Creating an Appetizing Meat Alternative with Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown

March 28, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and it’s an honor to have Ethan Brown with us today. He’s the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, and Ethan, this is your first time on Green is Good, so welcome to our show. ETHAN BROWN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Ethan, before we get into talking about your great company, Beyond Meat, and for our listeners out there who want to follow along and see his amazing website, it’s www.beyondmeat.com. Ethan, tell us a little bit about your story, your journey up to the point of starting Beyond Meat and growing up and what were some of your influences and inspirations that led to the founding of this great company? ETHAN BROWN: Sure. Great question and it’s interesting for me. It really goes back to a time when I was quite young, probably not even ten years old, where I had a lot of experiences during that time with agricultural animals. I was living in the city but my dad had a hobby farm that turned into a business, where he had about 100 head of Holstein cattle and we would spend weekends and summers out in the countryside there and it really made an impression on me because I was both interacting with the animals there in my house, we had dogs and all sorts of pets, and interacting with the animals at the farm and I had trouble, like a lot of children do, distinguishing why is this one animal treated like a production unit and the other is given every privilege known to man and so that just sort of stuck with me. It just kind of sat with me and as I grew up, I got into clean tech for reasons related to climate change. I was very passionate about climate change coming out of school and I worked for a long time for a fuel cell company, one of the great companies, Ballard Power Systems, and enjoyed that a lot and just was really glad to be of service in that area. I had this calling that kept coming back to me around if I could do something about livestock, I could satisfy a lot of different social issues that I care about. I could address them. I could help to address them and so that sort of kept coming back to me throughout my career and so the pieces starting falling together as I learned more about animal protein and what’s required to put three ounces of steak or chicken at the center of your plate. Looking ultimately at the climate change implications, the human health implications, the natural resource implications in terms of water, energy, and land, and ultimately the animal welfare and I said, okay, all of these things can be addressed by creating a plant based meat so I said, you know what. I was at an entrepreneurial age. I started investing in restaurants that were doing really interesting stuff with plant based proteins and ultimately said, ‘I’m going to create a technology that can take plant based protein and realign it so that it mimics the fiber structure of animal protein,’ and that’s really how I started the company. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. That’s just incredible and for our listeners out there who already have heard many of our shows, they know I’m a vegan, my family’s a vegan, and Ethan, what you’re doing is just great stuff and gives me great hope about our future and right now. Talk a little bit about what your company does now. I’m on your website. It’s a beautiful website. I’ve signed up for your newsletter while we were on the show. Share a little bit about what you’re doing and for our listeners out there, again, it’s www.beyondmeat.com. What does Beyond Meat do and what’s your mission? ETHAN BROWN: I can start by revisiting the four pillars or we call them, ‘the four horsemen,’ of change within the company and why people work here. If you look at kind of a human health aspect of all of this and the relationship between particularly processed meat and heart disease, cancer, diabetes, when you look at climate and you say 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock. It’s more than half of the problem. Then you look at resources. Here in California we just had a lot of rain but previous to that we were having a very bad drought, where federal water allocations were almost nothing to farmers here so there’s a tremendous draw on the resource base from livestock and of course, you go into the animal oil for question, 66 billion animals a year being processed for food and more and more people are uncomfortable with that, particularly with the advent of the internet and YouTube and people having the ability to see inside what’s actually happening in these large agricultural systems that are nothing like the family farm and what people thought was being produced in the manner that they were produced. All of those things motivate people to be here. What we’ve been able to do is say okay, we like meat. Meat tastes good but we’re going to need to figure out a way to get meat from plants and that’s exactly what we’ve done. We’re not providing something that is sort of like meat, that is tofu-like. We’ve said our goal is to perfectly replicate animal protein with constituent parts that are derived from the plant kingdom and luckily they’re all there so protein is available in, obviously, a huge number of feedstocks in the plant kingdom. Lipids, they’re available out there in the plant kingdom as well. Obviously water is abundant everywhere in the plant kingdom so you have all of these attributes that you can draw from and then you can run them through a very simple process, that took us a long time to develop and the Midwest and Missouri even longer than us, that heats, cools, and applies pressure to these proteins so they are realigned in a way that actually truly mimics the fibrous texture of meat and so our argument is simply we’re not creating a substitute. We’re creating meat and it just happens to be from proteins, from lipids, from water, from choice minerals, and from carbohydrates that come from the plant kingdom as opposed to the animal kingdom. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow and so what are some of the products you have now and what are some in your pipeline to be coming in the future? ETHAN BROWN: The product that we’re most excited about right now is our new product, which is actually a beef product and it’s completely from pea protein. Peas were commercialized at a large scale, primarily around their fiber content but obviously there’s protein in peas so we work with suppliers that have extracted that protein and we take the protein and run it through our process and at the end of the day, you have a beef crumble. It’s like a ground beef that is made 100 percent from pea protein so it has gram for gram the same protein as beef but it has no saturated fat, no trans-fat, and no cholesterol. It’s a fantastic product so we worked with Alton Brown, the celebrity chef, and he had a really interesting response. He said that this may not reduce his steak consumption but for everything else where he uses ground beef, he can use our product and so that was exciting to hear and we’re seeing that in the market now, which launched in February. The pull off the shelf has been terrific. There are two main offerings we have. We have that beef offering and then we have a chicken product and the thing we focused on with the chicken was making sure that it had that long fibrous structure that’s so familiar to people with chicken, so that when it pulls across the teeth, it’s as if you’re tearing muscle or animal meat so that’s really been the innovation we’re trying to bring to the market. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And what’s coming beyond that? What’s some of the things on your visible deck that you’re going to be bringing to market in the coming years? ETHAN BROWN: So here’s what’s exciting. If you’re going to say we know that we can take these constituent parts from the plant kingdom and create meat with them, why not create something that’s better than meat, not because of what it lacks, not because it just doesn’t have cholesterol, saturated fat, or trans fat, but because of what it has? So we’re working on a special project that will be released, hopefully, this summer, we were just talking to our R and D team about it this morning, that will have as much iron as steak, as much omega 3s as salmon, and will have antioxidants for muscle recovery, etcetera and so the idea is let’s go ahead and create products that have attributes that normal animal proteins have simply because they’re not starting at the beginning and saying, ‘How can I optimize this for human health?’ JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so exciting. I know once this show airs and once I start telling people and once I start telling people about our show, here’s the question that I want our listeners to hear your answer to because we have listeners in the United States and around the world, Ethan: Where can they start buying your great products? ETHAN BROWN: That’s something else that I’m very excited about and I want to just say a note about Whole Foods. We wouldn’t be here without them and we have customers there that are coming out of the conventional space that are very important but we have to go back to the beginning of the company and this is something I feel strongly about because coming out of industries where large suppliers would try to squeeze you for everything you’ve got, Whole Foods was a helping hand up in every case. At the time when we were starting the company, we were living on our farm. They came out to tour the facility. Every time I had a revelation about this project that I felt was worth sharing with them, I was willing to bring it to them and they would give me feedback. We were constantly engaged with them. They came out to the University and worked with us there so they really have been an outstanding partner so it’s available at Whole Foods to be able to browse. It’s available come May in the Safeway network so available throughout Safeway. It’s available through Amazon Fresh right now and in September or something, I’m really excited about that it will be in Target. Our request to progressive retailers is to not sell meat and meat alternatives but to provide a section of the supermarket that sells protein and so consumers can pick from animal based proteins or they can pick from plant based proteins and as we start to further develop the supply chain for plant based protein, it’s my hope and our vision that we’ll be able to source protein from a large variety of plants so we’re looking at things like lupin. We’re looking at camelina. We’re looking at mustard seed, all of these different feed stocks that are available in the plant kingdom that you can get protein from. It hasn’t been developed yet because there hasn’t been a model where you’re taking protein directly from the plant and providing it to consumers at the center of the plate at any mass scale. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’re so honored to have Ethan Brown with us on the phone today. He’s the Founder and CEO of Beyond Meat. For our listeners that want to learn more about Beyond Meat, it’s www.beyondmeat.com. Also, on the website, there is a finder so if you want to just type in your zip code to find the closest location, as Ethan mentioned, Whole Foods, Safeway, Amazon, Target, Sprouts, who carry his product on the website. Let’s talk about the plants that are your feedstock. Aren’t there literally dozens, if not hundreds of plants, that are yet unexplored, that continue to be great feedstock for you in the coming months and years ahead? ETHAN BROWN: That’s what is so interesting. There are so many potential resources for us in the plant kingdom that we can pull from and we’re just getting started. Really, what we’re using right now are products or feedstock streams that have been developed for other reasons. Like I mentioned before, peas, it was really the starch that people were after and then there was this derivative protein but once you start to say, ‘Okay well how can I go ahead and start to source directly?’ you start to look at so many different potential feedstocks and I think that’s what’s so exciting for American agriculture and global agriculture. If you can take pastures and turn them into fields of protein where the amount of money that the farmer can get per field is dramatically increased, that’s a win-win for everybody. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right, right, right, unbelievable. We talked about the stores that are carrying it now or are going to be carrying it sometime this year, they’re going to start taking it online. Are there any restaurants yet that are starting to use it or is that coming also in the near future? ETHAN BROWN: There are some. Tropical Smoothie throughout the southeast and the mid-Atlantic does carry it and we are in discussion with a few major convenience store and fast food chains because I think that’s a great application. At the end of the day, as you know, the stuff in the chicken we don’t get basically is white stuff. It’s the chicken breast and it’s a mix and it’s quite unattractive when you look at what it is so if we can provide that white stuff and make it a healthier version, why not do that? And then ultimately, as we get scale, because we’re more efficient than animal agriculture, the vision is to then underprice meat as we achieve some scale. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s talk about scale and tie that back to the issue of celebrity investors. You have some great names that have backed you, that have believed in your vision and your dream, Bill Gates being one. Who are some of the others? And then explain why they invested in you and what you’re doing. ETHAN BROWN: It’s something that I just have to pinch myself over and it’s an absolute blessing and I think knowing your background, you start to feel like it’s something bigger than yourself when those people get involved and it’s a pretty amazing feeling but with Bill Gates, for him, we’ve had the opportunity to sit down twice now and it’s the opportunity to transform the protein sector and make low cost protein available throughout the world. He’s committed to sustainable development throughout the world and health throughout the world. This was exciting for him and then with Biz Stone and Ed Williams, the Founders of Twitter, I can’t say enough about how committed they are to the company. The week that Twitter went public, you’d think that would just be something where that’s all they’re focused on, I was getting emails about particular stores in San Francisco that had maybe a stock out or something of that nature so they are super involved in the company. It’s a passion for them. They care so much about plant based protein and sustainability so it was a real passion play for them in terms of the investment. We have Seth Goldman, who’s the Founder of Honest Tea very actively involved and he’s just been super, super helpful in helping us to navigate the retail space, more concrete capital, Humane Society has invested. There’s just been amazing support at the board level and it’s pretty neat. Kleiner Perkins was the first organization to invest in the company outside of friends and family and they took a big risk. They’re the company behind Google and Amazon and others. this is a very unusual investment for them. They stuck their neck out and I hope we’ve made them happy that they’ve done it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: People will ask me, are you still taking investors or is that for another day, the next round of investment? ETHAN BROWN: We are. We have a small round that we’re doing now that will help with the expansion and for us, the biggest challenges are really cultural. The science, we know we can get there. We just brought in a guy that spent four years at Harvard Medical School working on cancer. The reason that we have him is because we’re interested in working with protein expression and interaction and he has some expertise there. We know we can get the science. It’s the culture. How do we share with people that plant based protein is, in fact, every bit as good for you as animal protein and, in fact, better because of what’s missing? For that, you have to spend on marketing and I look at, with much envy, the Got Milk campaign and what they did to revitalize the dairy industry and I think that’s really necessary for the plant based protein industry. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. There was one of the interviews or some reading somewhere along the way Gates or Biz Stone had said one of the reasons, not only do they believe tremendously in you personally and your vision and Beyond Meat, but the scale-ability of all this is so unbelievable because think about what they’ve done with Microsoft and with Twitter. they just know that this is the next horse to bet on so I’m betting on you, that you’re going to be able to socialize and get through the veil and get people comfortable with getting through that. It makes a lot of sense. We’re down to the last minute and a half, unfortunately. Talk a little bit about some of the fun events that you’re going to be doing this year and other things that are on track for this year because we’re going to have you back anyway so just give us a little vision on the rest of this year, Ethan. ETHAN BROWN: Sure so we have a really fun weekend planned at the largest international food show in the country at Expo West, where we’re going to be publicly courting a large food chain, a fast food store, and I can’t exactly explained how we’re going to be doing that because it’s a surprise but it’s going to be really exciting and we’ll have some press coming in to cover that. We have a food truck that’s going to be touring to provide samples to people and that’s really what we’re about this year is getting the product in people’s mouths. That’s the most important thing for us because it removes all skepticism and concern once people taste it and enjoy the texture so it’s really around those campaigns. You’re going to see us out in the stores, providing samples to people. You’re going to see us in the street with our food truck and you’ll see us continuing to work with media to get the message out there that plant based protein is here, it’s in the form of meat, and it’s something that’s healthy and enjoyable. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, on that, we’re going to leave it for today’s show and again, we’re humbled and honored to have you on today, Ethan, and for our listeners out there that want to learn more about Beyond Meat and where they can try it and taste it and enjoy this great and amazing product, it’s www.beyondmeat.com. Ethan, first of all, I just want to say personally thank you for making the world a better place and second, on behalf of all of our listeners, thank you for leading the world beyond meat. You are beyond inspiring and truly living proof that green is good.