Ethan Brown, chief executive officer and co-founder of Beyond Meat—a company focused on rebuilding meat from plants—gained an appreciation for agriculture and the natural world from his father, a professor, conservationist, and hobby farmer. This interest shaped the direction of his career, where he sought to make a contribution to climate change through the clean energy sector. His early work centered on electricity restructuring in support of an open grid, where his analysis at the gubernatorial level directly informed federal and state policies on grid management. Subsequently, Ethan joined the world’s leading PEM fuel cell developer Ballard Power Systems, and remained there for nearly a decade, rising to report directly to the Company’s Chief Executive Officer.
Ethan’s career in innovation, coupled with his childhood interest in animals and agriculture, led to a recurring question: do we need animals for meat production? More specifically, what is to stop us from rebuilding meat from amino acids, lipids, and carbohydrates sourced from plants versus animals? As he explored the question, he became convinced that a simple change in the origin of the 4-5 ounces of protein at the center of the plate could simultaneously address human health, climate, natural resource, and animal welfare challenges like few other solutions. In 2009, Ethan founded what is now Beyond Meat. Ethan is fortunate to count among his partners/investors in the business The University of Missouri, University of Maryland, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, The Obvious Corporation (Biz Stone & Ev Williams), Bill Gates, Seth Goldman, Closed Loop Capital, Gigi Pritzker and Michael Pucker, S2G, WTT Investment (Tsai Family), the Humane Society of the United States, Morgan Creek Capital, and Impact Assets, among others.
Ethan holds an MBA from Columbia University and an MPP from the University of Maryland.
What do you see as the key challenge for selling your product to the public? Is it simply overcoming the negative stigma of plant-based meats (from people who have been spurned before), getting the cost down, getting the price right? Or something else?
On a global level, in terms of a whole picture perspective, the biggest challenge is the legacy and heritage around animal protein. I try to think about it in evolutionary terms, in a sense that we started to consume meat about 2 million years ago with some regularity, and then increasing in frequency, and it changed everything about us. It changed the size of our brains, the structure of our bodies, the way we organized our cultures and societies. And of course, more modern expressions of the integration of meat consumption into our society and culture, and who we are, that’s a very strong fabric that needs to be respected and wrestled with in order to present the product in the right way. We have an approach to that, but it’s one that required a lot of thought, because the biggest obstacle is that meat is really part of who we are and getting people to think differently about it is different than, say, getting people to pick an iPhone over a landline or any other technology that has become ubiquitous in a short period of time. We face a different legacy and heritage.
Is that a challenge you feel you’re having success in meeting?
So the way I think about it is to not build a business on telling people not to eat meat, but to build a business around challenging what people’s perception of meat is. You can think of meat in two ways: 1) Be very hung up on its origin and say it has to come from a chicken, a cow or a pig or whatever animal happens to be in questions, or 2) To think about it scientifically, about what comprises meat. If you think about what comprises meat, on a material or physical basis, it’s five things: Amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water. So if I present those to you and they’re in the same architecture or structure as animal muscle or meat, so it’s the same thing, in the same physical structure, and it provides all the nutrition and culinary and sensory experience, I think it becomes semantics about whether it’s meat or not. That’s the approach we try to take, we don’t try to battle meat and say that people shouldn’t have it, we just do a sleight of hand where we change out the amino acids and lipids so they come from plants instead of animals, and that’s it. Continue to enjoy eating meat, just eat meat from plants.
As you mention on your website, there are a lot of benefits to plant-based meat products. What role do you think Beyond Meat, (along with other “animal product alternative” food producers) will play in reducing animal suffering?
I think it’s the number one motivation, though there are so many other reasons out there, that drew me to the problem. It could be an absolute and complete solution to the problem of abusing animals for protein. I try to describe it to people in the terminology of production efficiency. There’s a huge bottleneck in the production process, and it’s the animal. Our fields are tremendously capable and productive these days, able to provide huge amounts of nutrition, but of course they need to run through an animal first to turn them into protein, and that animal is incredibly inefficient at doing that, and so we’re trying hard to just create the meat directly from the plant, and take out that bottleneck. If we’re successful, and you look at other parts of the industry where people have been able to innovate out of inefficiency, you no longer have that particular piece of equipment around, you could potentially see a world where animals aren’t needed for protein.
What do you see as the most effective way to combat animal suffering and/or improve animal welfare?
