Nick Halla at the 2019 RISE technology conference in Hong Kong. (Photo credit: Cody Glen/RISE via Sportsfile)
From family farm to global food force
E-IPER alumnus Nick Halla’s ambition to drive technology for sustainability brought him full circle to focus on food system innovation.
When Nick Halla, MS ’11, MBA ’11, left his family’s dairy farm to study chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota, he thought he was making a permanent transition away from food production.
“I didn’t see the impact in it,” he said. “I wanted to start a sustainable technology business.”
Even as an undergraduate, he was focused on technology for sustainability, which for him meant energy – biofuels, battery storage, improving the efficiency of diesel engines.
As a student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), he wrote one business plan after another for new energy technologies. He also had a lot of conversations with people in the startup and venture capital communities – and that’s how food found Halla again in his final year of graduate school.
An investor in the solar company he was working with introduced him to Stanford biochemistry professor Patrick Brown, who was formulating the idea that would launch Impossible Foods, a company that develops plant-based substitutes for meat products.
“We talked about the mission and agriculture – I’ve been in agriculture and food my whole life and I hadn’t heard any of the statistics about its impact on the environment,” Halla said. “It was an opportunity to create something from scratch and something I knew really well.”
I’m a believer that you kind of create your own luck by taking opportunities and taking risks.
In 2011, Brown founded Impossible Foods in Redwood City. As the company’s first employee, Halla helped to grow the company into a global business with around 700 employees and products in stores and restaurants all over the world. Now the company’s senior vice president for international, he is responsible for growing Impossible’s presence worldwide.
Seeding an entrepreneur
Some of his friends say Halla is a born entrepreneur. In any case, he was raised one.
“Farming is a very direct form of entrepreneurship,” he said. “Everybody in the family, cousins, and neighbors are all involved. A lot of startups are that way, where everything is really intertwined, and that always felt really comfortable to me.”
By the time he was a young adult, Halla knew he wanted to do something different than the family farm.
“Family farming and dairy farming specifically is a really, really hard business – you work 365 days of the year and you struggle to make money,” he said. “I think I pretty early wanted to do something where I could have a little more control over my lifestyle.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, he took a job at General Mills and pursued night classes in sustainable technology and design. During his four years at General Mills, he designed manufacturing systems and products, including a new line of snacks customizable for birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations. But he didn’t feel like he was having the global impact he wanted to have. In retrospect, although it wasn’t his dream job, the experience was incredibly valuable on his journey.
“I learned how a business is run,” he recalled. “I’d go from being in a consumer’s home to being on a manufacturing floor, scaling products. The learnings from that – how they operate as an organization and the values they instilled into the company – really stuck with me. It taught me how to think about a business from the ground up.”
A focus on impact
Still searching for a career that could bridge technology and global impact, Halla entered the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2009.
“I believe that was the second time I said, ‘I’m done with food and agriculture. I’m doing everything in renewable energy,’” Halla recalled. He believed that was where big ideas in technology were most likely to have a global impact on sustainability.
At Stanford, he pursued a master’s degree from E-IPER concurrently with his MBA. “It was the perfect blend,” he said. “I wanted to grow my entrepreneurial vision and learn how to build a globally scalable business while being deeply connected to technology – which was my passion – and then pull it all together for sustainability.”
He took all the classes he could on renewable energy systems, especially if they were being taught by civil and environmental engineering professor Gil Masters, a favorite among E-IPER students for the way he engages with real-world projects. Halla also embraced opportunities for growth outside the classroom.
“I learned pretty quickly through my classmates that the stuff I wanted to do was more driven through networking,” Halla said.
Halla’s first conversation with Brown, now professor emeritus and CEO of Impossible Foods, was something of a revelation. He recalled Brown describing the way we use animals as a technology as “by far the most destructive technology that we have on the global environment.”
“Animal agriculture uses 45 percent of the global land surface, produces more greenhouse gases than all the transportation systems combined, and takes more than 25 percent of the fresh water used each year,” Halla cited. “It’s by far the biggest driver of water pollution, species loss, and land degradation – and no one was talking about it.”
Here was an opportunity to create something from scratch, without abandoning his passion for technology. Halla said Brown helped him see beef cows in a new light: as a technology for taking plants and turning them into meat – but one that is only 3 percent efficient.
