Meat doesn't have to come from an animal to be nutritious.
That's the idea behind Beyond Meat, a startup that aims to manufacture fake meat using a patented technology and plant products.
Founder Ethan Brown grew up in Washington, D.C., with a professor father who had a real passion for agriculture.
On the weekends and over the summer, he and his family would travel to a hobby farm they owned in rural Maryland. The farm eventually grew into a full-fledged dairy operation.
"I spent enough time there to get the notion that there must be a better way to do this," Brown told Business Insider. "Meat is well understood in terms of its core parts, as well as its architecture. Meat is basically five things: amino acids, lipids, and water, plus some trace minerals and trace carbohydrates. These are all things that are abundant in non-animal sources and in plants."
"The challenge is to take those core parts from plants and assemble them in the architecture of meat."
But why avoid meat in the first place?
"Raising livestock is an incredibly inefficient way of producing protein. It takes a lot of land, a lot of energy, and a lot of water just to generate one pound of meat from an animal. About 30% of the animal is meat we eat; the rest is not useful," Brown said. "By manufacturing meat, we can simultaneously solve four problems."
He calls those problems "the four horsemen" — climate change, animal welfare, natural resources, and human health. Brown himself became a vegetarian when he was 18.
"A lot of people are uncomfortable with the way animals are slaughtered today," he said. "But we also have an unnatural number of animals living today, and when they breathe, they're expelling carbon."
He cites a landmark study published by environmentalists Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in 2009: "The single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally is livestock. It's not automobiles, it's not power plants, it's livestock."
Bill Gates was impressed
In 2009, Brown, who has a background in fuel cell engineering, began working with a pair of professors at the University of Missouri — Fu-Hung Hsieh and Harold Huff — who had been developing their own platform for realigning proteins in plants. The team received several grants from the state to further develop the technology, which became the device that Beyond Meat uses to manufacture meat today.
While the company's main plant is still located in Missouri, it has opened its main headquarters and research and development facilities in El Segundo, California, a small town just outside Los Angeles.
In 2011, they scored an investment from Kleiner Perkins, the venture capital firm's first investment in a food startup. The Obvious Corporation — founded by Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone — would join Bill Gates, Taiwan's Tsai family, Morgan Creek Capital, DNS Capital, and Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman as later investors.
"It's a powerful notion that you can potentially impact things globally very quickly by making this simple change," Brown said.
In 2013, Gates wrote a blog post about his experience trying a chicken taco made with plant-based meat from Beyond Meat.
"Like most people, I don’t think I can be easily fooled. But that’s just what happened when I was asked to taste a chicken taco and tell whether the meat inside was real or fake.
The meat certainly had the look and the smell of chicken. I took a bite and it had the taste and texture of real chicken, too. But I was surprised to learn that there wasn’t an ounce of real chicken it. The 'meat' was made entirely of plants. And yet, I couldn’t tell the difference.
What I was experiencing was more than a clever meat substitute. It was a taste of the future of food."
In 2014, Whole Foods was forced to recall two curried chicken salads served in stores in the Northeast after mixing up the labels for the actual chicken and Beyond Meat's version. According to the New York Times' report of the incident, none of the customers could even tell a mistake had been made.
Still, Brown says the team has plenty of work to do.
"We're not there yet. It will be a while before we perfectly replicate meat, but fortunately for us, if you put it our product in a taco or bolognese or something, it's very hard to tell the difference," he said. "Naked side by side, it's still clear which one is plant-based."
And the company certainly has its detractors, like Mother Jones writer Tom Philpott, whose disparaging words the team hung on a wall in its El Segundo R&D facility.
Brown says that the Beast Burger, made primarily from a non-GMO pea protein, continues to be one of the brand's most popular products.
All of Beyond Meat's chicken and beef products can now be purchased in more than 4,000 stores across the country, including Whole Foods, Target, and some conventional grocery stores.