Even if you're a hardened carnivore, you've probably heard of the Impossible Burgers. Maybe, even, you've tried one. It's hard not to be a little curious. After all, even though it's 100 percent meatless, the Impossible Burger famously "bleeds" when you cut or bite into it, a little reddish juice seeping out of the patty just the way you'd expect it to from ground chuck. 

But that's only one of the reasons there's so much buzz around it. There's also its list of celebrity investors, including Bill Gates, and fans, like Katie Perry and Aaron Rodgers. There's the carefully managed rollout which saw it pop up first in stylish high-end restaurants, then trendy fast-casual chains like Bareburger and Gott's Roadside, which helped preserve it as a status item even as the general public got the chance to try it. 

And, of course, there's the fact that it lives up to the hype. The 2.0 version was named the best new product to debut at CES this past January by both Engadget and Digital Trends. That's an unusual distinction for a product that has literally zero electronics in it, but it makes sense when you consider how disappointingly un-burger-like pretty much every veggie burger to come before it has been. For a meatless burger to taste and eat as much like beef as the Impossible Burger does is more than just rare. (Sorry.) It's a minor revelation. 

There's no reason it has to be, though. Jason Kelly and Jonathan McIntyre think it should be a great deal easier to make products like the Impossible Burger, which is to say they think it should be easier to obtain vital animal proteins from non-animal sources and turn them into new food products--vegan pepperoni, dairy-free brie, fishless fish sticks. Incubating a healthier, more sustainable food system is the goal of Motif Ingredients, a new startup launched as a spinoff of Ginkgo Bioworks, the $1 billion synthetic biology company. 

Based in Boston, Ginkgo prints DNA strands and splices them into yeast and bacteria cells to give them new abilities. Fermented in huge vessels called bioreactors, Ginkgo's custom microbes do things like manufacturing synthetic rose oil for fragrance makers--just with no roses required.

That's how Impossible Foods makes the key ingredient in its patty, the one that gives it its famous sanguinity. Called heme, it's an analog of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. It's heme, brewed in genetically modified yeast, that sets Impossible's flavor and texture apart from other veggie burgers. 

"Proteins that come from plants have very different properties than those that come from animals," says McIntyre, Motif's CEO. He should know: At Solae, he spent four years trying to field a breakthrough soy-based product in the alternative protein market. Meat and dairy alternatives in the mid-2000s "lacked the texture, taste or color attributes" of the foods they sought to supplant. "Or they often had an aftertaste based on some of the things that come along with processing plant proteins." 

Even with a fairly limited selection of meat and dairy alternatives that satisfy the picky, the plant-based foods market is booming as Western consumers, especially millennials, express a preference for healthier and more sustainably-sourced options. But that's not the main reason investors are pouring so much into startups like Impossible, which has raised nearly $400 million in venture capital, and Beyond Meats, which recently filed to go public. Their enthusiasm has more to do with growing demand in parts of the world, like India and China, where newly huge and upwardly mobile middle classes are getting more of their calories from meat, poultry and fish.  "There are going to be 10 billion people on the planet and we just don't have enough animal protein for them all," says Kelly, Ginkgo's CEO. With animal agriculture already a major contributor to climate change, it's an ecological catastrophe in the making. 

One answer to that challenge comes from startups like Memphis Meats and Finless Foods, which are culturing animal and fish cells in bioreactors and growing them into "real" meat and fish that can be harvested without the need to raise or kill any creatures. But cultured meat is still at least a few years away as a commercial proposition. Impossible Foods is here, and there's no reason there aren't hundreds more startups like it -- except that ingredients like heme are hard to come by. The science is the bottleneck. 

"You shouldn't have to have a biotech team if you want to launch a few new product," says Kelly. Hence Motif. Backed by $90 million in venture funding from investors including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a climate-focused fund established by Gates and other public-spirited billionaires, its goal is to supply fermented proteins to plant-based food makers the same way industrial giants like International Flavors & Fragrances and Symrise supply chemicals to snack companies like PepsiCo, where McIntyre worked for nearly a decade overseeing innovation and R&D. "We'll brew up the next 100 hemes so that we can see many more Impossible Burgers in the next few years," says Kelly. Let a thousand synthetic roses bloom! 

As the saying goes, when there's a gold rush, the best business to be in is selling picks and shovels. Motif Ingredients is pursuing a classic pick-and-shovel strategy. But this is the rare gold rush that could pay off for the entire planet. 

Published on: Feb 26, 2019