Columbia Business School

You Don’t Know What You’re Capable of Doing Until Your Back is Against the Wall

Presented by Columbia Business School

man with his back against the wall. What is he capable of doing?

“You don’t know what you’re capable of doing until your back is against the wall,” says Ethan Brown ’08 founder and CEO of Beyond Meat, in an interview with NPR.

After launching the company in 2009, Brown would metaphorically put his back against the wall to see how far he could take Beyond Meat. Today, Beyond Meat’s products are sold at over 5,000 grocery stores in the US, including Whole Foods, Kroger, and Safeway, as well as restaurants including TGI Fridays.

Brown was rising the ranks in the clean energy technology sector when he felt a calling to approach sustainability with a greater focus on the big picture: he wanted to change the way we eat. He was compelled to address the large-scale dependence on meat amid rapid world population growth, livestock’s  contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare challenges, and health concerns regarding red meat and processed meat.

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To create a meat substitute, Brown knew he had to study meat at the molecular level to replicate its flavor—and, more importantly, its texture. He observed that meat is made up of lipids, amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, and water, all of which are abundant in plants. “What we’re doing is extracting those components from plants, and then assembling them in the architecture of animal protein or muscle,” comments Brown in an interview with Bloomberg.

Two of Beyond Meat’s first products were faux chicken strips and ground beef. Since then, Beyond Meat launched the Beyond Burger in 2016. Brown tells Bloomberg that his burger has “more protein than beef, more iron than steak, more omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, more calcium than milk, and more antioxidants than blueberries—it’s a super meat.” In December 2017, Beyond Meat launched the Beyond Sausage—its replacement for pork sausage—which is available in 3 flavors: brat original, hot Italian, and sweet Italian.

The US plant-based meat category grew 6% to $555 million during the 52-week period ending August 12, 2017. While the category continues to grow rapidly, plant-based meat has a 2% market share of all refrigerated and frozen meat products sold at retail, Nielsen data show. The plant-based meat category’s small penetration in the meat aisle is a challenge and an opportunity for Brown and food technology startups as they continue to disrupt the food industry.

Big Food has taken notice. In December 2017, Tyson Foods made its second investment in Beyond Meat, adding to its 5% stake in the company, according to the Wall Street Journal. Beyond Meat has also raised capital from General Mills and Bill Gates. The company has raised more than $140 million in funding thus far as it continues to invest in long-term growth. As the WSJ and Los Angeles Times report, Beyond Meat aims to use the $55 million from its latest fundraising round to triple production and add 26,000 square feet of R&D space.

What’s the next product innovation for Brown and Beyond Meat? They have their sights on plant-based bacon and steak substitutes.


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