Impossible Foods’ future may rest on the fate of this tiny molecule

Impossible Foods has launched an offensive to protect its juicy recipe from carnivorous competitors.

Burger in a beaker

Who can use heme in their meatless meat?

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

In the small and fierce meatless-meat ecosystem, Impossible Foods has held one bloody advantage: its discovery that the molecule responsible for pinkish, juicy, coppery muscle can be grown in a lab. Tiny concentrations of that substance, known as heme, have made Impossible’s burger the reigning realistic meat substitute among chefs and food bloggers.

Now Motif FoodWorks, a much smaller industry player, is also producing heme and selling it as an ingredient for a meatless burger, sparking an unusual legal battle in the food tech industry. Motif FoodWorks has pitched itself as the maker of ingredients for countless Impossible replicas. “We'll brew up the next 100 hemes so that we can see many more Impossible Burgers in the next few years,” Jason Kelly, the founder of Motif’s former owner, Ginkgo Bioworks, said in 2019. (Motif has since become its own company, spun out of Ginkgo). In February 2022, the company signaled it was committed to the heme project by beginning construction on a new 65,000-square-foot research and production facility in Massachusetts.

One month after the new factory announcement, Impossible Foods sued Motif for patent infringement, becoming the first new food tech company to initiate a fight over intellectual property for meatless meat in the United States. (Beyond Meat, often cast as Impossible’s main competitor and the only new meatless meat food tech company to go public, does not rely on heme to create its meat simulacra).

The stakes are high for Impossible. A loss would dampen the company’s dominance of the meatless food chain and likely throw the entire ecosystem into chaos. If Impossible’s patent on its heme-based burger is thrown out, the resulting intellectual property will become vulnerable prey, leading to an increasingly vicious fight as small startups and big food companies alike battle to produce and sell heme in as many products and combinations as possible.

The outcome of this suit will determine not just Impossible’s position in the market, but also whether the company’s decision to structure itself and behave like a tech company can pay off in the food space. Unlike traditional food manufacturers, Impossible (which has remained private since its founding in 2011) has financed itself with investments from major tech venture capitalists like Khosla Ventures. An assignment search with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reveals 27 patents assigned to Impossible Foods; accumulating that number of patents is a practice common to engineering and software industries but unusual in the food world.

Motif and Impossible both declined to comment further than pointing Protocol to their legal filings.

“I think it’s huge. This is Impossible’s bread and butter. If they lose this patent — and maybe they’ve got others — but this obviously is one of their first out-of-the-gate patent attacks. If they lose this, this is troublesome. It means there will be competitors,” Michael Sitzman, an attorney and chair of U.S. life sciences patent litigation for DLA Piper, told Protocol.

Major meat producers have explored both starting their own meatless-meat lines and producing heme to supplement other foods and meat products, but they’ve been wary of Impossible’s patents.

“There’s a lot of companies watching this and getting very excited about it,” Sitzman said.

Impossible Burger Tiny concentrations of heme have made Impossible’s burger the reigning realistic meat substitute among chefs. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Impossible is no doubt aware of this. “The early-stage companies that have matured and are getting their patents issued are trying to prevent these newer competitors from coming in and using what they came up with and competing against them with their own technology,” said Benjamin Hodges, a patent attorney at Foster Garvey in Seattle.

Ask anyone involved in this fight, and they’ll say it’s not only about money and taste. It’s about climate change: not just for the companies but also the investors. When Impossible was founded, it said it “seeks to restore biodiversity and reduce the impact of climate change by transforming the global food system,” according to the lawsuit.

But there’s no clear climate winner in this legal battle. Some basic background: More than one-third of carbon emissions come from the global food system, and plant-based beef substitutes produce at least four times less emissions than their beef equivalents. Plant-based meats use less of other resources, too. “The amount of water it takes to make a pound of apples versus a pound of beef is insane,” Patrick Gibney, a food science professor at Cornell University, said.

But meat substitutes currently make up a tiny fraction of grocery dollars spent (somewhere between 1% and 2%) and retail sales were basically flat in 2021, according to research from the Good Food Institute (a meatless-meat nonprofit advocacy group) and Spins retail sales data. That does not bode well for the food-tech industry or climate change.

A failed patent battle will likely unlock a new realm of heme-based products, increasing heme’s popularity and legitimacy in the grocery store. The competition could also force Impossible to innovate faster.

