Ethan Brown Wants to Take Us Beyond Meat | How I Got Here with Chris Paul
You have to be persistent. You have to, you know, listen to all the no's, which we got many, many of and then just keep pushing forward. Bring as much passion as you can to something, lead with your heart, build the right team, the right management team, and then just build upon that and it starts to snowball.
And that's really what we did at Beyond Meat. Well, look, I'm honored to have you here and I must start off by saying that I'm a proud investor and I have to let you know, Ethan, that you have a lot to do with why I went plant-based to begin. You one of the first examples I always go to when talking about the impact this can have on someone's life and just you as role model for kids. It's been amazing, even aside from Beyond Meat, the carbon footprint and everything. Now getting onto some of the questions Ethan. So you started off in clean tech.
I did. How and why? Yeah, so when I was younger and I had love a for basketball, but not the same talent as you do so we had to go do something else. And I was sitting in my dad's office and I was talking about kind of what I should be doing as I thought about my career.
You know, he asked me a question. He asked me, "What is the biggest problem in the world as you see it?" And I thought about that for a long time. And to me, it really came back as being climate. And so the correlate to that question was, you know, then what do you do about it? And at the time, the thinking was really around alternative energy. So looking at ways to migrate from fossil fuels to renewable and cleaner sources of energy.
And there was kind of a basket of different technologies, whether it was lithium ion batteries, solar cells, wind, fuel cells, and I began working on a number of those as a kind of analyst and then joined a company that was focused on hydrogen powered, specifically, proton exchange membrane fuel cells. And I loved it. I loved working in that space. But I kept feeling that I was missing something.
And that led me to the work that I'm doing now. How does clean tech get you to food? Like how did that happen? I mean, first of all, what we're talking about in clean energy is fuel to move things around, to warm buildings, to provide the electricity that we so enjoy, and things of that nature. What we're talking about in food is fuel for our bodies.
And so there are some common elements there, but more importantly, it was through problem solving. I began to really think more about climate in maybe a more sophisticated way than I had when I was just a student and started to think about the impact that livestock has on climate. And to me, just the sheer amount of land, energy, water, and emissions that are involved in bringing a piece of protein to the plate from an animal that was so significant that I felt I had to go do something about it. It's one thing to know all of those working parts and all the different intricacies. Like me, once I started eating healthy, right, I started trying to figure out what foods to eat.
But you got Beyond Meat, right? Like what inspired you, right. If you think about what meat is, and this is really where I think things get exciting. Meat is a composition that is very familiar to us and it's essentially five things if you think about it at a really high level.
It's amino acid, it's lipids, it's trace minerals, it's vitamins, and it's water. Said more simply, it's basically protein, fat, and water. And what the animal's doing is they're consuming a large amount of vegetation. You know, you look at Bovine, they're eating grass or being fed feed. And they're converting that plant material through their digestive tract and their skeletal muscular system into a center of the plate protein, into muscle, right.
And we harvest that muscle as we slaughter the animal, pull it out, and then we prepare that as something we put at the center of our plate. Well, the tremendous news here, and this has to do with the evolution of the earth and our species within it, is that there's a commonality in a unity between plants and animals, in terms of the core material of parts. So what you find in plants, you also find in human and animal bodies just presenting differently, but it's that combination of proteins and fats and water that you can pull those from plants, or you can get them from animals. And our idea was to just, not to make a soybean behave like a steak, but rather let's find the core parts of meat in plants. Let's pull them from the plants and let's assemble them against the architecture or blueprint of animal muscle or meat. What was your advantage, right? And how did you get investors to believe in you? Right, cause I'm sure when you came to some people, they were like, what is he talking about? Like we not trying to do this.
We like to eat our meat. We like this stuff. What is he talking about? How did you get investors to believe in what you were building? I mean, it's very similar and this is why I love sports so much, to what I've seen you go through. And I obviously, I know so much about your career as a fan and the persistence that you had to show.
