Ethan Brown developed an early interest in animals and agriculture while tagging along with his dad, a professor, farmer and conservationist who infused his son with a deep appreciation for the natural world. As an adult, Ethan developed a promising career in the clean energy sector where he held positions of increasing leadership responsibility in the private and public sector, including eight years at Ballard Power Systems – the world’s leading PEM fuel cell company – where he reported directly to the President & CEO. Yet Ethan was nagged by a basic question, “Would we continue to raise and eat animals in such staggering numbers if a perfect plant-based replication of meat existed?” A committed vegan, he began to look far and wide for a technology that could do just that – take plant-based proteins and re-align them to mimic the mouth-feel, appearance and overall sensory experience of animal meats. When he met Dr. Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff at the University of Missouri, Ethan knew he was on to something. After several years of collaboration with the University of Missouri, The University of Maryland, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and The Obvious Corporation, Beyond Meat was born. Ethan has an MBA from Columbia University and an MPP from the University of Maryland. He has lived and worked abroad in Bosnia and Nicaragua.
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John: Welcome back to another edition of Green is Good. This is the Hollywood edition of Green is Good, and we’ve got my friend and co-partner and co-host today, Debbie Levin, with us. She’s the President of the Environmental Media Association. We’ve got for a second turn on Green is Good Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat. Welcome to Green is Good, Ethan.
Ethan Brown: Thank you very much. I appreciate being here.
John: We have you in person today. Next time we have you, we’re going to go down to your location and we’re going to eat and cook and be right there and show our listeners and our viewers how amazing and delicious your products are.
Ethan: Thank you. That’s what we love to do. We love to show people that plant-based protein can be a real source of protein and enjoy it just like they do animal protein.
John: It’s amazing. I’m a vegan for many years and I eat your products all the time and they are truly just delicious.
Ethan: Thank you very much for saying that.
John: For our listeners and viewers that didn’t get a chance to listen to the first time you came on, I want to start a little bit with the Ethan Brown journey. How did you even get here to become the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat and literally changing how we approach protein in the world?
Ethan: Great. It’s a long story, and I’ll try to just give the highlights of it. I really started when I was a kid. I was exposed at an early age to animal agriculture. My dad is professor, but we had a hobby farm that became a business farm, so I learned a lot about livestock and dairy cattle, in particular, and just sort of took that information with me and went on into a career in the clean tech space, where I worked on fuel cells for a long time, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, which is a great technology.
Debbie Levin: We actually work with Toyota forever, and we’re helping them launch the fuel cell car.
Ethan: It’s a really wonderful technology.
Debbie: I’m so glad you’re saying that.
Ethan: Yeah, I worked almost 10 years in this sector.
John: So you were early on that stuff.
Ethan: Yeah, absolutely. I worked for the best company in the world, Ballard Power Systems, leading a fuel cell exchange member, so it was a really, really great experience for me. But I kept coming back to this question of what if you could basically take the animal out of the protein production equation? What if you could think about getting amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water, not from an animal, but from plants, and building animal muscle, essentially, with those direct parts? That’s all the animal is doing. They’re basically taking from grass and now from feedstock and assembling the amino acids, lipids, and carbohydrates in a certain form that we’re very familiar with. The thought was why not go ahead and do that directly? I knew something about technology because I had worked in the clean tech space and I had a real passion for this because I felt that by doing that, you could simultaneously solve or contribute to, anyway, the solution for four different problems that I cared a lot about. One was human health. I looked at heart disease, diabetes, cancer. I do believe that Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang are right, and I have yet to see a convincing scientific analysis to suggest they’re not, that livestock contribute the most greenhouse gases of any singular cause today. They said about 51 percent. Whether it’s 30 percent or 51 percent, it doesn’t really matter; it’s a massive contributor to greenhouse gas. The second would be climate, and the third natural resources here in California with the drought, etc. The fourth is animal welfare, which is something that is near and dear to my heart. I said if you can basically affect all of those things by changing out the three or four ounces at the center of your plate, isn’t that something really meaningful? You say, OK, how do I get people to do that? They’re not going to stop eating meat. There’s no way that’s going to happen. In fact, the world is going the opposite direction. As countries industrialize, they’re consuming more meat. The quest then became how do we basically recreate meat directly from plants? I don’t mean make a soybean behave like steak; I mean how do you actually rebuild meat? What’s so cool about it is you can do it. That’s the really neat part about it. You can take those constituent parts and you can assemble them.
