Last month, without much fanfare from the Hollywood press, Leonardo DiCaprio announced a meaty new role. The actor and activist was introduced as an investor and advocate for Beyond Meat, a company that makes plant-based alternatives to animal meat.
DiCaprio isn’t the only high-profile backer of Beyond Meat, which has raised $17 million, according to CrunchBase. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams, and venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers also have stakes in the company.
Those funders are betting on the success of company that says it’s developing “the future of protein” and has made Columbia a key part of its growth.
‘Meat’ minus the worry
Ethan Brown, the founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, said his company isn’t telling people not to eat meat. Instead, he believes in offering consumers a better protein-rich product.
“We look at the human relationship with meat,” Brown said. “It’s very strong, and meat has done a lot for us as a species.”
He said with Beyond Meat’s products, you can eat “meat” more frequently without the possible health problems linked to animal products.
“My son has our burger probably five, six times a week,” Brown said. “I would never allow that to happen with another burger, because I would be worried about cholesterol, carcinogens.”
Beyond Meat makes chicken strips, burgers and beef crumble. The chicken strips are made from pea and soy protein. The other products are made with just pea protein.
“We are very focused on land animals and the big three in agriculture — cattle, hogs and chicken,” Brown said.
The Beyond Burger is the company’s most famous product, drawing positive reviews for its similarity to a hamburger.
It is currently sold in more than 2,500 grocery stores and restaurants nationwide.
A shift to alternative proteins
Beyond Meat is vying for a share of growing market, alongside competitors like Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek Foods and Memphis Meats. The alternative proteins industry is expected to reach $12 billion by 2024, according to a 2016 report from Lux Research, a market research firm.
Shifting consumer preference, concerns about the food supply and increased attention to the environmental costs of meat production are driving that growth, according to Thomas Hayes, a research associate at Lux Research.
Established players in the meat industry are taking notice, Hayes said, pointing to Tyson’s investment in Beyond Meat and Cargill’s funding of Memphis Meats.
But competing with traditional meat producers on price remains a challenge for makers of alternative proteins, Hayes said.
“I think Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are doing a great job in (their) ability to replicate the organoleptic experience you have when you consume meat,” he said, “but they’re obviously doing that at a cost premium.”
While Brown grew up in the Washington D.C. area, he spent his summers at his family’s farm outside the city. During this time, his father, a lover of agriculture, was a professor at the University of Maryland.
“As a kid, I was aware of the role universities play in agriculture and innovation because we worked a lot with the University of Maryland,” Brown said.
So, when Brown started thinking about ways to build meat from plants, the first place he looked was research from universities.
That led him to work done by University of Missouri engineering professors Fu-hung Hsieh and Harold Huff.
“They had been working on this project for almost 20 years … doing a very good job of taking protein from pants and changing the structure so that it would bind together in the same fashion you see in animal muscle or meat,” Brown said.
He traveled to Missouri to meet with the professors and said they immediately hit it off. Together, they spent years working to perfect the protein-to-meat process. Brown said he frequently flew from Maryland to Columbia.
“I would take as much chicken as we were making back and forth with me on the plane,” Brown said.
In 2009, he was able to reach a partnership with the University of Missouri and University of Maryland to commercialize the product.
“That’s when the company started,” Brown said.
Three years later, in 2012, Brown announced the opening of a new production facility in Columbia. At the time, the company made its products at a facility in Maryland. Beyond Meat shut down that plant to shift production to Columbia.
Brown said the company’s strong relationship with MU is one of the many reasons he chose Columbia for the production site.
“I have such gratitude for the people who helped me develop the product and commercialize it,” Brown said. “I felt it was the right thing to do. It’s in the center of the country, in a beautiful place, and I really felt the risk of scaling up was minimized by being close to the inventors themselves.”
Beyond Meat moved its headquarters to El Segundo, California, in 2014, but its plant remains in Columbia. The company currently employs about 200 people, including more than 100 in Columbia.
“We are expanding dramatically in Missouri in terms of people we are hiring,” Brown said.
Veggie burgers are not a new concept. Neither are protein substitutes like Tofu. So, how do you explain Beyond Meat’s continued growth and deep roster of high-profile investors? Brown borrows a quote from the French poet Victor Marie Hugo.
“All the forces in the world are not so powerful,” he says “as an idea whose time has come.”