I think about it every day. For me, the answer is this innovation process that we’re pursuing. One big way is education. My kids were not vegetarian until recently—they’re 9 and 10—about two years ago they made their own choice to become vegetarian, which made me very happy, and I hope someday they’ll be vegan. My daughter is an incredibly kind person, but even she was on the fence, with her peers and everything, having pepperoni pizza and things like that, and so finally I said look, this is ridiculous, we have pigs, at the time we had six pet pigs, and it seemed crazy. I said that you guys love these pigs, but you’re eating this stuff. But finally I showed her a short movie, I found one of the ones on the internet and explained that this is why I don’t eat meat, and she was pretty young, and I caught some flak for showing it to her, but after that she called it the “murder movie” and never ate meat again. So education is really important too, but giving people a viable alternative [is important]. Building a business and telling people not to eat what they love is a stupid idea. Let’s build a business around telling people to continue eating what they love, and that’s really what we’re doing by trying to provide beef and chicken that’s made from plants in the most satisfying form that we can.
Who is your target audience—people who eat SAD, reducers, vegetarians/vegans?
It’s the people who have already made the decision to try to reduce meat consumption, and often the first trigger is a visit to the doctor, or some kind of peripheral knowledge that it doesn’t make sense for them to eat so much red meat due to heart disease in the family or something like that, some sort of realization on the part of the consumer. And so that person is our target market, those who have already gone down that path. But as we branch out, and as products get better, we’ll broaden who we’re going after.
Who ends up being the typical Beyond Meat customer? What other proteins do they eat?
The typical one would be a meat reducer, who is probably still consuming chicken and salmon to some degree, but have sworn off of red meat, and they’re gradually reducing their consumption of animal proteins. We tend to see health being the main driver for most people, and then there’s a smaller but more ardent set of consumers that are doing it for reasons of animal welfare or the environment.
Related to the last question, to what extent is Beyond Meat replacing animal meat in people’s diets, vs. substituting for other plant based proteins or for vegetables?
I think it definitely is replacing animal proteins. It’s designed to do that, so people are, particularly in dishes where it performs best, like a taco or chicken salad, people tend to swap out pretty quickly.
What’s your plans in terms of positioning your product, and how do you plan on expanding your market? On your site you have listed many benefits, as a low-cost alternative to meat (eventually), as a way to save the environment, as a way to be healthier, and as a way to improve animal welfare. In animal advocacy, there’s sometimes a concern that having too many benefits can reduce the effectiveness of the overall message—some people advocate for animals by promoting the benefits for health, animals, and the environment, and there’s a concern that having too many messages like that can hurt the credibility a little bit. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Sure, so we refer to those as the four horsemen, and they’re the pillars of why we’re doing what we’re doing, but we don’t tend to market around each one of them. In fact, the campaign that we have this year for our marketing platform is called the “Center of the Plate” campaign, and there’s three pieces to it. The first is to prove the taste and texture of our products, which includes sampling, appearing on TV shows and radio, and having people sample it live and attest to the quality of it. The second is to demystify plant protein. There’s a lot of misconceptions around plant proteins, and whether it’s processed, and if it’s a truly healthy thing to be giving my kids, and so we’re putting together a farm-to-table video that describes the simple process that’s at play when you create meat directly from plants, and really it’s a heating, cooling, and pressure process that we use, so it’s an effort to make moms particularly comfortable about feeding this to their families. The third piece is to attack the misconceptions about plant protein. For that piece, we hired the architect for the “Got Milk” campaign, and said that we’d like them to make the same type of messaging around plant protein. So, we’re using athletes and others to attest to the quality and superior nutrition performance of plant-based meat. We also have a product line called “Beast Burger” that is geared 100% to deliver that message, that it has as much protein as raw beef, it’s got omegas and antioxidants, you name it. So this is an effort to say that this is an evolution in meat, this is something that’s better, more nutrient-dense that meat, and athletes particularly are endorsing it because it’s a very clean fuel. So we’re building a campaign around that to 1) get people to taste the product, 2) to have them comfortable with our process, and 3) to get them to realize that this is in fact the cleanest fuel for their body.
Have you learned anything from the process of marketing Beyond Meat that you think is especially important for all animal activists to know? Or any other lessons or advice for that matter that you’d like to offer for people who work to improve animal welfare?
My biggest thing is to just keep doing it. I’m convinced we’ll look back at this time and not be very pleased with how we’ve behaved as humans. My approach is not adversarial, I think there is a place for adversarial behavior, I’m just not the one to do it, and all of our messaging tends to be very positive and focused on the positive benefits of our product, so I tend to think about it that way. But at some point you have to call a spade a spade, it’s just a balance.
So it sounds like you’re saying there’s a time and a place for many different approaches.
Exactly. Some people are better in a position to take one approach over the other, depending on where they are.