Yet it could quell further private investment from VCs in earlier-stage exploratory, groundbreaking food technologies, food science researchers told Protocol. And without continued investment in new ideas, it’s hard to imagine a world where emissions from the global food system dramatically decline.

“It will disincentivize any company from doing this,” Gibney said. “If you don’t own it, no one will continue to go in that direction.”

The story of heme

If a useful molecule can be found in nature and scientists can discover how that molecule is produced, it can probably be made in a lab: not synthesized into an artificial version, but literally producing by a living organism.

Take vanilla. Vanillin is the molecule in vanilla beans that produces natural flavor, but it can only be found in nature by harvesting vanilla, mostly from rare orchids in Madagascar, an expensive and arduous process with oft-dangerous consequences for the local ecology. As a result, most vanilla sold today is fake, artificially synthesized to taste and smell like vanillin.

Scientist making heme Heme is a naturally occurring molecule in all sorts of proteins.Photo: Impossible Foods

Now, actual vanillin can be produced by fermenting yeast in vats. Because we know how vanilla is formed in nature, food scientists have altered the genes of yeast strains typically used for fermentation in baking and beer-making to instead produce actual vanillin.

Impossible Foods has done the same for heme. Heme is a naturally occurring molecule in all sorts of proteins, including hemoglobin, which makes human blood red. It’s also found in the muscle tissues of animals — in myoglobin — and in much smaller quantities in plants like soy. What’s most important to Impossible is that it “gives meat its bloody taste when raw and creates the intense, meaty flavors and aromas when it’s cooked,” according to the lawsuit.

Using the root of the soy plant as a genetic blueprint, Impossible Foods modified the yeast genes so that when yeast ferments, it produces heme.

Impossible Foods absolutely has the right to patent a unique genetically modified yeast — it doesn’t occur in nature, and pharmaceutical companies have set the precedent for these patents for decades. But Motif FoodWorks does not produce heme using the exact same genetic edits to yeast; instead, its yeast-fermented heme comes from myoglobin proteins, created through fermentation based on a genetic blueprint from cows (not soy).

The battle begins

And so Impossible Foods is instead suing Motif for infringing on the patent for its burger recipe. This patent is the bottleneck that protects Impossible’s potential future dominance of the meatless-meat market, and that’s the patent in question here.

While sales of meatless meat flatlined in grocery stores in 2021, Impossible Foods has landed major deals with Burger King, Applebee’s, United and Delta Airlines, and also partnered in 2019 with OSI group to scale up manufacturing capacity. The company was valued at around $7 billion during its series H fundraising round in November and told Forbes in June that its retail sales increased 70% in the past year. All of those advances could mean very little if other companies suddenly take yeast-produced heme and add it to a burger.

Anything that’s obvious or has been made before cannot be claimed as intellectual property. But a truly unique combination of ingredients and ingredient ratios can technically be protected, and that’s Impossible’s intent here. It believes its patent means that no other company can combine heme with a specific list of other plant-based products to make a burger.

“A lot of the time, ingredient combinations are recipes, and would typically be a trade secret as opposed to a patent,” Scott Miller, a patent attorney for Sheppard Mullin, said. “I think it’s an interesting case given the nature of the patent claim involved, being the beef replica product itself as opposed to the proprietary process.”

Motif, in response to the lawsuit, denies improperly trying to compete with Impossible.

In a separate filing, known as an inter partes review, Motif asked the patent office to throw out Impossible’s patent entirely. That 97-page filing accuses Impossible of trying to patent a complicated veggie burger that is both obvious and has been made in the past. The patent does “not contain an inventive concept,” the lawyers argue.

The matchup between the firms of Wilson Sonsini (representing Impossible) and Quinn Emanuel (representing Motif) is a classic tech IP showdown. Wilson Sonsini is one of the go-to institutional firms for big tech companies, while Quinn Emanuel is notoriously aggressive, expensive and prepared for battle. The amount of work required for the fight underway will be costly for both parties, but especially for Motif, which moved quickly to file to invalidate Impossible’s patent.

Meatless meat products in a supermarket Impossible Foods is far from the only meatless-meat company.Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP

“They weren’t fearful of this, they weren’t worried about it; they knew they were going to aggressively attack this patent, and they filed that IPR right away,” Sitzman said.

