Ethan Brown ’94 disrupts the agricultural and food industry selling plant-based alternatives that taste—and look—like meat.W
hen the hamburger was invented by the owners of a tiny lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1900, it’s fair to assume that spectrometers and electron microscopes weren’t part of the culinary creative process.
But if you visit the southern California research facility of Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat company founded in 2009 by Ethan Brown ’94, you’ll find those modern scientific instruments being employed in an attempt to perfect the taste and texture of a hamburger made from pea and other plant protein that is indistinguishable from a regular beef patty.
Beyond Meat’s products, particularly its signature Beyond Burger, are sweeping the alternative-meat market and helping to disrupt a traditional, animal-based meat industry worth
$1.4 trillion globally.
Last year, Beyond Meat became the toast of Wall Street when it blasted onto the scene with the best first-day initial public offering a major American company had seen in nearly 20 years. The stock started trading at $46 a share on the Nasdaq and soared 163% by the end of the day to $65.75 a share, jumping another 4% after hours. This blockbuster opening turned Brown, Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO, into an overnight business celebrity and arguably one of his generation’s most iconic environmental and animal rights advocates.
But founding the company, which enjoys the backing of prominent investors that range from Bill Gates to Leonardo DiCaprio, involved a grueling path of risk, doubt, trials and tribulations.
Humans and their more primitive ancestors have been eating animal protein for a couple of million years, and it has played a huge role not just in our evolutionary biology and brain development, but also in cultural and social constructs. From a marketing perspective, challenging such a deeply ingrained history required much more of consumers than asking them to switch to a new brand of coffee or adopt a new form of technology. The only way to get meat eaters to give vegan meat a try, Brown believes, is to replicate meat on a molecular level, not to offer a vegetarian substitute like a tofu burger.
“We’re hardwired to enjoy meat,” Brown explained to The Los Angeles Times in January. “So creating a veggie hot dog that nobody likes doesn’t do any good if they won’t eat it. We have to create actual meat from plants so there’s no sacrifice and no tradeoff for people who love meat.”
Brown himself wasn’t always a vegan. He grew up loving meat and fast-food burger chains. But he also had a deep love for animals, bolstered by the dairy farm his father maintained as a hobby when Brown was a kid. By the time Brown was in his late 20s and working in the hydrogen fuel cell industry to help address climate change, he was no longer eating animals, and he had a seed of an idea that would lead to Beyond Meat years later: he wanted to create a plant-based McDonald’s.
Brown continued to successfully climb the corporate ladder within the green power sector for another seven or eight years, starting a small side business that involved importing textured soybeans from Taiwan and partnering with Whole Foods to offer a very early-phase, meat-alternative product.
Despite having no background in science or any food training—he was a history and government double major at Conn, and went on to receive an MBA from Columbia University—Brown was convinced that the fundamental elements of animal muscle could be built from plant matter by extracting and combining amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, trace minerals and water, all of which are found in plants. As Brown saw it, even though this would be done in a lab, it was a perfectly natural process.
“I figured, animals take plant matter, run it through their system and produce muscle,” Brown said, explaining his thinking in a 2017 NPR interview. “So why can’t we take plant matter and run it through a system in a lab to produce muscle? I wanted to know who in the scientific community was taking protein from plants and reorganizing it into the structure of muscle.”
One night, after his two young kids had gone to bed, Brown stumbled upon an academic paper on the internet written by two scientists at the University of Missouri who were experimenting with textured soybeans to create chicken-like meat by running it through a machine called an extruder, essentially a large, hybrid piece of equipment that functions as part food processor and part pressure cooker. The machine is also effective in restructuring the molecules in soybeans in a way that changes their texture.
This method isn’t new, but the researchers believed if they changed up some of the variables, like tinkering with temperature and pressure, adjusting moisture levels, and introducing different ingredients, they could achieve a texture and consistency that mimicked chicken meat. After a lot of trial and error, they had gotten pretty close, and they wrote about it for the scientific community.
Brown flew to Missouri, sampled the wares, and although he felt the synthesized meat wasn’t ready for market, he saw tremendous potential. He obtained the licensing for the technology in 2010 and then collaborated with the University of Maryland to do further grant-funded research to improve the product.