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.”