And, you know, transiting from football to basketball. So I think that the biggest thing, you know, when I was in business school, people would talk about, oh, you need a competitive moat. And generally they would say that has to be some advantage from a technology perspective going into a sector so that you can create a competitive advantage that someone else can't knock out.
And unfortunately, that's not really true. What you do need is to work harder than anybody, to be smart, and surround yourself with very smart people. But it's not like I went into this space with infallible technology. I went in with a very good technology and one that was very good at creating muscle structure, but it was what we've done after that, that really has helped propel the company.
And so you have to be persistent. You have to, you know, listen to all the no's, which we got many, many of, and then just keep pushing forward. But bring as much passion as you can to something, lead with your heart, build the right team, the right management team, have good technology, and then just build upon that and it starts to snowball. And that's really what we did at Beyond Meat.
What was it like for you though when you were getting those no's and then obviously Beyond Meat is very successful now. Like, do you remember a lot of those no's and it's okay to have a chip on your shoulder? Well, I love that. It's funny, I just was texting one of my children about, they were going into practice. I said, make sure you do play with a chip on your shoulder because you know, you have to find some ways to feel yourself every day. And so I certainly do have that. And in this room here, there are quotes on the wall from people who have doubted us.
You know, people in media and things like that saying that this can't be done. And I use those a lot to motivate myself and to motivate my team. And so, yeah, I remember all of 'em actually. Where, you know, you're sitting across from a table, you really need someone to invest and believe in you.
And, you know, they turn you down and they turn you down again and again. And you know, it's persistence and it's a commitment to the product at the end of the day. Like we have to keep making the product better and better.
And we have this program at Beyond Meat, that's called Beyond Meat Rapid and Relentless Innovation. And to talk about sports again, actually stole that word, that use of that word, from the warriors back when they were, you know, just, I went to a conference there one day and they kept using that word. I said, "Well, that's really what I want this team to be doing within our labs is just be relentless on being the best out there. At taking protein fats, minerals, vitamins, water from non animal sources and building them into the structure of meat and let's get better and better every day.
And that's the only way to prove people wrong." And by the way, with these deals we just did with McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Our promise to them is that we will out compete the other people in the market.
Like we will just bring you the best product. And that's how we have to build our reputation and how we have to build our company is not through, you can try to get contracts where you force people to take your products, or what have you. Better way to live and the better way to do things is just always produce the best product. And so, you know, as I was getting those no's, I just went home and made the product better. Just went, you know, worked with my team to make the product better and better and better. And once you do that, at that point, you start to see customers come to you.
You start to see investors come to you. Being in athletics my entire life, playing football, playing basketball, and especially when I made it to the NBA, everyone used to always ask the question, when did you know that you were gonna make it, right? Like, you have some prodigies that know they're gonna make it when they're in middle school now. And I always say for me, I didn't know until probably my sophomore year in college. That's when I really was like, I'm ready.
I'm ready. I can go to the NBA. I know I'll be ready. When did you know that you were onto something? So I have this thing where I never thought the business would fail.
I didn't know how it would come out though. You know, I just didn't. You know, we talked about how do you get through the no's and stuff, and one of the ways is to cut your safety net completely, right. And I didn't necessarily do that consciously, but I did it anyway. And what I mean by that is, you know, I had a very good job and had, you know, some savings and home and all this stuff. But, you know, you say, I'm never gonna touch those savings, but you do and you burn through them.
And then, you know, I'm not gonna sell that house, but you do, you know? And so then it's not so much bravery that keeps you going, it's just you got to. I'm sharing that because, you know, even today you have to have a healthy amount of, I dunno if it's fear or a belief that you need to keep pushing hard to be successful. That you can't rest, right. And so one of the things I love about, particularly college coaches and even NBA coaches is, how many times you see a NBA coach, like, you know, smiling and dancing up and down when they win. They look relieved.
Like, if you look at like Coach K when he wins, he just looks relieved. Right. You know. And that's sort of the sense of what you, when you have a business like this or a career like yours, you know, oftentimes it's just a relief to have won. And I feel that way as we're growing our business.
