Impossible Foods accuses Motif FoodWorks of patent infringement over flagship ‘heme’ ingredient; Motif blasts lawsuit as ‘baseless attempt to stifle competition’

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Motif Foodworks Impossible Foods plant-based meat heme myoglobin soy leghemoglobin Foodtech IP

Two more high-profile players in the alt meat space are clashing over IP, with Impossible Foods accusing Motif FoodWorks of infringing a patent it secured in 2020 covering the use of its flagship ‘heme’ ingredient in meat substitutes.

In a lawsuit* filed March 9 - weeks after Meati Foods and The Better Meat Co became embroiled in a legal dispute over IP surrounding mycelium-based meat substitutes​ - Impossible Foods is seeking unspecified damages and injunctive relief to “protect its innovative technology and products against ​[Motif FoodWorks'] patent infringement.”

The dispute centers on Impossible Foods’ heme (soy leghemoglobin), which imparts a red-brown color and meaty flavor that the San Francisco-based firm claims gives its burgers a significant edge in the marketplace.  

Impossible Foods: Motif FoodWorks infringes ‘761 patent directly or through intermediaries’

According to the lawsuit, Motif FoodWorks – which has just launched a meaty flavor for alt meat applications called HEMAMI​ - “has been infringing Impossible Foods’ patents, including at least United States Patent No. 10,863,761​,​ and continues to do so through the present date.”

While Motif is not a CPG company, it “has made and demonstrated a replica burger at trade shows”​ that “infringes the ’761 Patent,” ​claimed Impossible Foods, which notes that burgers containing HEMAMI have also been sold by Motif’s partners including restaurant chain Coolgreens.

On information and belief, defendant (Motif) has been and is now infringing at least claim 1 of the ’761 Patent in the United States by, among other things, directly or through intermediaries, making, using, selling, and/or offering for sale an imitation burger including HEMAMI.”

Motif FoodWorks: Lawsuit a ‘baseless attempt by Impossible Foods to stifle competition and limit consumer choice’

However, a Motif spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA that the complaint is “not supported by facts or the law and is nothing more than a baseless attempt by Impossible Foods to stifle competition, limit consumer choice, and impede Motif, a new and innovative company with significant business momentum.”

The spokesperson added: “We intend to contest these allegations vigorously and will respond through the appropriate legal channels. We will continue to pursue our go-to-market strategy and work towards our mission to bring better tasting, nutritious and sustainable foods to the world.”

A​n Impossible Foods spokesperson told us: “We applaud other companies’ efforts to develop compelling plant-based products, but we do not tolerate attempts to undermine our brand or products through the deliberate and unauthorized infringement of our intellectual property.” 

How do the ingredients compare?

So what information is publicly available about the two firms’ respective ‘meaty-tasting’ ingredients?

According to a GRAS notice​ from Impossible Foods, its flagship ingredient soy leghemoglobin is a protein found in nodules attached to the roots of nitrogen-fixing plants such as soy that Impossible Foods produces via a genetically engineered strain of Pichia pastoris​ (a yeast widely used for production of recombinant proteins and food enzymes), the DNA of which has been retooled to produce leghemoglobin.

Its ‘LegH Prep’ ingredient combines soy leghemoglobin protein, Pichia​ yeast proteins, salt, and sodium ascorbate, imparting a red-brown color and ‘meaty’ flavor that Impossible Foods claims gives its products a significant edge in the marketplace.  

According to the GRAS notice, “Once cooked and digested, both soy leghemoglobin and animal-based myoglobin release identical heme B molecules into the digestive system.”

Motif CTO: HEMAMI ‘has a unique flavor profile that provides a very authentic meaty experience’

According to Motif FoodWorks’ GRAS notice​, the ingredient it has branded as HEMAMI is myoglobin, a heme-binding protein found in the muscle tissue of cows that Motif is expressing in a genetically engineered strain of Pichia pastoris ​yeast.

The myoglobin preparation is intended for use at inclusion rates of ≤2% to “mimic flavors associated with cooked ground meat​” in fresh or frozen plant-based burgers, patties, sausages, and other meat analogs.

Asked in a recent interview with FoodNavigator-USA how Motif’s myoglobin compared to Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin, Motif CTO Mike Leonard said: “It's a different protein. The operative property is that it binds iron, and brings all the benefits from a sensory standpoint that come with that. It has a unique flavor profile that provides a very authentic meaty experience. It's the same protein you find in muscle tissue of cows.”

The ingredient has been tested with consumers with exciting results, added Leonard. “The feedback we've received has been really tremendous; we're a b2b company but we go all the way to finished product design, because that's the best way to showcase how our technology really provides a benefit for consumers.”

Impossible Foods: ‘Our IP and our brand are unique differentiators’

Asked about its IP around heme in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA in 2019, ​Impossible Foods' former CFO David Lee told us: “Our IP and our brand are unique differentiators​… 

"I’m not an IP attorney, but I do know that our globally issued patents cover the use of heme, any heme,​ in plant-based meat and I think we have a unique set of technology to make heme in a high quality low cost way. I can’t comment on others and their approaches, but I do think that this precludes others from an IP standpoint from using heme to make delicious meat.”

*The case is Impossible Foods v Motif FoodWorks. Case #1:22-cv-00311 filed March 9, 2022.

San Francisco-based Impossible Foods​​​, founded in 2011 by Dr Pat Brown, entered the foodservice market in 2016 and made an aggressive push into retail in 2020. It does not disclose revenues, but its products are now sold in thousands of grocery stores and foodservice locations across the US, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore. 

The firm – which has a stated goal to “produce a full range of meats and dairy products for every cultural region in the world” ​​– ​​​is best-known for its beef, pork, and chicken substitutes. However, it is also working on steak, seafood, and eggs, and ​has teased​ a plant-based milk product claimed to be “better than anything that comes from a cow."

Motif FoodWorks​​​ – a Boston-based startup focused on high-impact ingredients that can be added to plant- based meat and dairy formulations in small quantities but make a significant difference to the eating experience – recently raised $226m in Series B funding, bringing its cumulative funding to $345m.

Powered by Ginkgo Bioworks​​​'​​​ ​​​synthetic biology platform, Motif was founded in early 2019. Its first two ingredients are HEMAMI: a protein that "provides a very authentic meaty experience;" ​and APPETEX​: a hydrogel combining plant-based proteins and carbohydrates that Motif claims can replicate the "springiness, juiciness and bite associated with animal-based connective tissue."  

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