If Ethan Brown gets his way, within the next few years, his now-tween kids will drive themselves to McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's to order a plant-based burger made by his company, Beyond Meat.
"I'm very confident that's going to happen, because I think the consumer is turning so quickly. We are not telling people not to eat meat -- I think that would be a massive mistake -- we're simply suggesting that they have a new type of meat, just plant based," says Brown, the founder and CEO of the El Segundo, Calif.-based company. "Once we break the code and get to the point where it's indistinguishable from animal protein, I think you will see that shift."
Brown, who had worked in the energy section developing proton-exchange membrane fuel cells, founded Beyond Meat in 2009 to present consumers with a good alternative to meat to solve one of the biggest problems facing the world today: climate change. That's based on the fact that one of the biggest choices an individual can make toward helping the planet isn't buying an electrical vehicle, but cutting down their consumption of animals. (There was a record 99.7 billion pounds of red meat and poultry produced in 2017.) It's a topic Brown had been intimately familiar with, as he spent part of his youth helping his dad on the family's Maryland milk farm.
"I spent a lot of time there and really developed an appreciation for the scale of animal agriculture," says Brown, who has been a vegan for years but still samples meat to compare to Beyond Meat products. "With that exposure and interest in clean tech and climate, I thought that I could solve things that I cared about by focusing on protein in the plate."
He considered three options for his new venture: lab-grown meat, in vitro meat and processes that organize protein from plants to make food that feels like meat. He decided on the latter, because he felt it would scale better and be more palatable to consumers.
He came across U.S.DA-backed research from two University of Missouri professors that reset the protein from plants to take on the muscular form of meat. After working with the now-retired researchers, Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff, for a couple of years, Brown "exhausted every resource" he had to license the technology to start the company.
"That's an awesome feeling by the way, to go from having a totally stable corporate existence where you have a 401(k), savings and everything's totally organized to complete fucking chaos," Brown says. "Pretty strange experience, but it helps to keep you motivated for sure."
After years of experimenting with the process on imported plant protein from Taiwan, the company released its first product, Chicken-Free Strips, which landed on the shelves of northern California Whole Foods stores in 2012. The product proved to be a hit, and started selling in other Whole Foods regions. Now Beyond Meat's product offerings include a plant-based beef crumble, burger and a sausage, which debuted in December.