By October, both sides — and all the food companies, tech companies, investors and lawyers that are watching and salivating with anticipation — will have their first signals about the future of the patent in question. Impossible Foods has until near the end of July of this year to respond to Motif’s IPR filing (though it is not required to respond), and then the patent office will have three months to decide whether to more seriously review it. A decision to review the patent could bode poorly for Impossible, according to the attorneys interviewed for this piece.

“If this fight goes Motif’s way, and the patent becomes invalid and we get some nice broad statements out of the decision: ‘This patent was obvious, all of this was disclosed in the public domain,’ et cetera,” Sitzman said, “then all of a sudden you’ve got a bunch of meat manufacturers and others who will be drooling.”


Binance’s co-founder could remake its crypto deal-making

Yi He is overseeing a $7.5 billion portfolio, with more investments to come, making her one of the most powerful investors in the industry.

Binance co-founder Yi He will oversee $7.5 billion in assets.

Photo: Binance

Binance co-founder Yi He isn’t as well known as the crypto giant’s colorful and controversial CEO, Changpeng “CZ” Zhao.

That could soon change. The 35-year-old executive is taking on a new, higher-profile role at the world’s largest crypto exchange as head of Binance Labs, the company’s venture capital arm. With $7.5 billion in assets to oversee, that instantly makes her one of the most powerful VC investors in crypto.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Sponsored Content

How cybercrime is going small time

Blockbuster hacks are no longer the norm – causing problems for companies trying to track down small-scale crime

Cybercrime is often thought of on a relatively large scale. Massive breaches lead to painful financial losses, bankrupting companies and causing untold embarrassment, splashed across the front pages of news websites worldwide. That’s unsurprising: cyber events typically cost businesses around $200,000, according to cybersecurity firm the Cyentia Institute. One in 10 of those victims suffer losses of more than $20 million, with some reaching $100 million or more.

That’s big money – but there’s plenty of loot out there for cybercriminals willing to aim lower. In 2021, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) received 847,376 complaints – reports by cybercrime victims – totaling losses of $6.9 billion. Averaged out, each victim lost $8,143.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


Trump ordered social media visa screening. Biden's defending it.

The Knight First Amendment Institute just lost a battle to force the Biden administration to provide a report on the collection of social media handles from millions of visa applicants every year.

Visa applicants have to give up any of their social media handles from the past five years.

Photo: belterz/Getty Images

Would you feel comfortable if a U.S. immigration official reviewed all that you post on Facebook, Reddit, Snapchat, Twitter or even YouTube? Would it change what you decide to post or whom you talk to online? Perhaps you’ve said something critical of the U.S. government. Perhaps you’ve jokingly threatened to whack someone.

If you’ve applied for a U.S. visa, there’s a chance your online missives have been subjected to this kind of scrutiny, all in the name of keeping America safe. But three years after the Trump administration ordered enhanced vetting of visa applications, the Biden White House has not only continued the program, but is defending it — despite refusing to say if it’s had any impact.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email:, where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.


The US plans to block sales of older chipmaking tech to China

The Biden administration will attempt to roll back China’s chipmaking abilities by blocking tools that make a widely used type of transistor other chipmakers have employed for years.

By using a specific, fundamental building block of chip design as the basis for the overall policy, the White House hopes to both tighten existing controls and avoid the pitfalls around trying to block a generation of manufacturing technology.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

The Biden administration has for several months been working to tighten its grip on U.S. exports of technology that China needs to make advanced chips, with the goals of both hurting China’s current manufacturing ability and also blocking its future access to next-generation capabilities.

According to two people familiar with the administration’s plans, President Joe Biden’s approach is based around choking off access to the tools, software and support mechanisms necessary to manufacture a specific type of technology that is one of the fundamental building blocks of modern microchips: the transistor.

Keep Reading Show less
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a senior reporter at Protocol covering the semiconductor industry. He has worked for Barron's magazine as a Technology Reporter, and its sister site MarketWatch. He is based in San Francisco.


Netflix Games had its best month yet. Here's what's next.

A closer look at the company’s nascent gaming initiative suggests big plans that could involve cloud gaming and more.

Netflix’s acquisitions in the gaming space, and clues found in a number of job listings, suggest it has big plans.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Netflix’s foray into gaming is dead on arrival — at least according to the latest headlines about the company’s first few mobile games.

“Less than 1 percent of Netflix’s subscribers are playing its games,” declared Engadget recently. The article was referencing data from app analytics company Apptopia, which estimated that on any given day, only around 1.7 million people were playing Netflix’s mobile games on average.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Latest Stories