that it is going to taste bad. I myself come from a dairy farm, and I used to eat meat and dairy at every meal. When I went to my first Expo West [the California-based natural foods trade fair] , every product out there was for people already making the environmentally-friendly choice to go plant-based and it wasn’t going to capture the meat eater. We knew we needed to change this dynamic, and the only way to do that was taste.
Once we got the dynamic right, we needed people like David Chang, Chris Consentino and Traci Des Jardins to get behind it. Then people will try it and tell their friends. That is how we created our brand, but it ultimately started with our products.
GQ: How long did it take to go from concept stage to getting Impossible on Dave Chang’s Momofuku menu?
NH: More than five years after we started our company. We were constantly developing our product and kept thinking it wasn’t good enough. From a fundamental science perspective, we’re never “there”. But it got to the point where we just needed to go and launch it.
When we look at the history of development, the first two years were pure basic science. We looked at what made meat and seafood so tasty. What made it transform from soft to firm when it cooked? Why does a medium-rare burger have a completely flavour profile than a well done burger? We drilled down on these properties, then we looked into how we could then create a version without animals. That enabled us to learn things like heme – heme is what drives all the flavour and texture that meat has when we cook it.
GQ: Do you see Impossible staying focused on their own brand focused or is there a possibility you will share your technology/ lease it out?
NH: It’s a tough question. It’s more a matter of when, because in the long-term anything is possible. Our mission is to replace animals as a necessity in food production. Some of that will be done on our own, certainly some also with partners and other entrepreneurs. There are a lot of options as we go.
For example, our first manufacturing and production site was in Oakland, then our next one was partnership with OSI Group – a big meat company. We’re helping them turn their factories into plant-based meat facilities. They’re one of the biggest meat suppliers to QSRs globally, with around 10 to 12 sites in Asia.
GQ: Does that mean Asia production is on the horizon?
NH: I’d say that it will be. We already sell in Hong Kong and Singapore, and we want to be able to grow and scale across the region to get enough demand to start running a factory. For now, it’s actually more sustainable to ship the product made in the U.S. than run a small facility locally [because] a lot of the ships are coming back empty, so it is cost-effective too.
GQ: How long has the Asia focus been around for given there is still so much to do in your home market?
NH: Asia has been our focus since day one, in one way or another. Ultimately, we needed to create a product that is vertical and replicate what consumers, shops and restaurants need, such as ground meat. When we go into different places, We’re not necessarily changing our product, but the application has changed – so from a design perspective, the target was to make a globally influential product, and ground meats are culturally iconic everywhere.
Asia is 44% of global meat consumption. In 2014, Li Ka-shing’s Horizon Ventures participated in our Series C. Temasek [Singapore’s government-backed venture arm] came on a couple years later. Our two high-profile Asian investors were not an accident, it was targeted. We knew it had to happen in Asia to have an impact. There is so much need and opportunity here for a better food system, so very early on we wanted a presence here. We launched in Hong Kong when we only had hundreds of restaurant partners domestically in the U.S. – that is extremely early in our company trajectory to go international and to go into Hong Kong.
GQ: When did you start looking at producing a pork product?
NH: We did a sneak peek test launch at the CES in Las Vegas, where we served about 40,000 samples. The response was great. Our criteria of how we come to building products starts with sustainability and resource efficiency. We started with beef because it was the most resource intensive, though the global market isn’t as big as pork. Pork is next, then we have chickens and fish. So for us, we have beef and we will continue to roll out that platform, but the next logical platform is pork – and as we scale in Asia, we have to have pork to have a big impact.
That path started relatively early as a starting point. The cool thing about having a technology platform to build plant based meat is that we can do anything with it – but the challenge with that is exactly that we can do anything with it. It’s hard to pick our focus. From a research point of view, it’s great to let the team explore and apply the technology to different innovations. But then in commercialisation we need to be more specific.
GQ: How different is Impossible’s beef and pork products in terms of ingredient profile?
NH: We’re still continuing to prepare that for market, it’s still not totally final yet. Some parts are similar and some different. From a flavor profile, pork isn’t as flavour-forward and more fatty, so how we work around the flavour into the fat system will be different. The textural side isn’t too different for ground pork, but there will still be changes. The big changes will be the fat side, and tweaks we will work through the rest. The basic concepts are the same, and we can apply our learnings. But it will definitely have a different ingredient list.
GQ: Supply chain resilience is obviously top of mind given what’s happening with the pandemic. What challenges is Impossible facing on this front?
NH: We’re in good shape on the supply chain side. The fundamental thing is that we need fewer resources than animal farming. In Impossible 1.0, the main base ingredient was wheat protein. For 2.0, it was soy protein – the big reason why we did this was scalability. Soy protein is by far the most scalable [protein] in the plant supply chain. Of course, the array of scalable plant proteins will increase eventually and there will be a bigger toolkit in the future. But for now, in terms of scalability, nutritional profile, accessibility, soy has good properties. We’re particular about the kind of soy protein we source from too. Wheat protein is decently scalable, but not quite as good as soy, and isn’t as good in terms of nutritional balance. So with a mix of different plant proteins, we can get all the 9 essential amino acids in the right ratio.
GQ: Impossible has raised a lot of cash lately, and there are rumours that you are raising a Series G, what do you spend the funds primarily?
NH: It’s a mixture. We have a good sized R&D team that has pushed the boundaries, so we spend on that. We are now expanding heavily into U.S retail, and especially with coronavirus, we’re pushing that further. We’re now at 3,000 outlets, and there will be lots more coming soon. Building that scale of production, more factories, and international expansion. It’s really a combination.
GQ: What’s your view on cultivated meat?