As a society, we’ve been able (for better or worse) to produce this incredibly cheap, and yes very unhealthy, but cheap, food at fast food restaurants, and the convenience is hard to overlook. Will products like Beyond Meat be able to compete at the current price point? Do you have plans to make it so cheaply one day that it could be a part of, for example, fast food enterprises, and if so, how far down the line is that?
Absolutely. We’re very focused on that point. Today, our chicken strips are price competitive with cooked chicken strips from Purdue or Tyson in retail settings. We’re not yet competitive with raw chicken breasts or raw beef or something of that nature, but there’s no material obstacle to underpricing meat, it’s a question of getting the right scale.
Do you have a timeline for how long you think it will take to get there?
It’s very hard to tell right now. It’s driven by volume.
Have you been happy with level of expansion of Beyond Meat since you started the company?
Yes, we’ve been very blessed, very happy about that. You always want to see more growth, touch more people, have a bigger impact on animals, and do it more quickly, but there’s just a time limit to when all this is relevant. On the climate side, we have a narrow window to address the level of emissions, but of course in animal welfare, for every animal still in the system it’s an urgent situation.
I still remember the first time I was hearing about this “Beyond Meat” company that had a new plant-based chicken with an amazing texture, and a buzz went around when it was first introduced to a Whole Foods. At that time, you could only find it behind the counter, and there wasn’t any packaging, but we were all very excited to go try it, and it’s great to see how far it’s come in such a short period.
Thank you very much. It’s because of people like you who have helped us, we feel a certain wind at our back, and that’s due to folks like yourself, and that’s really appreciated.
Absolutely, it’s a collaborative effort. So, there’s a lot of talk about in-vitro meats in the media; in fact, I just saw a news story the other day about the price starting to become more manageable. People regularly contact ACE to ask us for our thoughts on in-vitro meat. Do you think that this in-vitro meat will play a significant role anytime soon, and how do you see the interplay between in-vitro meats and plant-based substitutes in the future?
I really do hope that in-vitro meat is successful. I looked at it very heavily before starting Beyond Meat, and the reason I shied away from it was 1) because I didn’t think it was necessary if you can do this directly from plants, and 2) I don’t want something that had such a long time horizon on it. Technology has no regard for your ambition, it will mature when it wants to mature, and if you want to make an impact in a certain amount of time, you’ve got to be careful about what tools you bring with you. I felt that in-vitro meat still had a long way to go.
What makes Beyond Meat different than the other substitutes from companies like Gardein and Tofurky? Personally, I enjoy all of them, but what is your comparative advantage?
I think we have a terrific amount of choices on the market today, which is really nice. What I’ve tried to focus on is the texture of the products, and the thing that really distinguishes the company is that we spend millions of dollars each year on research and development, and it’s the focus of our company, we’re trying to start from basic principles of what creates a muscle, and then taking each of those elements directly from plants and rebuilding that muscle. So it’s less about trying to get a soybean to behave like a steak, and more like actually rebuilding the constituent parts of meat, so it’s a much broader scientific effort than some of the other companies.
Do you communicate with other plant-based meat companies about what they’re doing, what’s working, or is it all more proprietary b/c of all the money involved?
We communicate on other things, things like the school lunch program, or the state of the industry in general. We’re looking at a trade group for plant-based meat in Washington, things like that.
Are you actively looking for investors, do you need more staff (I see there are several scientist positions advertised on your site) and more money to develop it at a lower cost-point? How could someone help your efforts?
By sharing it with friends and family, that’s the biggest thing we need is to champion the products, to help us integrate them into the center of the plate for families around the country.
What are Beyond Meat’s plans for the future?
We are focused on a fresh beef product, that will allow the consumer to take it home and make what they want from it. We are very interested in expanding internationally at a certain point, but the biggest drive in our company is to create this platform where consumers can use [the product] just like raw meat.
Do you see ground beef as being a more demanded product?
Yes, it’s the first thing that those who are interested in reducing meat consumption try to shy away from.
One of the things we often address in our work, as we work to find the most effective ways to help animals, is that people can alleviate the vast majority of suffering on factory farms by eliminating chicken and fish from their diet. So it’s really great to see your early focus on chicken-related products. Do you have any plans to expand those lines or to try fish?
Absolutely. At some point we will get into fish, but the challenge is that people tend to view that as a healthy product, and so it’s a little bit harder for us, until the consciousness is raised around what fish have to go through, it’s harder for us to market directly on those points. But I agree with you on that point.
Yeah, I think people tend to believe that both chicken and fish are healthier, but I think that people tend to view fish as not suffering as much, as they put them in a different category of animals, so I could see that being a harder sell to the mainstream market.
Thank you so much for taking the time, is there anything you’d like to add?
Not really, except that I really appreciate you being interested in the company and taking the time to do this.