John: What year was this when you’d had the epiphany, the germs, of this idea?
Ethan: 2006-2007 I started thinking about it. It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea. I was anxious about taking a career which I built in clean tech and becoming the guy that produces tofu. I didn’t want to do that. So I really wanted to take a rigorous scientific approach to it, so I read a lot and learned what some very bright people were doing in this space and contacted some scientists at the University of Missouri and asked them if I could come out and talk to them. I did, and they just blew me away, so I started working with them.
John: Oh my gosh. Talk a little bit about the journey from beginning, so now we’re in 2015, and Beyond Meat is at Whole Foods. You’re becoming part of our eating vernacular in terms of if you’re into vegetarianism or veganism or just giving your body a break, you’re now part of the future. How did that go? How has that journey been? Talk a little bit about raising the money, which I’m going to ask you some other questions, you know what I’m asking, and how’s that gone.
Ethan: I view it as a real blessing. There’s a Victor Hugo quote that I like to say, which is “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I really view that about what we’re doing. I somehow have been fortunate enough and blessed enough to be part of an idea that’s coming around at the right time. If you look at when I was growing up, the book that my parents had on the shelf for child-rearing was by Dr. Spock. In that book, he talks about the vegetarian diet being the best diet for children. Of course, meatloaf was at the dinner table for most nights for me. It’s not like these are new ideas. Then you look at Diet for a Small Planet, published in 1971. It’s that there somehow is a tipping point, and that happens to be happening now, and I happened to be working on this idea at that time, I think. For me, it’s been a process of being part of some momentum that is much larger than myself and it gets to tapping into what you feel most passionate about and what your heart is telling you. Once you do that, the things that start to happen are pretty interesting.
John: For our listeners, we’ve got Ethan Brown. He’s the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat. To find out more about Beyond Meat, you can go to www.beyondmeat.com. We’re not going to let the show go by without talking about some of your bigger investors. You have Biz Stone, you have Bill Gates. Your idea has come. Why did they invest in your idea that’s come of the time? What got their attention? What got them really so excited about Beyond Meat?
Ethan: Sure. First, they’re just fantastic guys. There’s a generation now of investors that are putting their money where their values lie.
Debbie: How did they find you?
Ethan: When I first got involved with the University of Missouri, I worked for about two-and-a-half years with them, just trying to commercialize this technology. It’s basically a process of taking disorganized protein and amino acids and organizing it in the fashion of muscle or animal protein. We were taking amino acids and running them through this heating, cooling, and pressure process. There’s no chemicals. If you’re comfortable eating pasta, you should be comfortable having our products. I was working with them on that. We got to the point where it was something that could be commercialized, so at that time, Time Magazine came in and ran a piece on the technology. I always say that big companies have R&D programs and entrepreneurs have universities. I’m always amazed that people don’t just go to universities for the next greatest idea. That’s what I had done. I was working with the University of Missouri. They got contacted by a firm called Kleiner Perkins, and being the good Midwestern values and everything else, they said we’re already working with a guy. It was just me spending money out of my pocket. I had to license the technology. I had offers from other firms other than Kleiner Perkins for less of my company and for more money, but I called up a friend who was a Vice President at one of Kleiner’s companies, and I said should I do this deal with Kleiner? He said something funny. He said even if it’s a total disaster, working with Kleiner will be a great thing. It’s a really good plug for them. I turned down the other offers and I accepted Kleiner’s, and it was a great decision because they’ve done everything they said they were going to do.
Debbie: And they brought you these investors.
Ethan: They basically positioned it as not only the people that work there, and their networks, and I just got off the phone with Ray Lane, who’s the guy who’s on our Board, and he’s a terrific individual. It’s the network there. When it came time to expand our funding and to bring on other investors, they made introductions. It’s incredible who they can introduce you to. One by one, we’re able to assemble this group of people that are very passionate about disrupting industries that need to be disrupted. I think the question was about Biz and Bill Gates and those guys, was why would they be interested in this? If you look at what they’ve done, they’ve transformed computing, they’ve transformed communication, and this is a process that we’ve been relying on for 2 million years, the consumption of animal protein. What would be more fascinating than disrupting that?
