Nick Halla at the 2019 RISE technology conference in Hong Kong. (Photo by Cody Glen/RISE via Sportsfile.)
Nick Halla recognized with Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award
E-IPER graduate's ambition to drive technology for sustainability brings 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 says. "I wanted to start a sustainable technology business."
As Senior Vice President for International at the plant-based meat company Impossible Foods, he now routinely and automatically recites statistics about the impact food-sector innovation can have on sustainability—explaining, for example, that the Impossible Burger uses approximately 96% less land, 87% less water, and 89% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than beef from a cow. Impossible's first employee, he has helped to grow the company into a global business with around 700 employees and products in stores and restaurants all over the world. In 2019 the company garnered the United Nations Global Climate Action Award.
For this work, Halla was honored October 16 with Stanford Earth's 2020 Early- to Mid-Career Alumni Award. The award recognizes alumni who have made significant contributions in the civil, government, business, or academic communities within 20 years of receiving their Stanford degrees.
"Nick exemplifies what it means to be an innovator," said Stephan Graham, Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, in presenting the award during a Zoom ceremony attended by more than 60 people. "By demonstrating that it is possible to produce meat without environmentally destructive impacts, Nick is helping to alter the future course of our global food systems."
Growing an entrepreneur
Some of his friends say Nick Halla is a born entrepreneur. In any case, he was raised one.
"Farming is a very direct form of entrepreneurship," he says. "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. The difference is, in farming, you have to do everything with little money, so it teaches a lot of creativity."
Halla shared more about his career path in a Zoom seminar for 96 students, faculty, and alumni on October 20. Even as an undergraduate, he said, he was focused on technology for sustainability—biofuels, battery storage, improving the efficiency of diesel engines. But since renewable energy companies weren't willing to hire him for research jobs when he graduated with a 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 by consumers for birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations. It wasn't his dream job, but it was incredibly valuable on his journey.
"I learned how a business is run," he recalls. "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."
Refining his mission at Stanford
Still searching for his best chance to 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,'" he says. He felt that was where big ideas in technology were most likely to come together for global sustainable impact.
At Stanford, he found he could earn a master's degree from the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) concurrently with his MBA. "It was the perfect blend," he says. "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 them in real-world projects.
"His friends knew him as an aspiring entrepreneur from day one, laser focused on moving the needle in sustainability," says Anjana Richards, Associate Director of Program Strategy at E-IPER. "He took full advantage of the cornucopia of opportunities Stanford has to offer as he explored ideas."
He thrived in the tight community of mission-driven E-IPER students, peers he remains close to today. "Nick embodies what the pursuit of the E-IPER degree is all about," says Halla's close friend and Stanford roommate Ken Alston, MS '11, MBA '11. "He has followed his passion but also weaved in the lessons he learned in school about environmental stewardship and science and technology."
Halla remains involved in the program, guest lecturing each year in New Frontiers and Opportunities in Sustainability (ENVRES221), taught by David Mount, MS '08, MBA '08, and Christoph Frehsee, MS '11, MBA '11. Frehsee says Halla is especially appreciated "for his personal qualities of always being upbeat and positive while also being an honest thought partner."
I'd been in agriculture and food my whole life, and I hadn't heard any of the statistics about its impact on the environment.
As a student, he wrote one business plan after another for new sustainability technologies. "Nick was in graduate school when Cleantech 1.0 was starting to wane," says Richards. "It's easy to forget that not many people had sustainability on their radar in the midst of that other great recession. There was a sentiment at that time among E-IPER students that if you wanted to work in sustainability you had to create it yourself."
Alston remembers that time well. "There was no Google of cleantech that hired a lot of people. If you had the conviction to work in that space, you had to take a leap of faith and blaze your own trail,” he says. “In Nick's case, that meant a lot of conversations with people in the startup and venture capital communities."
This is how food found Nick 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.
Halla's first conversation with Brown was something of a revelation.
"I'd been in agriculture and food my whole life, and I hadn't heard any of the statistics about its impact on the environment," Halla admits. "Animal agriculture uses 45% of the global land surface, produces more greenhouse gases than all the transportation systems combined, and takes more than 25% of the fresh water used each year. 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 says 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 three percent efficient.
Brown told him it was possible to go directly to the plant-based source and create a system that is 10, 20, or even 30 times more efficient than anything an animal can do, Halla remembers. "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 recalls 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, explains Halla. "Our competition is meat from an animal."
There are a lot of examples of new technologies taking much longer to catch up to incumbents than you think they're going to. But once they do, the industry can change really fast.
The company's first five years were spent quietly developing a scientific platform, determining what made meat, fish, and dairy foods look, taste, and cook the way they do and how to recreate that with plants. 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.
"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," says Halla. "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.
Following the market West
Halla is currently responsible for growing Impossible's presence worldwide—a role for which he relocated to Hong Kong in January. With 44% of the world's meat products consumed in Asia, he says, "We have to tackle the Asian markets if we want to drive the sustainability impact we intend."
It was ambitious to move into Asia so early in the company's U.S. expansion, Halla acknowledged to the MBA students and others in his seminar, but the company needed to be on the ground there to learn about differences in culture and product preferences. "We took those learnings back," he says, and refined the product to be easily customizable in different kinds of cuisines. With the recent introduction of a plant-based ground pork, the company's products are rapidly gaining market share in major cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
He is currently 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 says. I want to continue to do that in my career, and it's advice I give to young students and entrepreneurs."
What else would he like them to know?
"There are a lot of examples of new technologies taking much longer to catch up to incumbents than you think they're going to," he says. "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."
In the case of Impossible's technology, he says, "We're not limited by what a cow's body can do. When we can make stuff that's so much better than a cow can, it becomes not a vegetarian option, but the option."