EXCLUSIVE-Impossible Foods raises $300 mln with investors eager for bite of meatless burgers

By Angela Moon and Joshua Franklin

By Angela Moon and Joshua Franklin

May 13 (Reuters) - Impossible Foods, which makes a meatless plant-based burger and is backed by celebrities like Serena Williams and Katy Perry, said on Monday it has raised $300 million in the latest round of funding ahead of a possible initial public offering.

The fundraising underscores the growing appeal in plant-based food that tries to taste like meat with fewer environmental or health risks. Shares of competitor Beyond Meat Inc, which debuted on Nasdaq on May 2, have more than tripled.

The latest round for Impossible Foods brings the Silicon Valley-based startup's total raised to more than $750 million. Despite encouraging signs from investors, it is not in a hurry to go public, Chief Financial Officer David Lee told Reuters.

"We believe in self-reliance. Being ready to go public is a priority for the company because we need to be operating at the highest level of rigor," Lee said.

"But we are not in a rush, nor are we announcing an IPO filing."

Celebrities have jumped on the investor bandwagon, including Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Jaden Smith and Katy Perry, who recently wore a vegan burger outfit to New York's annual Met Gala, making reference to Impossible Foods. Star athletes including Serena Williams, National Football League quarterback Kirk Cousins and National Basketball Association star Paul George have also opened their wallets.

Institutional investors include Khosla Ventures, Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates, Google Ventures, Horizons Ventures, UBS, Viking Global Investors, Temasek, Sailing Capital, and Open Philanthropy Project.

The fifth equity funding round since its launch in 2011 values Impossible Foods at $2 billion, according to sources familiar with the matter. By comparison, Beyond Meat had a market capitalization of just under $1.5 billion in its IPO but now tops $4 billion.

Lee said Beyond Meat's successful IPO did not change Impossible plans or timing to go public but was a "validation."

"I think their (Beyond Meat) IPO indicates that retail investors along with retail consumers are ready for something better than the meat they've been eating for decades," Lee said.

Impossible launched its first faux meat patty over two years ago. A genetically modified yeast creates the key ingredient, called heme, which makes the patties appear to be bloody and juicy and taste like real meat unlike conventional veggie burgers. Ingredients include wheat, soy and potato proteins.

Fast-food chain Burger King has said it will launch "Impossible Whopper," which uses Impossible Foods' plant-based patties, nationwide after a successful trial at limited locations.

Impossible Burger is sold at more than 7,000 restaurants worldwide including White Castle, Qdoba and Red Robin and at Disney theme parks.

'CRAVEABLE'

Impossible plans to launch its products in retail outlets in the second half of this year. Lee declined to give a more specific timetable or identify those partners but said the company is actively talking with "top grocery chains in the nation."

Beyond Meat's products are already sold at Whole Foods and Safeway stores.

As consumer appetites grow, competition is heating up in the global meat-substitute market, which is projected to reach $5.81 billion by 2022, according to a 2018 study by Grand View Research.

Tyson Foods, the largest meat processor in the United States, will roll out meatless protein products in the coming months while McDonald's Corp began selling vegan burgers in Germany.

"We don't lead with the source of guilt that meat eaters have globally. We lead with what they want positively which is craveability with better options for the environment and their health," Lee said.

"It's the craveability that makes meat eaters find their own reason to come back for Impossible Burger." (Reporting by Angela Moon and Joshua Franklin in New York; Editing by Kenneth Li and Jeffrey Benkoe)