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πŸ” Is Impossible Foods missing its scale-up transformation?

πŸ” Is Impossible Foods missing its scale-up transformation?
(source Impossible Foods)

Impossible Foods has been one of the pioneering foodtech startups pushing alternate plant-based proteins to replace traditional meat. From carbon footprint to food autarky and the possible carcinogenic impact of conventional meat, the problems to be solved abound and are hugely impactful.

Source Nature Food - Global greenhouse gas emissions from animal-based foods are twice those of plant-based foods (Xu et al., 2021)

Founded in 2011 and leveraging a relatively modest $1.9B funding for that kind of paradigm-shifting transformation (in contrast with the $21.9B WeWork raised and burned away), Impossible Foods has been initially mocked and then fiercely attacked by the meat industry. It's Gandhi's 'first they ignore you; then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win' except that the winning is not there yet.

One of the reasons the 'then you win' is not entirely there is that the 'then they fight you' is currently very much active. And the ones fighting are in no particular order: the US beef industry suing Impossible for using the term 'meat' for plant-based products, anti-GMO activist groups, competitors reverse-engineering key components, and naturally, consumer staples companies now entering the market.

Facing so many challenges and, at times, plain disinformation about their product, this summer, Impossible Foods kicked back the meat industry in the face with a ferocious ad campaign:

Impossible Foods ad campaign, 2022

Quite effective, right?

Indeed. Here we have a sharp contrast to face the possible angst consumers would have about a weird product that looks like meat but isn't. And if consumers want to fall back on the safe, real meat, it's pretty effective to burst their bubble about how safe meat is (especially if you're unlucky enough to consume it in the US). After all, innovation is all about setting the trend for enough early adopters that you can then move on t the early core market. Β 

And yet this campaign is doomed to fail. Worse, it completely misses the mark by addressing a tangential issue.

Why do I say that? Simply because here, Impossible Foods is only fighting in the product zone. They corner themselves by limiting their value creation to bringing the same product as meat but with better specifications. And OK, I get it; saying there's a real challenge to engineer a good enough meat alternative is quite the understatement. It's also essential to make this point about your product when onboarding early adopters.

The thing is that onboarding has been done.

Like Beyond Meat (their main initial competitor), plant-based meat is now a regular supermarket fixture in many countries.

A standard offer in our local Dutch supermarket chain. 

Not to mention that plant-based burgers and sausages are readily available in thousands of Mcdonald's, KFC, and other fast-food chains worldwide. The product is now integrated as relatively mainstream. And the real problem now is not convincing this is as good or better than meat; it's about scaling this innovation to the early and then late core market.

But Impossible Foods doesn't do that. They are stuck in their startup culture from years ago when explaining their product was a necessity. Now? It's an entirely different mindset to adopt. You're not a startup anymore fighting activists or powerful incumbents in the meat industry. You now have to morph into a scale-up, fighting even more powerful incumbents starting to adopt your innovation; the likes of Tyson, Perdue, Smithfield, and soon Walmart and Procter & Gamble.

Is Impossible Foods missing the third step of morphing into a scale-up?

Gandhi's quote for innovators should be adjusted, not as an optimistic mantra but as a cautionary tale. First, they ignore you; then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then they copy you (and you lose?). Β 


Not matter what, we should admit that foodtech as a whole is still largely under-funded.