Patrick “Pat” O’Reilly Brown (born 1954) is chief executive and founder of Impossible Foods Inc. and professor emeritus in the department of biochemistry at Stanford University. Brown is co-founder of the Public Library of Science, inventor of the DNA microarray, and a former investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
In 2009, Brown took an 18-month sabbatical where he considered how to spend the rest of his career. Brown decided that the world’s largest environmental problem, and the problem where he could have the most impact, was the use of animals to produce food. He organized a conference to raise awareness of the problem. But the National Research Council workshop, called “The Role of Animal Agriculture in a Sustainable 21st Century Global Food System,” had minimal impact; soon after, he decided the best way to reduce animal agriculture was to offer a competing product in the free market
By the end of his sabbatical, Brown had articulated the first steps of his business plan and began to recruit a small team of scientists to determine precisely why meat smells, handles, cooks and tastes like meat. Brown said he had a “hunch” that the key to meat’s unique taste was its high abundance of heme, an iron-containing molecule in blood that carries oxygen and is found in all living organisms. Brown theorized that, if he could generate large amounts of heme from plant sources, he could recreate the taste of animal meat.
Brown and a small group of early employees tested the hunch by digging up clover roots, which for the plant kingdom contain high amounts of heme. “I dissected them off with a razor blade then blended them up just to see what I could extract. I was just poking around, feasibility-testing some ideas. I got to a point where, though I didn’t have much data, I had enough to go and talk to some venture-capital companies — of which there are a ridiculous number in Silicon Valley — and hit them for some money,” Brown told The Sunday Times. Brown raised a Series A round of $9 million from Khosla Ventures and founded Impossible Foods in July 2011. Brown and his team spent five years researching and developing the Impossible Burger, which launched in restaurants in 2016. Impossible Foods is also working on plant-based pork, chicken, fish and dairy products made without any animals.
Brown strongly supports labeling Impossible Foods’ products as “meat,” regardless of its source. In a 2018 interview with Quartz, he noted, “animals have just been the technology we have used up until now to produce meat… What consumers value about meat has nothing to do with how it’s made. They just live with the fact that it’s made from animals. If we’re producing a product that is delivering everything that is of value in meat for consumers, it’s filling that niche.” This assessment, according to Brown, appropriately categorizes meat by “what functional role it plays,” rather than its source of origin. These statements have put Brown at odds with the meat industry, which by mid-2019 had successfully pressured state legislatures in Missouri and Arkansas to pass laws barring plant-based protein manufacturers such as Impossible Foods and competitor Beyond Meat from labeling their products as “meat.”