And so I would say the moment that I felt like, my God, this is actually turning and this is something that could have the global impact, when we started getting these large quick serve restaurants. And so, you know, one of the first was A&W and then here in Southern California, Carl's and Del Taco, but then in Canada McDonald's. And I went there myself, I was in Toronto and they did the test in a rural area. And I got in a car late at night, and I drove out there and I sat down in the restaurant and I had it. And I got that feeling of like, you know, really can't believe this is happening. And that was a blessing for me.
And a wonderful feeling. You created a product that didn't exist before, right. So you're an inventor. Like, what was, you laughing about it, but that's the truth. Like, sometimes people will come out with something that already exists and just try to make a better version of it.
You really invented something. So what was your biggest obstacle? Yeah, there were a lot. The first obstacle was myself. You know, was just convincing myself that well, answering a calling, basically. You know, if I didn't do this, would I be happy in life, you know? And it takes a lot to get yourself out of, you know, a routine where you're paying for your mortgage, you're saving money, and all that stuff, to do something that is outside of your field.
And so for me, it just a discomfort started to build, I was like, you know, said, I really have to go do this and satisfy this issue. So that was the first obstacle was getting over my own sense of trepidation about it. And then second, you know, was just this constant need to overcome, there's a cultural barrier to this that still exists today.
That, you know, I think one of the reasons that I find your work with us and your work overall on this subject, so incredibly compelling is we have to displace, attack head on, and really something that's a-scientific. And that is that animal protein is better for you in terms of athleticism and everything else than planet protein. What's true is that a complete set of amino acid is really good for you, right, as an athlete. And healthy, clean fats are really good for you. We can take all those from plants and build them into the structure of meat so that you can satisfy and grow your body and perform at your highest level. But yet there's a cultural stereotype that's the exact opposite, you know.
And so, this ideas that- Right. To be a robust athlete and to be a masculine presence that you need to have animal protein, and it's just a-scientific. And so we had to get through that, and we're still trying to get through that. And because the irony is that if you do wanna perform at the highest level, cleaning your body of some of the things that are in animal protein is the way to go. And so we're just learning so much about the role that food can play, whether it's in, you know, the inflammation you feel in your knees or potential precursor or contributor rather to Alzheimer's disease, to heart disease. Inflammation is the root of so many of the things that are causing these diseases that are so horrific.
And we can influence those through the food we eat, through how it conditions our microbiome and the bacteria in our gut. And we can play a role at that at Beyond Meat. Trust me, Ethan, everything you saying right now is, I told you it's been life changing for me.
And I think what you're saying is so important, 'cause it's the education component of it. And I think that's what so people lack in general, but especially the African American community. My aunts and uncles, my dad, I think for me, this change in lifestyle, as far as diet and eating it, it really hit me hard and it started off performance based, but then it became life based, right? And if no one else ever listens to me when I get on one of my rants and talking about how to eat healthy and what it does for your gut, my dad turned 60 this past year and you know, I was driving on the highway and my dad called me and he called me on FaceTime and he was in tears. And he was just telling me that he had went to the doctor and the doctor has told him that his health was so much better, was so much better. So, I thank you for educating me to begin with so that I can try to educate those around me.
So off of that moment right there, so one of the things too, that obviously people know is that Beyond Meat is still more expensive than regular meat, right? And I know that you said that that will flip. Like, when and what will it take to make that happen? Yeah, so we set a goal two years ago to within five years be able to underprice animal protein in at least one category. And that's so important because right now we're asking the question of the consumer, let's say in a quick serve restaurant you know, do they want to transition or substitute a plant-based meat into their diet. But also do they wanna pay more for it? And we gotta get a away from that second question.
That second question is not helpful. And what's terrific about what we're doing, you know, if you believe in this model of efficiency, we talk about the animal being the biggest bottleneck in agriculture. So we have increased the efficiency of our fields over the last 100 years, an incredible amount, right? So, you know, corn, soy, and wheat, we're growing hugely more quantities per acre than ever before in human history. But what are we doing with that? We're running it through the same system to convert it into meat, which is the animal.
