When Ethan Brown founded the plant-based protein company Beyond Meat in 2009, he knew he was on to something big, even if everyone around him thought he was crazy. Then Whole Foods and other grocery chains came calling. The massively successful IPO that Beyond Meat launched this May gave more proof that he just might have been right all along. --As told to Tom Foster
When I finished school, my dad asked me, "What do you want to do with your life?" I didn't really know. So he asked, "Well, what's the biggest problem facing the world?"
I said the climate. If we don't get climate right, nothing else matters. So I got into energy, because that was the traditional way to attack that problem. I did that for years, and loved it.
My family had a farm, so I was familiar with agriculture. But when I started to look at the role that livestock played in climate, I was dumbfounded to find it was bigger than energy's. At these big conferences, MBAs and engineers would go on and on about fuel cells, and then go out and have a steak.
Cows, chickens, and pigs consume tremendous amounts of vegetation and drink a ton of water, and then use their biological systems to build muscle that we harvest as meat. Any basic business course tells you to identify and get rid of bottlenecks in your production.
In meat, the animal is the bottleneck. Meat is pretty simple: It's amino acids, lipids, trace minerals, a really small amount of vitamins, and water. Animals take those things and build this beautiful structure we call meat. You can't tell me today that we don't have the ability to do that directly.
I haven't seen any other opportunity whereby focusing on one thing--building meat directly from plants--you could powerfully impact four major problem areas: climate, natural resources, human health, and animal welfare. Here was a chance to change the world.
My family and closest friends said, "What are you doing?" I wondered myself. But there's that great Springsteen lyric: "I can't tell my courage from my desperation." It wasn't brilliant foresight. It was being unable to tolerate not doing it.
I put my own money in first, which ran out. Then, I got friends and family to invest, because they saw my passion. And I got really lucky in 2011: Kleiner Perkins saw the size of the opportunity and invested.
In 2016, Whole Foods became the first retailer to sell Beyond Meat alongside animal meat. Then all hell broke loose and everybody did it. Last summer, ours became the top-selling packaged burger in Southern California for the nation's largest food retailer. My goal had been to not get thrown out of the meat case. But it was clear: We're not speaking just to vegans. The mainstream is ready for this.
We didn't start with venture capital, so we've always listened to our customers. (They pay the bills.) It's created this beautiful system: The consumers pull for it, we make it better, welcome more consumers, make it better. Ultimately, we'll get to where the products are indistinguishable from animal protein. And I've set an internal goal that, within five years, we will have at least one product that underprices animal protein.
The day of the IPO was terrific. It did not surprise me that, given the opportunity to buy into the company, people wanted to. But it makes me uneasy. Afterward, I talked to a friend, and he was like, "Man, you've managed to feel uneasy regardless of the news. This is great!" It's not the market's reaction that makes me uneasy. It's that there's so much work to do, and there's so much urgency to it. How do we get it done more quickly?
The rest will take care of itself. It's up to consumers, if they want to give us 30 percent of the market, or 100 percent, or 2 percent. I can't control that.
The first doubters were tons of people who didn't believe the vision, who were like, "It's bizarre," or, "It's gross." (I'd be like, "Have you ever seen how a piece of meat is made?") Or people who wouldn't support us, including investors we spent a lot of time wooing who didn't invest. There's a long line of those, and they probably want to stay anonymous.
Now there are a lot of people who are actively betting against us, by shorting the stock. I love these people. Be my guest. Go for it.
It just fuels us.