Today, Patrick Brown steps down as CEO of impossible foods – the vegetable protein juggernaut he founded in 2011.
Peter McGuinness, former president and COO of the yogurt brand Chobani, took the reins; Brown will remain on the board of Impossible and take on the new position of “visionary director”, in which he will lead “research and technology innovation, strategic initiatives, public advocacy and, above all, our mission”.
Although the unexpected moment may have been surprising – announced, so to speak, in an “out-of-the-blue” company blog post by Brown last month – the dropping of the starring role itself may not be particularly shocking to observers of Impossible Foods and the broader alternative protein market.
For one thing, at McGuinness, Impossible Foods is hiring a seasoned Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) brand executive who has spent the past nine years selling Greek yogurt to the public (he was the marketing company between 2013 and 2017 and, prior to that, had a two-decade career in the advertising and public relations industries.)
It should be emphasized that Chobani yogurt is not plant-based; it is of the original variety, derived from the cow. That Impossible features McGuinness – a person with experience in the conventional “mainstream” protein industry – says a lot.
Brown, on the other hand, never quite fit the “typical” profile of FMCG executives.
A mission without limits
After launching Impossible and dedicating a great deal of time and effort to his self-assigned mission to end animal agriculture by 2035, Brown for some time continued his prolific career as an academic biochemist. (Before entering the world of alternative proteins, the doctor’s accomplishments included the invention of the DNA chip and the establishment of the Public Library of Science (or PLoS), one of the first major open access publishers of scientific and medical research.)
He also co-founded Lyrical Foods, a startup producing plant-based cheese and other dairy products under the brand kite hill Mark.
There was a feeling with Brown that he was perhaps trying to do too many things at once; which would probably not have been conducive to the evolution of Impossible into a profitable food company in direct competition with the big established brands.
Another of Brown’s quirks — which can be a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective — is his outspokenness.
Having followed a meatless diet for most of his life, he admits to having “no interest in [eating] something that tastes like meat” — in other words, the kinds of products his company makes — but instead targets the carnivorous majority in countries like the United States.
As honest as that may be, that’s not necessarily the best thing to say from a marketing standpoint.
And on this point of convincing regular meat eaters, Brown made no secret of his views on conventional protein products of animal origin. This is just one example of the kind of language we expect from him, from an interview with The Guardian Last year:
“The whole cause of the catastrophic collapse of wild animal populations, which are less than a third of what they were 50 years ago, worldwide, is the use of animals as food technology. […] Cows trump all remaining wild vertebrates on earth by more than a factor of 10. Just cows. We have literally totally replaced biodiversity with cows. Let’s get rid of the fucking cows and let nature recover.
Asked about the negative impact such a measure would have on cattle ranchers and other workers in the meat industry, Brown’s direct response was that “they won’t be in this business anymore.”
(The Guardian The reporter describes Brown as passing the interview “to fuss with the impatience of someone who is sure he is right.”)
Now, there is an argument that this kind of no-holds-barred, apocalyptic, even accusatory approach is what it takes to shake the sheep out of their mass hypnosis and end their addiction to animal flesh.
Impact without meat
But the endless repetition of these environmental and ethical arguments – consistent if perhaps overly simplistic – alone will not be enough to convince enough regular meat eaters to convert to flexitarianism overnight.
One only has to look at the markets to see that a world dominated by no-slaughter meat is far from a fait accompli; Impossible Foods’ big, publicly traded rival in the plant-based protein race, Beyond meatrecently faced various hurdles in the retail and restaurant channels – and it’s not the only one.
Maple Leaf Foods President Curtis Frank, speaking after the publication of the Canadian society annual and quarterly results last month, said “all major brands and products across the [plant-based] are experiencing similar challenges, which largely seem to be driven by consumer experience in terms of taste, price, degree of processing and ease of preparation.
Many plant-based meat substitutes still lag behind conventional meat when it comes to taste or the perception of it, according to a recent study by a food consultancy To chew finding that even a midrange animal-based beef burger was able to beat nine of the top-selling plant-based analogue patties in the United States on flavor and nutrition (the only category where veggie burgers won was sustainability.)
Taste and texture are where the war to reduce our dependence on animal protein will be won. In all honesty, this is something Brown is well aware of. Much of Impossible’s cutting-edge innovation has been directed toward solving this problem; most notably his process of creating heme in soybean plants genetically modified to mimic the “bloody” umami quality of animal-based beef. This, in fact, drew criticism – and even a lawsuit – from some of the more orthodox corners of the vegan and vegetarian movement who oppose the presence of GMOs in plant-based products.
But in other hallways of potential tech research, Brown slammed and locked doors. He consistently denied the concept of meat grown from cells, describing it on one occasion as “Complete vaporware.”
While the category is still far from economically viableprogress has nevertheless been done; and however long it might take, it seems somewhat inconsiderate to dismiss out of hand a technology that could massively reduce society’s dependence on animal agriculture (I stop before the own of Brown ‘elimination of livestock by 2035’ lens, which has its own vaporware smell.)
Moreover, by saying this, Brown seemed to implicitly rule out that Impossible was ever involved with cultured meat (at least under his watch).
If the goal is for Impossible Foods to inherit the mantle of today’s large agrifood companies, to become one of the players in “Big Food 2.0” and a leading producer of proteins on a global scale, then excluding a whole category like cell culture meat at this relatively early stage could prove to be a mistake.
Which brings us back to the new CEO of Impossible Foods, McGuinness.
With someone new at the helm, coming from outside the company with years of experience in marketing and FMCG products, Impossible Foods has a chance to make a fresh start and chart a slightly different path. of that which has been traced under Brown.
Broadly speaking, there are three options for the business now.
A new path for Impossible?
First, McGuinness could encourage it to adopt a more holistic strategy, exploring a wider variety of potential product lines; and perhaps even keeping the doors open to emerging technologies like cultured meat – just as rival Just eat did, becoming both a plant protein and cell culture company. This could include in-house R&D activities or investments in other companies working with the technology. Inevitably, such an approach comes with increased costs and risks; but also allows the company to diversify while continuing to evolve and grow.
Second, McGuinness might decide that Impossible should take a more “naturalistic” approach, dropping GMO elements in order to appeal to both vegetarians and meat eaters who are conscious of keeping their food as free from post-harvest tinkering as possible. . This may seem less risky than the first option, but could also be suicidal for the company given the centrality of heme to its taste – which, as noted above, is key to its consumer appeal.
The third option for McGuinness is to take no turns, but rather to continue straight: that is, the company continues as before, releasing progressively improved Impossible Burgers every few years and adding a new range of products here or there. But given the headwinds facing the nascent plant-based protein industry; the ever-increasing number of competitors; and with Impossible expected to explore an IPO in the not too distant future – “more of the same” is unlikely to excite – or assure – consumers or investors.