And the animal's largely standing still in the sense that, the animal's not evolving, at a pace that we can see anyway, into a more efficient bioreactor. So if we remove the animal and we put in this technology, which takes two to three minutes to create that muscle like structure, we should become less expensive. We have tremendous efficiency advantages over animal protein. And we had University of Michigan do this great study where we, you know, we use 99%, less water, 93% less land.
So why are we more expensive? It doesn't make sense. The inputs are, you know, plants. They're things like peas and, you know, faba bean, and things that are readily available in agriculture. The answer has entirely to do with the scale of our business.
So if you think about Tyson or JBS, you know, you look at how much food they are producing. I heard at one point that Tyson was touching two out of every five plates in the United States. So they have a scale advantage over us and we have to continue to scale our business.
We have to continue to mature our supply chain, enter more competition into our supply chain so we can get lower cost inputs, but we're doing all that now. And we're on that cost curve. And so if you think about the computer industry or the semiconductor industry, or any of these technologies come along, we are gonna make this cheaper and cheaper and cheaper to the point where we'll underprice animal protein.
Why is that so important? For obvious reasons, but look, we'll get closer and closer to the animal protein that we're trying to provide an alternative to, in terms of the sensory experience, the taste, the aroma, the appearance, all of that stuff will keep getting better every year. Second, we'll get the nutrition to the point where everyone understands that point, right. Right, now there's a lot of noise about process and all this stuff. We're gonna do a lot of education about why this product is healthier for you, right? So taste, health, and then you drop the price below animal protein, it becomes a rare consumer that says, "This tastes just like animal protein. It's better for me. And it's cheaper. I'm still not gonna eat it."
So we've gotta get those three things done and we've gotta get 'em done in the next few years. Right, cause my next question was gonna be for me, it was somewhat easy to convert me, right. Because the inflammation, me being an athlete, right. But how do you convert the diehard meat eaters? Independent of ideological boundaries or, you know, socioeconomic, all the divisions that we have in our society. You're still seeing people take this step and become largely flexitarian. And it's driven primarily by health.
You know, it doesn't matter whether you're in a field in Idaho or in one of the densest urban neighborhoods in the United States, on the coast, or in Chicago, or what have you, if your doctor tells you that you are going to die if you don't change something, right, you're gonna listen. And not everybody listens, but enough people are listening where they're breaking through and they're setting aside stereotypes and things that are not serving them. And so for us, health is the number one message. And that differentiates us by the way, from some of the companies that are out there.
You know, when we talk about our ingredients, we say, you know, first of all, it wouldn't be responsible to load our product up with high levels of saturated fat. So we're always gonna offer the consumer, if you look at our burger, significantly les saturated fat than what's in beef, right. So we have, I think in the Beyond Burger 3.0,
we have 35% less saturated fat in one of the versions and a second, which is meant to be a lean burger, we have 55% less saturated fat. We have, you know, no GMOs. So there's no, you know, novel ingredients there. It's just, we're using the plant kingdom in ways that present it to the human-centric experience as animal protein. And then no heterocyclic amines all of the things that are of concern within the medical community about animal protein, we have kept out of our products, right. Or minimized.
And so we have to keep conveying to people, the health benefits of eating it. And that's the quickest way to their plate. Last but not least, you know, everyone defines this differently. What is success to you? What is success look like to you when it comes to you and your company? You know, it really, we're trying to do something.
And when I say we, you know, we're all in this, doing this together, to help, you know, save lives and help people live a healthier life. And to help repair our planet. Success for me is seeing as many people as possible in the locations that they love to eat. And that's why I'm so focused on places like McDonald's and KFC and others, enjoy themselves, enjoy the meal, have great tasting products, but do it in a way that's better for their bodies and do it in a way that's better for the earth.
And so that's really how we do measure success here. It's a mission, you know, it's something that's very personal. And, you know, we hope to look back and be that group of people that separated meat from animals and brought the benefits that that brings to not only humans, but the rest of life on earth. Well, listen, Ethan, thank you so much. I appreciate you giving us all this insight, all this wisdom. Thanks man.