California-based Impossible Foods, a company that makes plant-based meat and dairy products, closed a $75 million investment this week after achieving significant milestones in intellectual property and food safety.
The lead investor in the round is Singapore-based investment company Temasek. However, Open Philanthropy Project, Bill Gates, Khosla Ventures and Horizon Ventures will also contribute to the round. The company did not provide additional financial details.
The company’s flagship product, the Impossible Burger, which is known for its ability to “bleed” juices like a beef burger, is made through a simple combination of plant-based ingredients. A key ingredient is soy leghemoglobin. Soy leghemoglobin is a protein found in plants that carries heme, an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every animal and plant. It is most familiar as the molecule that carries oxygen in the blood and is super abundant in animal muscle.
“It’s the abundance of heme that makes meat uniquely delicious,” Impossible Foods explained.
The company said it discover the way to make heme without animals “to satisfy the global demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental impact.” The company does so by genetically modifying yeast and using fermentation to produce soy leghemoglobin.
The heme in the Impossible Burger is identical to the heme humans have been consuming for hundreds of thousands of years in meat, the company said.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office issued U.S. Patent No. 9,700,067 covering Impossible Foods’ technology to use leghemoglobin in plant-based meat. The 200-person start-up has more than 100 additional patents pending.
“Our scientists spent so much time and effort studying a single molecule -- heme -- because heme is what makes meat taste like meat,” Impossible Foods chief executive officer and founder Dr. Patrick Brown said. “It turns out that finding a sustainable way to make massive amounts of heme from plants is a critical step in solving the world’s greatest environmental threat.”
The company also says its product has been proved to be safe. In 2014, a panel of leading food safety experts gave the opinion that the Impossible Burger’s key ingredient, soy leghemoglobin, is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). GRAS means a food is safe to be consumed under U.S. regulations.
Additional testing -- including a stringent rat feeding study -- provided even more objective, scientific data that the product is safe. That 2016 study examined whether consumption of soy leghemoglobin in amounts orders of magnitude above normal dietary exposure would produce any adverse effects; there were none. A comprehensive search of allergen databases found that soy leghemoglobin has a very low risk of allergenicity and showed no adverse effects in exhaustive testing.
Later this month, Impossible Foods will provide this study and additional data to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, including the opinion of the expert panel. FDA publishes such data online, available for public viewing.
“The number-one priority of Impossible Foods is the safety of our customers -- and we believe that people want and deserve total transparency about the food they eat,” said Brown, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. A 25-year professor of biochemistry at Stanford University, Brown is also co-founder of Public Library of Science, a nonprofit publisher founded to provide open access to science, technology and medical journals.