Science for the Plate & Planet: What drives innovation at Impossible Foods

The first of a series of posts taking you behind the scenes, into the heart of Impossible Foods’ team and culture. Our Content team sat down with some of our leading scientists in R&D to ask them why and how they work together to solve the planet’s most pressing challenge.

In order of appearance: David Lipman (Chief Science Officer), Laila Dafik (Senior Scientist, Small Molecule Discovery), Ranjani Varadan (Director, Protein Discovery), Rachel Fraser (Director, Research), Smita Shankar (Director, Strain Development), Celeste Holz‑Schietinger (Director, Flavor Team), Pavel Aronov (Principal Scientist, Analytics), Sue Klapholz (VP of Nutrition & Health), Sergey Solomatin (Director, Materials & Texture)

Q: Tell us about your role and why you work at Impossible Foods.

David Lipman | Chief Science Officer

“I started at Impossible Foods in June, and worked for many years at the National Institutes of Health outside of Washington DC, where I was mostly involved in computational and IT‑related areas of biomedical research. So, this is a big change for me.

And I’m loving it. I was amazed at the quality of scientists here… We have very creative people who understand not only their own fields, but also the bigger picture. Because of that, they’re able to their own job well, and just as importantly, coordinate and cooperate with each other in ways that allow us to move very quickly from one problem to the next. It’s a privilege every day when I come into work with them.”

Smita Shankar | Director, Strain Development

“Before Impossible, I was at a company called Codexis working on biofuels. I’ve been at Impossible for almost five years now. It’s a fantastic group of people, and we all work together.

There are two things I absolutely love among many other things. The first thing is the mission: what the company stands for and what we believe in, which is truly to have an impact on the world around us and the way it functions. That climate change is so heavily driven by animal farming was so eye opening to me — I didn’t know that prior to coming here — and it’s something I care very deeply about. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is the people: working with this group is extremely intellectually engaging. We think about and solve really interesting scientific problems — together. It’s a lot of fun.”

Pavel Aronov | Principal Scientist, Analytics

“I’ve been around for over three years, and lead the Analytics team. The purpose of my team is to provide technology to measure any given experiment or discovery, and find ways to ensure that the numbers we’re seeing are correct.

I can relate to a lot of the things that have probably already been said — I’m also an environmental chemistry major, and the mission is really important to me. I came here from a much bigger company and what drove me here was really the sense of immediacy. The work that we do here creates a certain positive action in the environment right now, at this moment. It’s also a really effective environment. I have creative license to do the work I need to do, and things that would take me several months to accomplish at a different workplace takes me two or three weeks here. There’s interaction between different departments and I feel that people are genuinely working together towards the common goal.”

Sue Klapholz, VP of Nutrition & Health

“Mine is a different story, a more personal story. My husband is Pat Brown — the founder of the company — so I’ve been in on what’s been going on since before the company even began. I’m a scientist and physician by training, and it’s always been important to me to work on something that’s going to have an impact on the world. My team is responsible for the accuracy of our nutritional label, and making sure that our product is as healthy, nutritious, and safe as possible.

The great thing about working here is it fulfills everything. We’re working on a terrific goal to replace animal farming and all animal products with plant-based ones. It’s an opportunity to work with a lot of wonderful, creative, intelligent, and very nice people –most of whom are quite young — and it’s just wonderful to see them develop at this company. It’s not about me, me, me, and, ‘I want the credit, and I want my reputation to grow.’ It’s really all about working together, and I’ve never seen anything like this before, so it’s really nice.

I love coming into work so much that I’ll probably stay long past when I might have otherwise retired.”

Laila Dafik | Senior Scientist, Small Molecule Discovery

“I’ve been at IF for three years and a half. I joined the effort just a little bit later than the rest of the great scientists in the room. I’m a chemist by training, and my team focuses specifically on using biochemistry and chemistry to understand the physical properties of protein and the reactions by which they catalyze.

