Pat Brown isn't an inventor so much as a reinventor. He sees something that works, but not well, and figures out how to do the same thing, only a lot better. And along the way, he's reinvented himself into perhaps the most unlikely entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
Brown trained as a pediatrician but, seeing that genetics figure prominently in diseases such as cancer, repurposed himself as a scientific researcher. Within a few years, he'd created something called the DNA microarray, a technology that has allowed scientists to better study genetic code. It was a breakthrough, and for most people that would be a career peak. Not Pat. In 2001, frustrated by limited worldwide access to scientific research, he co-founded the Public Library of Science, a radical revision of academic publishing.
A decade later, he saw a vastly greater inefficiency: meat. Raising and killing animals, he realized, is an environmentally expensive way to produce protein, demanding tremendous amounts of water, land, and energy. "There's a $1.6 trillion global meat and poultry market being served by prehistoric technology," he fumes. So Pat, then at Stanford, ditched academics for startup life. Today, he's the founder and CEO of Impossible Foods, a company that's reinventing meat.
Unlike entrepreneurs who tally their startups like animal heads mounted in a man cave, Brown wasn't looking to add founder to his résumé. "I couldn't have imagined myself doing this," he told me over a lunch of Impossible burgers in Redwood City, California. "But the most powerful, subversive tool on earth is the free market. If you can take a problem and figure out a solution that involves making consumers happier, you're unstoppable."
And so, in 2011, and nearing 60, he launched Impossible Foods. First, he needed investors. "My actual pitch, if you showed it to a business school class, would've had people rolling in the aisles because it was so amateurish," he admits. But he could tell potential investors, with complete conviction: What I am proposing is going to make you even more obscenely rich than you already are. "I didn't say it in quite those words," he notes, "but I knew that this was something that was going to be incredibly successful. And that worked."
Oh, yeah. Starting with a $9 million round in 2011, Impossible has raised nearly $750 million, including $300 million in May. It is now valued at more than $2 billion.
To say Pat Brown is unconventional is to say that cows moo. But it's important to celebrate him, because, though few of us are as smart, many of us are possessed of the same inspiration. We just lack the conviction that we're the entrepreneurial type. Yet many of the best founders don't have an MBA--what they have is a sense of opportunity, a hunch that they're on to something the rest of the world hasn't quite spotted. Something they can't let pass by. I was inspired by Pat to take my own leap away from a secure job and hatch my own startup.
Part of his success is that he's honest about his capabilities. He has hired well, including a terrific operations team and an ace CFO whom he calls an "investor whisperer." How did he know he could survive moving from scientist to CEO? He figured that, given the scope of the meat problem (massive and global), few people would actually go about trying to solve it.
He's not a guy who places limits on himself, and that's his message. "There's a big phenomenon of people self-censoring, worrying about the imposter syndrome," Brown says. "They say, 'Someone has to do this, but I'm not the guy,' or, 'I'm not qualified.' People limit their own opportunities."
He pauses to take a big bite of burger. "There's no road map for what we're doing," he continues. "But someone has to solve this problem." He figures it might as well be him.