NH: It’s tough. It’s a tough technology to scale. They haven’t been able to do this in medical applications at a cost that is efficient yet. Can we actually scale this successfully against mass meat? That’s the big question. The other part is that we believe that we can create products that are fundamentally better than any animal can do, so why would we want to use an animal cell? As we scale up, and as we learn more and do more innovation, we will be able to create so many diverse products where we don’t need animal cells.
GQ: There has been talk about Impossible using some of its funding to lowering pricing and get closer to animal meat parity.
NH: Yes, we’re going to lower prices by 15% for wholesale. At that point when we announced it, we were in around 150 retail stores. Now we’re scaling the system. The goal is, as we get these efficiencies in the supply chain, we’ll be able to pass these costs on to consumers.
GQ: What are some of your biggest challenges in the coming months?
NH: Speed. That is always our biggest target. If we don’t do this and we don’t do it fast, it won’t happen. So that’s domestic market expansion, international expansion, and it’s a big reason why we did another funding round. We need to change animal agriculture as fast as we can. This industry itself is actually still really young.
GQ: China’s meat consumption is growing fast. What do you think needs to happen to put a break on that?
NH: You need to give Chinese consumers a product and a brand they love. That’s [the same] in the U.S. too. We are a scientist-led company, but we knew we needed the right brand image that represents brand quality. That matters a lot in Asia – trust in safety and being cost-effective too. Premium can signify quality, but to hit mass change we need to be cost efficient [so we can] scale. We have learned a lot from the Hong Kong and Singapore markets. The easiest example is our transition from 1.0 to 2.0 – our 2.0 was much more versatile for Asian cuisine, you can put it in pretty much everything and hit a much wider diversity of dishes.
GQ: What are some of the biggest differences you noticed between Asian consumers and North American consumers?
NH: The biggest thing that doesn’t change is taste – the vast majority of consumers look for taste first. If you don’t have that, you won’t get anywhere too far. In the U.S., when we launched at Momofuku, sustainability in food was a nascent conversation. The drivers there were taste, health and nutrition, and then maybe down the list there comes environment.
Now this is changing. For Hong Kong, health and nutrition was a bigger conversation, the environment was even more nascent. The environmental movement in food is getting stronger now in the States, but not as much in Asia, though it is picking [here] too. The other thing that matters a lot in Asia is food safety, which is not as big a concern elsewhere.
GQ: Has the coronavirus changed Impossible’s strategy?
NH: Very little. For us, this was going to be a big year of scaling retail in the U.S. anyway. So what we saw in the industry was dining went down, but we’re still supporting them [our restaurant partners]. Like allowing them to resell Impossible stock to consumers in the U.S. and Singapore.
GQ: Is this a part of Impossible’s broader plan to roll out consumer retail or is it just temporary?
NH: It’s temporary. For restaurants, we want to do anything we can to support our partners, and this is an olive branch to try out for the meantime. We are sticking to food service for now, and in the U.S. we are scaling our consumer retail, and eventually we’ll bring retail directly to consumers in Asia after we get our production systems in place.
GQ: What about Europe? Is there a regulatory issue with regard to the GMO heme?
NH: There is a regulatory process centralised for Europe. It’s an important market. The U.S. is our home base where we really get the trends starting, Asia is where the biggest impact is, and Europe is more forward-thinking in sustainability in general but is still a big percentage of meat consumption. So it is still a market that matters. We’re in the middle of the regulatory process [at the moment].
GQ: Pat Brown was recently quoted in a New York Times article saying – “Every time someone in China eats a piece of meat, a little puff of smoke goes up in the Amazon”. Can you comment on this?
NH: I can’t respond to that. All our agricultural systems are tied. Like you said, Chinese consumers are conscious about it and this is something we need to be cognisant of as we expand in the country. Pat is a thought leader and a scientist, so for him, he looks at the data of what it’s driving degradation, and it’s animal agriculture. We are creating a solution of great tasting food without compromising the planet. Our mission is environmental sustainability.
GQ: Is Impossible planning to go public in the near future?
NH: We have been really selective about the investors we have pulled into our funding rounds – they are long-term focused, [and they are] behind our mission and our business. For now, we are extremely happy with our finances. We will always look and see what is the best way to continue to roll. Right now with Temasek, Horizon Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Bill Gates, we’re in great shape to build our company as is.
GQ: A big part of what makes Impossible so iconic is the brand you’ve built. Putting taste and texture aside, why does it resonate so deeply for so many consumers? ?
NH: I can’t say exactly why, but I think Impossible is a brand that people want to associate with. It is showing an opportunity for a better future. We are positioning the brand as building a system that helps our environmental footprint and makes the planet better for future generations. It’s easy for consumers to resonate [with that] and want to be a part of that.
At the same time, we are a bit edgy. “Impossible” itself – the word – is edgy. It isn’t typical food branding, and it is memorable. The name came about in 2014 after the R&D process, and we put a lot of work in trying to find a word that could represent what we are trying to do. With our name, then we create the meaning behind it to show our overall messaging. We have PR agencies we work with but everything comes [from] deep in-house. It all starts with Pat and his vision, and we then tell that story and we communicate and connect that broadly to others.
GQ: One of the biggest criticisms of Impossible is that it is heavily processed and not a whole food product. What do you say to that?
NH: How many people are going to eat a kale salad every night? For us, we recognise that a lot of processed foods are bad and have poor nutrition. But food being processed doesn’t make it bad. Pat has an MD, and has a scientific background in health and nutrition, we know the nutritional aspects of what people are looking for in meat. That’s why we put all the micronutrients that consumers want and expect in meat back into our products, and we do this because it’s the right thing to do. We are proud of the process that we are using to do this, and we strive to be as transparent in the processes we use.
GQ: Final question – team rice or team noodles?
Lead image courtesy of Impossible Foods.