The repurposed warehouse space looks and sounds like any other tech start-up in San Francisco’s Soma neighborhood: There’s a scattering of millennials seated around a communal wooden table, pecking away at their laptops, and a large, placid golden retriever lounging on the couch. There’s bountiful sunlight, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the speakers, and inspirational words like LEAP and DARE emblazoned on the wall. And there’s Josh Tetrick, explaining that, yes, you are visiting a tech company, one that just happens to regard the chicken egg as a programming language in dire need of an update.
“The best analog to what we’re doing is Amazon,” he says. “At its heart, it was a tech company pioneering e-commerce. At Hampton Creek, we’re a tech company pioneering food.”
Tetrick, who is 33, founded his company, Hampton Creek Foods, two years ago with the goal, he says, of “tearing down the walls of intensive animal agriculture,” i.e., factory farming, by creating a line of plant-based egg substitutes that mimic or improve upon the egg’s multipurpose powers. Just Mayo, Hampton Creek’s yellow-pea-based mayonnaise doppelgänger, is now carried in Whole Foods around the country; Beyond Eggs, its powdered egg replacement, is currently being pitched to big food manufacturers. Later this year, the company will debut its version of scrambled eggs.
Tetrick’s decision to take on the egg industry came about for reasons familiar to anyone who has encountered an evangelical vegan: “There are 1.8 trillion eggs laid globally each year,” Tetrick says with the measured but forceful cadence of someone giving a perpetual ted talk. “Ninety-nine percent of them come from places that if people knew about them, they would probably throw up in their mouth.” By which he means not only the living conditions of the chickens themselves with hens cruelly packed into tiny spaces, but also the greenhouse gases, pollution, and massive amounts of fertilizer and pesticide that attend large-scale egg production.
Tetrick might have come to the project with standard do-gooder intentions, but he approached his company with a grandiosity you wouldn’t imagine from the soymilk crowd. As he told investors when he began shopping around his company in late 2011, Hampton Creek’s ideal future, he hopes, looks a lot like that of Google, Facebook, or Twitter—“this idea,” he says, “that you can, in a very, very rapid period, create something entirely new that is used by hundreds of millions of people that can fundamentally make the world a better place.” (It didn’t hurt that he had the social-entrepreneurship credentials worthy of a Franzen character: He holds a law degree; taught children in Africa on a Fulbright; consulted for the Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on clean-energy investment; and worked at ultimate do-gooder company Toms shoes before founding a crowdfunding platform called 33needs that linked investors with social entrepreneurs.)
Hampton Creek’s chorus of investors includes Vinod Khosla’s Khosla Ventures, Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, and Bill Gates, who included the company in his online Gates Notes presentation about food companies that can reinvent the meat market. Overall, Silicon Valley capitalists funneled some $350 million into food technology last year, lining the coffers of start-ups that promise to do everything from deliver Katz’s pastrami to your door to grow beef in a petri dish.
Part of what makes these companies so attractive is that they’re not pushing Boca Burger 2.0s at militant vegans or pious locavores. They’re talking about transforming the entire food system in a language that Silicon Valley understands: Food, like information or transportation, is just one more industry ripe for disruption.
“When we indicate that our plant cultivars are the software and food is the hardware, it enables venture capitalists to frame up what we’re doing within the context of what they’re dealing with,” says Tetrick, whose company catalogued the chemical makeup of 2,000 plants to perfect its recipes. “We look at the chicken egg as almost a set of code. The chicken egg has 22 different functions. It aerates, gels, binds, emulsifies—that is the software. So we have to identify and utilize new lines of code. We don’t want to use the chicken-egg code; we want to do something more sustainable.”
Identifying new code-improving plants “is like Amazon pushing new algorithms every day,” says Tetrick. “Our key advantage is that the code of the chicken egg is never getting better.”
But algorithms are orderly, lifeless things; food, even the plant-based variety, is anything but. These start-ups may envision a future where food can be updated like a next-generation iPhone, but companies like Uber and Airbnb were created to disrupt industries that lack the fiendish complexity of the food sector—or the multibillion-dollar megaconglomerates with their own well-resourced R&D departments.
Of course, food-tech start-ups peddling ersatz animal protein have their haters, especially in Northern California, birthplace of the real-food movement and home to Michael Pollan, its leading intellectual. “The genome is nothing like software, and you’re going to make huge mistakes if you believe that,” says Pollan, who, unsurprisingly, takes a more skeptical view of Silicon Valley’s faith that technology can save us all from ourselves, to say nothing of its equation of food with software. “We saw that with biotech,” he says. “Monsanto still talks about improving the operating system of plants. It’s a very seductive but completely false metaphor.
“There’s a certain arrogance when it comes to things biological,” Pollan adds. “The fad around 2008 was ‘Silicon Valley is going to solve the energy problem.’ Ethanol was going to be a big part of that, and all these firms jumped both feet first into ethanol, which turned out to be a disaster for the environment, food systems, and the bottom line.” When it comes to the idea that technological brilliance can be translated to successfully manipulating biology, he says, “they should be a little more circumspect.”
Tetrick acknowledges that it’s possible to “go way, way too far” down the food-as-software path; the complexity of the plant kingdom, he says, demands thorough study and exploration, not glib metaphors. But he’s firm in his belief that fixing the food system requires the same ideals that are sacrosanct to start-up culture: “that mind-set,” he says, “that failure is a natural part of the process,” as well as creating “massive change” through scalability, much as Amazon did with online retail. “That mentality of scale is very much a part of us,” he adds; his company’s goal is “to create something so compelling that it ends up being in the mouths and hands of everyone in the world.”
Not that success is guaranteed: “There are a finite number of companies that can grow into truly great trillion-dollar companies,” says Geoff Lewis, a Founders Fund principal. “When we invested in Hampton Creek, there were very few food-tech investments. It wasn’t a sexy thing. When the crowd is rushing in, that’s the time to be skeptical.”
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