Debbie: Can you explain your products, like really explain what they are, what they look like, what they taste like, so that we all know what you’re talking about?
Ethan: Sure. The first product I came out with was a chicken product. It was basically plant-based chicken. What we really focused on was the fibrous texture of chicken. If you pull apart a piece of chicken breast, it kind of has a striation that you’re very familiar with, and that’s very important to how it feels in your mouth and on your teeth. We worked very much on replicating that through using plant-based inputs. We used pea protein, soy protein, and others, and we ran it through this process that reorganized those proteins to take on that muscular fiber. Then we introduced a beef product.
Debbie: Wait. What are you buying when you buy the chicken? What does it look like?
Ethan: It looks like a strip.
Debbie: So you’re buying chicken strips.
Ethan: Exactly, chicken strips, yeah. The success that we had early on was Mark Bittman came out to our facility, which at the time was in rural Maryland, and saw the process and had us up to New York. We basically put dishes that were animal protein and plant protein right next to each other, and he had trouble telling us the difference between the two. He wrote a big article on the front page of the Sunday Review talking about that and what that meant.
Debbie: I remember this article.
Ethan: Yeah, so that really put us on a path to people taking it seriously. We had other really good media events. Good Morning America had a thing where they couldn’t tell the difference, so that became something people associated with our company, that if you want something that’s really like meat, go ahead and have something that Beyond Meat has produced. The future for us, though, is not just about replicating the meat experience; it’s also about improving upon meat. I’m a big fan of Elon Musk and of the Tesla, and I believe what he’s done is right, which is if you’re going to ask people to shift away from something that may be environmentally damaging, do it in a way that’s going to excite them and inspire them. What we’re doing with our newest products, for example, the beast burger, we’re creating things that the animal couldn’t create. The beast burger, for example, has antioxidants, it has omegas, it has calcium, it has all these things that you wouldn’t get if you had the cow or chicken.
Debbie: Looks like, tastes like, but is enhanced.
Ethan: Right, exactly. It’s a better experience for you, so it should draw you to it. People say why aren’t you more active in Meatless Mondays? Because I actually don’t believe in Meatless Mondays. I don’t believe that you should be asking people to sacrifice. You should provide them with something that is better, so they go do it seven days a week, so it’s not something where they say if I can just get through this day. That’s not the way you change the world. It’s just not the way innovation works.
Debbie: So it’s chicken, it’s meat.
Ethan: Yeah, and actually, this year we’re working on something which is, I think, groundbreaking, which is a raw beef product, which is fabulous. It’s so cool. You’ll take it home, you’ll be able to manipulate it with your own hands, put it on the grill. It is cool, and that is made out of a combination of pea protein and yeast. Yeast is a fascinating input. It has actually a higher amino acid profile than beef and it’s abundant. You can get yeast from a brewery. It’s a real opportunity to create some new protein platforms. It’s pretty cool stuff.
John: Talk about the process of making your great products. When people bite into it, what do they tell you their experience is? I’m a big fan. I eat your products, and I love them. They burn real clean and make me feel strong. They feel great. When you’re out there talking to your consumers and your growing base of fans, how does that work?
Ethan: It’s really around allowing people to continue to eat what they love. That’s a big thing for me. You can only pick so many battles in a day. Our battle is not to convince people to eat kale and quinoa. I think it’s terrific for them. They should. My own kids, eight and nine, I try to get them to eat as much as they possibly can. But it’s really around allowing people to enjoy the dishes they grew up with, but having healthier versions of it, so that you can have that lasagna that you want. You can have tacos, not just one night a week, you can have them three times if you feel like it because there’s no cholesterol, there’s no saturated fat in it. We deliver on that promise of what it’s like to bite into a piece of meat, what it’s like to feel satiated and full, but not have the downside, not have the cholesterol, the saturated fat, not have the carcinogens, etc. It’s all about delivering what people love and taking away the downside.
Debbie: And it’s much different than the other soy products that are out there or grain products.