I had a chance to interact with Pat while I was doing my post-doctoral training at Stanford, and got really excited by the mission of IF. The company’s also working on very exciting technology. Through chemistry and biology we get to make a much bigger impact on our lives, other people’s lives, and our environment — and it’s such a great satisfaction to be part of this team.”

Sergey Solomatin | Director, Materials & Texture

“I’ve been with Impossible for five and a half years. My team does all kinds of stuff, from linking the materials we use in food, to putting together prototypes, to making sure we can scale up the ground beef that we’re making.

The story of how I joined was an interesting confluence of things that I always wanted to do and a very opportune moment. As a kid, I read some books about biotechnology and was excited about the general idea of being able to replace meat from animals. I was doing research on biological macromolecules at Stanford when our funding stopped, and I couldn’t get another job in academia. One of my colleagues from Stanford told me that Dr. Brown founded this company. It became clear while she was talking that their team had some experience working with protein macromolecules, but had no idea how to put them together into anything that would resemble meat material. I had a distant material sciences background, so I decided that I would just come and show up to see what ideas Pat had, and what ideas I had. And basically, we created a position for me.

That’s the interesting part — How things that were never supposed to come together, came together. I was supposed to be somewhere in academia doing research on things completely not related either to materials or meat.”

Celeste Holz‑Schietinger | Director, Flavor Team

“I’ve been here for about five and a half years too. I see my purpose on earth as protecting and providing ways for humans to live more sustainably. I started off in ecology but found my passion in biochemistry. At Impossible Foods, I get to bring together my life purpose with my passion for understanding how things work and my love of food — to create foods that are delicious.

And obviously — I get to work with an amazing group of individuals who are really inspiring to me.”

Ranjani Varadan | Director, Protein Discovery

“I’m part of the Proteins Discovery Team and have been here for over six years. I’ve worked on many, many different projects, but the main focus of my team can be described as trying to understand why proteins behave the way they do in the context of food: how to get these proteins, how to get desirable textures with these proteins, and how to remove the flavor components we don’t want.

I think my favorite part is the openness — the collaborative nature. It’s an extremely fun-loving group that’s motivated to ask and solve fundamental simple questions that challenge the status quo. We’re always trying to push further and ask how can we do ‘it’ better — and all in a spirit of fun and collaboration. That’s extremely special to me.”

Rachel Fraser | Director, Research

“I came to Impossible Foods directly out of graduate school at Berkeley. I thought I would go on to do an academic post doc — that’s really the path that I was on. But while I was exploring that possibility, a professor by the name of Dr. Mike Eisen, who ran a lab on the same floor that I worked on, mentioned to me in passing that he was advising a company that was looking for scientists to come on board. My first reaction was: I didn’t know you advised a company…what does it even do? Tell me more.

And so he gave me the elevator pitch for Impossible Foods. And once I heard about that, I came down and saw the company — which at the time was only a dozen or so people — and was just so excited, I was hooked. I was ready to come on board.

That was seven years ago. My job since has primarily been to help develop scalable isolation strategies to extract heme protein out of yeast, and make it into an ingredient that can go into the Impossible Burger and other products.”

Q: So how does everyone work together?

Ranjani Varadan | Director, Protein Discovery

“As David likes to say is: there’s one problem and many ways to solve it. Everything is so connected. You touch one aspect of texture, and you change the flavor and the entire sensory experience. It’d be impossible for us to function in isolation.

If you think about making a product like the burger, we have to first understand how it’s set up. Sergey and I work with Sue, and maybe Pavel, to understand how we deconstruct our target. (That’s ground beef.) Then we ask, how do we find protein materials that will fulfill the same functional attributes? How do you integrate the flavor with the texture?”

Rachel Fraser | Director, Research

“I think the way it all connects is actually on the quality side. We always want to be receiving feedback from all teams with respect to how the ingredient that we’re making — heme, for example — performs in the burger: How is the flavor? How is the shelf life? If we change a formulation, how does it impact the nutrition?

We need to be constantly receiving feedback on all these different things, and having that feedback trickle down through our teams to make sure we continue to optimize our process.”

