Rob Rhinehart made headlines a few months ago after raising more than a million in crowdfunding for Soylent, his futuristic food replacement drink. Rhinehart, a software engineer, invented Soylent by mixing together vitamins, raw potassium and magnesium, olive and fish oil, oat flour, and poison (just kidding) into a frothy, bland concoction that he claims could replace food. Since the FDA classifies it as a supplement and not a food Rhinehart was able to lease a warehouse space in Oakland and start mixing without further meddling from officials.
A few weeks ago, the company announced it had raised an additional $1.5 million from Andreessen-Horowitz and Lerer Ventures, among other notable VC firms. Soylent was on its way to disrupting our food future.
Vice, being the slick entity it is, undertook a 20-minute documentary published today to answer the question, “What the hell is up with this Soylent stuff?” Reporter Brian Merchant went on a Soylent diet for 30 days, after traveling out to film the warehouse where Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart was making the initial beta batch of products. What he found — rats, mold, and some questionable practices — may wind up cooling the Soylent fervor.
The documentary, filmed for Vice’s tech vertical Motherboard, holds an important lesson for startups. The early days of any venture are some of the trickiest. You’re trying to nail down your operations, figure out your work flow, meet orders, fix problems, hire staff, and generally get the whole thing off the ground without accidentally killing anyone or spending all your money. So, perhaps it’s not the best idea to invite a camera crew into your world during that time, even if the camera crew is associated with the perennially hip Vice magazine.
The Motherboard film will strike some nerves given that it’s examining one possible answer of a big open question mark: Can Silicon Valley disrupt the food industry? Soylent has gotten a ton of press from The New York Times to Time Magazine, and people are watching it closely to see whether it succeeds. If the crowdfunding numbers are any indication, the market wants Soylent. Perhaps it will want other startup food options too.
But food innovation is not a simple task. The price for getting it wrong isn’t just lost investor money and a founder’s pride: it’s the public’s health.
Vice’s documentary echoes the month-of-McDonalds’ experiment done by Morgan Spurlock for Super Size Me, albeit sans the dramatic physical impact. Unlike Spurlock who gained weight on burgers, Merchant lost 10 pounds of fat on Soylent. Doctors tested Merchant’s blood at the end of it, and the only nutrient he was deficient in was Vitamin D — i.e. sunlight. “It made sense,” Merchant told me during a phone interview. “I wouldn’t get any sunlight, because I wouldn’t have to leave the office. I would chug my Soylent.”
But the 30 days Merchant spent on Soylent are not the most compelling part of this documentary. Where Soylent fans and critics alike will freak out is the first half: the tour of the facilities. Merchant visited Rhinehart’s “factory” soon after Soylent raised a million dollars through crowdfunding. Like any good startup, the company had rented out a cheap warehouse space in Oakland to get the venture off the ground. Unlike other startups however, the founders of Soylent were making food, not software, and the dusty, empty warehouse space was perhaps not the most hygienic of kitchens.
During the documentary, the Motherboard cameras catch a rat scurrying around the food supply boxes. “We were not poking around, we were not trying to do gotcha journalism, we had just set up the cameras to run the interview,” Merchant says. They didn’t even know they had shot the rat till they were reviewing the footage in the hotel the next night. Not great timing, given that Merchant had just started his 30-day Soylent diet, and the back of the car was filled with Soylent packets he had taken straight from the warehouse floors. “I was definitely worried,” Merchant says. “Seeing this, it’s right there next to their mixing station. It was right next to the supply.”
Aside from just the rat, viewers will probably be appalled by the warehouse conditions. Workers are mixing piles and piles of flour-y soylent in big bins, with only plastic sheets separating the mixing rooms from the rest of the otherwise dusty warehouse.
If that’s not enough to turn off potential Soylent customers, the mold scene might do it. Merchant returns home to New York City and films himself going on the Soylent diet. During the second week he receives a shipment of moldy Soylent. Since he had vowed to eat only Soylent for a month and that shipment was all he had, he scooped out the mold and drank what was left. “We think what happened is when it was shipped the bag got punctured and some moisture got in there,” Merchant says. “It’s illustrative that they’re thinking of the experiment first and foremost and the sanitary conditions second.”
Of course, that moment is probably the crux of both the intrigue and the problem behind the big Soylent experiment. Silicon Valley is trying to disrupt an industry that isn’t made of bits of data and processor chips and lines of code. It has done its work showing it can change the nature of search, socializing, security cameras, smoke detectors, electric cars and space rockets. But all of those things fall squarely into the software and hardware categories.
What about food? Something so crucial to human survival and day-to-day existence, yet utterly forgotten by the Bay Area tech scene.
I think that’s why people are paying attention to Soylent. They want to know whether startups can go after fixing food, too.
Soylent is hardly the only one trying. In recent months other companies steeped in startup land have gone after the nutrition market as well. Beyond Meat, a startup backed by the likes of Bill Gates, Biz Stone, Evan Williams, and KPCB, has made a plant protein product that it swears will replace meat. Hampton Creek Foods, a startup backed by Khosla Ventures and Founders Fund, has invented a vegan egg substitute to take the place of the real yummy yellow yolks. Chefler, a new company I’ll be writing about later this week, is trying to create an affordable food delivery system for young, busy professionals.
These companies show promise. Just like Uber and Airbnb are reinventing transportation and travel accommodation, food startups might wind up changing the way we eat. But nutrition is an entirely different beast from driving, or hotels, or e-commerce, or any of the other markets startups have gone after.
Beta testing doesn’t really work with food. Faulty trials won’t work either. Winging it, and worrying about regulations later is also not a good idea. With food, you can’t ship an update if there’s bugs. If there’s literal bugs, it’s likely people will wind up with food poisoning. As Merchant says, “Do I want the Uber guy to disrupt the frozen peas? I don’t know.”
Since filming the documentary, Merchant points out that Soylent has moved to a more official factory location in Modesto. The factory doesn’t allow press, so Merchant couldn’t check it out and see how conditions had changed from the initial warehouse location. Despite the rat and mold mishaps, he’s hoping for success for the company. “I think they’re operating under the best intentions,” Merchant says. “I think they are learning some lessons as they go along and I do think there’s a market for their product.”
Watch Merchant’s Soylent adventures below or at Vice’s tech Motherboard vertical.