Brown told him it was possible to go directly to the plant-based source and create a system that’s 10, 20, or even 30 times more efficient than anything an animal can do, Halla remembered. “I realized the impact we could have is so much greater than if I just went to work at another solar company.”
He had one more concern before he could commit, however. How would his family take it, with their livelihood dependent on animal agriculture? He called his brother, who had followed his parents into the business.
“The life we grew up with doesn’t really exist anymore,” Halla recalled his brother saying. “You can’t make money as a small family farm. Besides, our job as farmers is to produce good, affordable food for people while maintaining our land for future generations. That isn’t happening; we’re essentially mining the land to feed our hunger for meats. If we can create a better way to produce the foods we love, we have to.”
And with that blessing in 2011, Impossible Foods became a team of two, its mission to restore global biodiversity and reverse the trend of climate change by transforming the global food system. This sweeping ambition drives the company’s strategy. Impossible isn’t out to conquer the vegetarian market, Halla explained. “Our competition is meat from an animal.”
The company’s first five years were spent quietly developing a scientific platform and determining what made meat, fish, and dairy foods look, taste, and cook the way they do – and to recreate that with plants.
“In the beginning, I was one-third farmer, one-third scientist/engineer, and one-third business person,” Halla said. “My brother was growing crops for us – it was very bizarre, but in a lot of ways rewarding for all my past that I could actually help us make progress on our mission.”
In 2016, the Impossible Burger appeared to come out of nowhere when it famously debuted on the menu of David Chang’s Momofuku Nishi restaurant in New York City, then later appeared in select restaurants in California.
“For us to drive a change in consumer culture, we knew we had to start with people like David Chang with a bit of an edge,” Halla said. “He was known as someone who would never put vegetarian products on his menu, which is why he was our target.” The resulting buzz did more than sell burgers – it got people talking about food, where it comes from, and its impact on the world.
As Halla will tell you, the Impossible Burger uses approximately 96 percent less land and 87 percent less water, and generates 89 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a beef burger from a cow. In 2019, the company garnered the United Nations Global Climate Action Award.
Growth and change
Since its food debut in New York, the company has raised $1.5 billion in venture capital. In April 2019, Burger King put the Impossible Burger on its menu. In March of 2020, the Impossible Burger was in 150 grocery stores, and by the end of 2020, it was in more than 15,000 stores. News outlets in 2020 reported an IPO as a future probability as the company pursues a more than $1.5 trillion meat market.
In January 2020, Halla relocated to Hong Kong to grow Impossible’s presence worldwide. With 44 percent of the world’s meat products consumed in Asia, that market would be an important driver of sustainability impact.
You create a movement by consumers demanding the change, and the way to get them to do that is by creating amazing products they personally believe in.
He is a long way from Owatonna, Minnesota, and navigating a demanding learning curve, but Halla has always pushed himself to take risks.
“I’m a believer that you kind of create your own luck by taking opportunities and taking risks,” he said. “I want to continue to do that in my career, and it’s advice I give to young students and entrepreneurs.”
Nearly 10 years into his career with Impossible, his role has changed with the growth of the company, but he’s always believed his job is to be an enabler – from workspace and supply chain to innovation and communications, he’s helping his team break down barriers. But that doesn’t mean the change has been easy.
“What I’ve had to understand is that the culture of the company changing over time is actually a really good thing – I think that is one of the hardest things as a leader,” he said. “The culture, when you’re five people versus 500 people, has to be different for you to be successful.”
The company’s expansion has also helped Halla see the value of embracing different leadership styles, depending on the circumstances.
“I’ve learned over time that you’re not always one type of leader. And you also don’t always succeed,” he said. “You have to tailor the leadership style to the situation and to the individuals a lot of times.”
Looking back, Halla admitted some of the biggest advances he’s had personally and professionally were experiences that made him the most uncomfortable. And that’s also something to keep in mind when it comes to the pursuit of breakthrough technologies.
“There are a lot of examples of new technologies taking much longer to catch up to incumbents than you think it’s going to,” he said. “But once they do, the industry can change really fast. You create a movement by consumers demanding the change, and the way to get them to do that is by creating amazing products they personally believe in.”
Halla lives in Hong Kong, where can be found listening to audiobooks while exploring new hikes in the area. He enjoys traveling, fostering his friendships, and challenging himself with new experiences. Halla received Stanford Earth’s 2020 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award, which recognizes alumni who have made significant contributions in the civil, government, business, or academic communitieswithin 20 years of receiving their Stanford degrees.