Celeste Holz‑Schietinger | Director, Flavor Team

“Flavor is probably the team that gives feedback to everybody. Whenever we make discoveries, we start by asking, How does this affect how the burger compares to beef?’

We work closely with Pavel’s team to identify particular flavor molecules, with Laila’s team to understand each molecule’s properties, and when Smita’s and Rachel’s teams identify a particular driver of meat flavor, like heme, we ask their team to see if they can figure out how to produce it. On the other side, Ranjani’s team discovers new proteins to add in, and we evaluate them to see what they taste like. When Sergey’s team makes a big win identifying something that makes the burger more “chewy,” for example, but maybe it also brings in an off flavor — and so we realize we can’t use it unless we figure out how to reduce that off flavor.

And then, of course, we’ll figure out how to integrate all those things together. Sometimes we feel like we’re the negative ones, but hopefully we can all bring in that balance to make the best product.

Sergey, what do you think?”

Sergey Solomatin | Director, Materials & Texture

“I was actually going to suggest a more historical narrative, about how we started off and then came together as a team.

We’re making meat from plants, so the way I think our team goes about this task is by breaking plants apart into individual components, then figuring out which of those components we need to reassemble — and in which ways — to make something that looks and behaves like meat. So we looked at the proteins that make up the majority of meat structure to understand how they change with cooking temperature, and start looking for proteins in the plant world that behave in a similar way.

That way, we sort of fell into these buckets early on: Ranjani’s task was to figure out what protein components from plants are going to behave similarly to protein components from meat. Smita quickly transitioned to heme. And then my job was to figure out how we put these proteins together in particular structures.

So I guess, my job is to take the functional properties that Ranjani, Celeste, Rachel, and Smita have identified and figure out how they should all come together.”

Pavel Aronov | Principal Scientist, Analytics

“And my team sort of binds everything together. It’s important for us to perform measurements to know exactly where all the components stand.

With Laila and Celeste, in flavor generation, we help set up an analytical system to measure different flavor components and how they catalyze. With Sergey and Ranjani, we measure different proteins and figure out how these proteins interact with each other. When Smita’s and Rachel’s teams produce heme, for example, we want to make sure the concentration of heme is set at a certain specification. Or for example, when they work with Sue and try to measure iron concentration in the burger, we help them measure the precise levels of iron in the product.”

Sue Klapholz | VP of Nutrition & Health

“Well, anytime someone from any team is working with a new ingredient that might go into the burger, my team will do a nutritional and safety analysis of that product to see how it would impact the overall picture. That involves analyzing all the ingredients that go into the burger in great detail as well as all sorts of ingredients that people are experimenting with.

If we’re replacing beef, we need to be at least as nutritious as beef, and we should be healthier and safer in terms of some of the health negatives associated with beef. We started off comparing ourselves to 80/20 beef, which, if I’m not mistaken, is the most popular beef in retail. We wanted to be on par with something that consumers were used to and would want.

And it’s not only about health — we have to make sure it’s delicious as well.”

David Lipman | Chief Science Officer

“Just to put it all into context: the Impossible Burger is really a combination of commonly available food ingredients, and a small number of magical ingredients.

Cows are incredibly complicated. They didn’t evolve to be delicious, and we really can’t make them more delicious very easily. We have a much simpler system, and there are ways that we can turn dials and figure out how we can change certain properties.

Anytime we change one input, we affect another. Sometimes this causes us a problem, but other times, it actually makes things easier. You never can predict where things are going to go, and it’s incredibly interesting from an intellectual point of view. We want to succeed — that’s the first thing. But whole process of finding how all these things fit together, making it delicious, and using that deliciousness to make a huge impact on the quality of life on Earth is just as amazing.

We have a great group that leads R&D, but there’s an entire incredible team of scientists, engineers, and people that we all work with — and that’s what really makes Impossible Foods.”

Check out locations serving the Impossible Burger and our FAQs for more info. More questions? Contact us at hello@impossiblefoods.com.