Ethan: For me, the point of departure really is, and it’s a big one because it costs a lot more money to do it this way, but I want to rebuild meat directly from plants. I believe very strongly that you can think about meat in two ways. You can think about where it’s from, and you can get hung up and there’s not many productive solutions that come from that. You can’t make an animal much more efficient than it is. This gets back to the climate thing for a second. One of the things that Robert Goodland did, who is the economist behind the 51 percent greenhouse gas figure I cited, he actually added in the fact that animals are all respiring and they’re emitting carbon when they do that. They’re all breathing, and as part of that process, they’re emitting carbon. There’s an unnatural number of animals on the Earth’s surface. You can do a lot of things towards manipulating animals, but you can’t create one that doesn’t breathe. There’s an inherent efficiency limit with animals. With us, we can basically break through that efficiency limit and create a really, really efficient process. It’s all about transitioning people away from the concept you have to get meat from an animal, and thinking more scientifically about what meat is. If you describe meat in terms of its core parts, it’s those five things I mentioned. It’s amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water. That’s it. If I present you with those same five things in the same exact architecture as what you find in animal muscle, who’s to say that’s not meat?
Debbie: I have a really practical question. In terms of price, and where’s the distribution for this?
Ethan: We’re in about 7,000 stores now, everywhere from Whole Foods to Target. In terms of price point, a couple different answers. One is there’s parts of the animals we’ll probably never be able to compete with, which is the remnants and the very low value parts of the animal. We get asked a lot can you make pet food? We can do that, but pet food is full of things that are very low, chicken breast, for example. We can be very cost competitive with a chicken breast. If you look at what Tyson and Perdue sell in the store today, as chicken strips, we’re actually already competitive today. That’s a pretty interesting point because our scale is so small compared to their scale. If we can already be competitive today, imagine what it will be like.
Debbie: So you are in Whole Foods, you’re in Targets.
Ethan: Yes, we’re in Whole Foods, we’re in what would be Safeway out here, Ralph’s, etc. We’re in Vons, we’re in Texas in ATB, in Publix in the Southeast.
John: 7,000 stores. If they go on your website, beyondmeat.com, they can put in the zip code locator and find out where they are close to you.
Debbie: That’s tremendous that distribution is already amazing and accessible.
Ethan: It’s been great, and I think it’s about this concept of let’s allow people to continue to eat what they love. My point of departure is people aren’t walking around defending the landline. They love the iPhone, so you have to give them something that’s better. My entire focus is always on how do we create a better experience for consumers so they’ll desire this versus feel compelled to have it?
Debbie: What kind of marketing do you do for this?
Ethan: I love this part of our company. I hired a guy. The head of our marketing is from Silk soymilk, and I love what they did in terms of getting into the dairy aisle, and that’s very important to me.
Debbie: We used to work with them. That’s interesting.
Ethan: I really want people to be able to walk into the supermarket and buy protein, not buy meat and meat alternatives. When you walk into progressive grocers, you have basically a protein aisle. We can create this ground beef, for example, we can create it ultimately from things like lentil protein, we can create it from camelina, you can create it from different feedstocks. People can come in and they can pick an animal version or one that’s from many different types of proteins from plants, but today we’re nowhere close to there. On the marketing side, we’re able to get some real interesting people involved. Jeff Manning, who is the architect of the Got Milk? campaign, we hired him because we want to basically recreate the Got Mik? campaign, but with plant protein. We have three tenets of our marketing program. The first is to prove the taste and texture. We’re out there sampling, we’re on shows, etc. having people taste it, blind taste test, etc. The second is really to demystify plant protein. For moms, we have to make them super comfortable this is something that’s very healthy for their family. We want to explain that. I’ll take peas, for example. Our peas are grown in very rich soil in France. The protein is separated through water, so it’s an aqueous process, and it’s heating, cooling, and pressure, and that’s it. It’s, in many ways, a much more direct process than industrial animals. The third is we want to create this desire. We’re working with athletes and celebrities.
Debbie: We should be working together.
Ethan: Absolutely. If he’s listening, we’re waiting for DeAndre Jordan to sign.
Debbie: I think that it’s the education process and it’s getting the people to endorse you and to support what you’re doing that have a voice. Honestly, our community is not that aware of your company.
