Can an Eco-Food Company Be Run Like a Startup?

Published on November 1, 2013
by Mike Isaac

Just MayoIt’s jarring to hear 33-year-old Josh Tetrick talk about eggs.

It’s not the fact that his company, Hampton Creek Foods, aims to reinvent the ubiquitous foodstuff with products made from egg substitutes. It’s not that he touts the company’s offerings, Just Mayo and Beyond Eggs, as one day being tantamount to eating the real thing, despite the fact that they’re made from a mixture of about a dozen different types of plants.

What’s odd is that he sounds like he’s talking about software.

“The way we create our products — think of it as the way Google pushes out its operating system,” Tetrick told me from Hampton Creek’s headquarters, a modish, open, loft-like workspace tucked away in San Francisco’s SoMa district. It looks less like a food lab than one of the many startups that populate the area. “We continue to optimize, to push out updates to the items inside,” he said.

That’s left to his team of scientists, who have scoured through more than 1,500 types of plants to find the ones most suitable for the recreation of things we eat everyday; the egg-substitute that goes into a cookie, an omelet, or a stack of French toast. Like all good scientists, the team tests and retests plants when synthesized, seeing how well they correspond to the properties of the food products they are trying to mimic.

One man, a young, hipster-looking type clad in denim and plaid, steps away from an intimidating-looking machine that tests viscosity — the measure of an item’s resistance to breaking down from activities like chewing or simply popping it in one’s mouth. The goal is to aim for a better “mouthfeel,” so that when you’re snacking on one of Hampton Creek’s foods, it doesn’t feel entirely different from, say, a plate of real scrambled eggs on the tongue.

Josh Tetrick HeadshotI tested (read: ate) a number of items that the company had in progress. While not quite an exact match in every way, the chocolate-chip cookies were indeed good enough to ask for seconds. And the eggless cookie dough let me indulge on raw batter without running the unpleasant risk of digging into salmonella.

The idea is to keep testing and pushing out “product updates” to ultimately fool the likes of me, getting to the point where the differences between the egg-filled and egg-free products are hardly discernible.

I imagine that marketing is part of Hampton Creek’s Silicon Valley approach to product development. After all, it’s cool to be a startup these days, especially with the relatively unsexy goal of overturning the massive, multibillion-dollar egg industry — one that Tetrick said is rife with inefficiency and ethical quandaries.

But it’s likely that the company’s backer, Khosla Ventures, is also an influence. Along with green and eco-investments, Khosla is well known in the Valley as another respected VC firm interested in technology. The rapid-prototyping approach, too, may help this small startup of about 30 people take on the slow-moving but well-entrenched food conglomerates that it aims to disrupt.

“We want to fundamentally make the egg industry impossible to be cheaper than we are,” Tetrick said, citing the waste of the egg industry’s food-to-energy conversion ratio (39-to-1), and the large amount of land needed to raise and store the animals. “So, as we push out our version 2.0 of our products, the idea is to make it taste better, cost less and last longer than the version before.”

It is indeed a tall order. Despite increasing pressure from activist groups and lobbyists to change their practices, food interests still have massive scale, long-standing regulation and large networks of partners and grocery-store distribution on their side.

Just Mayo RetailBut Tetrick and company are making inroads. Hampton Creek Foods expects a rollout of some of its Just Mayo products on Whole Foods shelves nationwide this fall, another move toward bringing consumers an alternative to egg-based products. It is a small step in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an important partnership with a nationally recognized retailer.

As he talks about the deal, Tetrick looks proud of the company’s ability to move fast and iterate incrementally, improving what he thinks is a quite good attempt at making egg substitutes taste like the real thing.

At least, that is, until their next version is released.

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