Founded by acclaimed Stanford biochemist and genomics expert Dr Pat Brown, the Redwood City-based company has already raised $75m from high-profile VC funds, and says the latest round was led by UBS, with participation from Viking Global Investors, among others.
However, earlier round investors, including Horizons Ventures, Khosla Ventures and Bill Gates, also participated, said Dr Brown.
‘Delicious and sustainable’
Dr Brown – who is a co-founder of plant-based dairy brand Kite Hill – has also been very vocal about the fact that he is targeting the mass market, not just vegans and vegetarians, and that Impossible Foods has a competitive edge because it has the technology to produce something vastly superior to the meat-analogs currently on the market.
He added: “This latest financing ensures that we have more than enough runway to bring our first products to market. We are grateful to our visionary investors, whose support will enable us to transform the global food system by providing consumers with delicious and sustainable meat and dairy foods made directly from plants."
Silicon Valley backing
While Impossible Foods does not go into any detail about its proprietary processes on its website, Dr Brown has talked to the media fairly recently about why the firm – which has yet to launch its first product - has been able to attract such a huge pile of cash from investors that have historically targeted the tech industry, but are now getting excited about food companies such as Hampton Creek, Beyond Meat, Soylent, Muufri, and Modern Meadow.
At Impossible Foods, according to recent interviews, the key components of meat - amino acids, fats, and nutrients - are identified, characterized and sourced from a wide variety of plant sources including wheat and spinach, and processed using high-moisture extrusion and other techniques in order to meet precise functional, taste and textural criteria.
However, the secret sauce is ‘heme’, which Brown calls “the molecule that makes meat meat.” This, he sources from leghemoglobin, a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants that is similar to myoglobin and hemoglobin (which make blood look red).
While you could technically extract leghemoglobin from root nodules, it’s not commercially viable to do that at scale, so like synthetic biology experts such as Evolva, Dr Brown is reportedly producing it via a genetically engineered yeast – the DNA of which has been retooled to produce leghemoglobin.
He has not however said much publicly about the costs associated with manufacturing the burgers at scale and how this will impact the price or the go-to-market strategy.
Another big unknown is how the products might be perceived by consumers, who on the one hand are seeking out plant-based foods, but are on the other hand suspicious of technologies such as synthetic biology, and looking for products that are more ‘natural’ and 'minimally processed'.
However, the success of Quorn - a meat analog derived from a single celled micro-organism from the fungus family that is produced on a commercial scale via a continuous fermentation process - suggests consumers are open to new technologies in this space.
Asked about why meat analogs had not achieved the kind of market penetration that dairy-alternatives such as almond milk had garnered, Barb Stuckey, chief innovation officer at leading product development specialist Mattson, said that the products, while improving all the time, still needed some work.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Bon Appétech conference in San Francisco over the weekend, she added: "Plant-based eating is going to be the future, but you have to be able to deliver the cravability you get from meat and dairy, the savory, crumbly, delicious, sensory experience."
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