Ethan: If I could look five years in the future, I want to be able to walk into a gym in America and see, it won’t be Derek Jeter anymore because he’s retired, but somebody up there on that sign with a Got Milkesque argument about our product. I was amazed that you can walk into high schools all across the U.S., into cafeterias all across the U.S., and see one protein advertised, and that’s milk. I would like to be that protein.
John: Debbie’s line of questioning is great in terms of how you’re marketing this thing. It’s so interesting. You’ve got Got Milk? Talk about getting the guy. Is there also a B2B vision of yours on going to chefs and food platforms across the United States, beyond B2C?
Ethan: The thing that’s very near and dear to my heart is the school lunch program, so we’re working hard on that because it’s a way to get kids to start doing this early.
Debbie: That’s the harder one because we have gardens in schools in Los Angeles and LAUSD. We actually work with their afterschool programs so that we don’t have to fight with the system, and it’s worked so incredibly. We go into any school we want, but if we were telling them how to change their school lunches, we would still be on our first school. It’s kind of a nightmare, I know, but it’s great. That is where you need to go, but it’s also through the parents. It could be through all the parent associations as well because that is really at home.
Ethan: That’s where you start. We’re also working with one of the largest quick serve restaurants, so there will be something hopefully that we’ll announce later this year, as well as the leading meat company in a certain sector. We’re actually coming out with a product with them. It will be all vegan and all plant-based, but it will be co-branded. It’s pretty exciting.
John: Do you talk to Biz or to Bill Gates at all about marketing, about scaling? Do they coach you at all, in terms of where their experiences have had success?
Ethan: With Biz, the guy is brilliant on marketing. You definitely want to touch base and get his thoughts. Both him and Ev are extremely creative guys. Bill Gates, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with him twice. He’s not as accessible. He’s a great guy. It’s interesting. They had me so scared to go in there and pitch him. They’re like, he’s going to find a number in your presentation that somehow doesn’t compute, and he’s going to have you do it right there on the spot. So I went in there. As I was going in, three guys were coming out in rumpled suits. First of all, I hadn’t worn a suit, so I was like this is tough because these guys come out with suits. They look demoralized and everything. I go in there, and he’s the nicest guy in the world. We talked about his family, about his kids. His big point about the company and his enthusiasm for it was if you can drop the price of this below the price of meat and if you can scale internationally quick enough, you can make a real contribution to human nutrition. That’s what got him motivated.
John: We’re down to the last couple minutes. I know marketing and getting the word out is really so much of the battle. Ethan, I know you do events every year. Can you give a little plug for the events that you have coming up here in 2015?
Ethan: Sure. One thing we did, which was quite fun, at Expo West, which just happened, we did a McDonald’s. We turned the M on its side and turned it to B.
Debbie: I was there. I didn’t see that.
Ethan: Yeah, it was very popular. It was cool. We did it with Taco Bell last year, and the New York Times wrote a piece on it. We’re trying to enforce this idea that this is mainstream food that you can actually go back to enjoying and not feel guilty about eating. We’re doing a series of activations around this concept of the Got Milk? campaign I was mentioning. We’re doing barbecues with athletes. We have Sports Spectacular coming up here soon in LA, so we’re really trying to show that people who are fit and healthy, but yet want to enjoy great tasting food, are embracing these products in droves.
John: Where else can our listeners and our viewers find you, besides beyondmeat.com?
Ethan: We’re very active on Twitter, Facebook, and out in the community. You can come to a store. You’ll see us there. We have a lot of people out in the field working hard.
John: In a couple months, Debbie and I are going to come, and we’re going to bring one of her celebrities from Environmental Media Association. We’re going to come to your facility, and we’re going to sample these great products with you.
Ethan: Come try the raw ground beef. I think you guys will be blown away.
Debbie: I am so excited about all this stuff. This is amazing.
John: You can buy Beyond Meat at 7,000 locations now across America. Go to www.beyondmeat.com, put in your zip code, and you can find it right there. I thank you for joining us today, thank our guest, Ethan Brown, my co-host, Debbie Levin, and Ethan, turn and show the camera this. He is the Elon Musk of protein, the future of protein, Ethan Brown here. Ethan, you are truly living proof that green is good.
Ethan: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. Thanks for having me.