Why Silicon Valley wants to hack the food industry

Can you make mayonnaise without eggs or meat without killing? Tech firms and investors believe they can transform food the way Apple changed phones We stood in an airy San Francisco warehouse, staring at two plastic cups of gleaming mayonnaise. A golden retriever snored lightly in a patch of sunlight on the floor as Josh Tetrick, the 33-year-old founder of Hampton Creek Foods, waited for me to scoop up the fluffy, effulgent goop with a chunk of bread. Tetrick's team of food scientists had tried making mayonnaise without eggs no less than 1,432 times. This formula was the 1,433rd.

"The egg is this unbelievable miracle of nature that has really been perverted by an unsustainable system," Tetrick, a former Fulbright scholar, had explained to me earlier on our tour of the Hampton Creek Foods facility, a well-lit, cavernous space with rows of lab tables, red couches, and chalkboards.

Mod warehouse, hip startup, vegan eggs – it all struck me as a little too precious for the big time. But Tetrick is adamant that his product has a market beyond this rarefied universe. "We're not just about selling and preaching to the converted," he says. "This isn't just going to happen in San Francisco, in a world of vegans. This is going to happen in Birmingham, Alabama. This is going to happen in Missouri, in Philadelphia."

I let the eggless mayo dissolve in my mouth like a truffle. It tasted exactly like the real mayo that I've slathered on sandwiches countless times before. If I hadn't known that it was fake, I never would have guessed.

Over the next five years, Hampton Creek Foods, backed by $3m from Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla's venture capital firm, will first hawk its product to manufacturers of prepared foods such as pasta, cookies and dressings – the processed products that use about a third of all the eggs in the United States. The goal, Tetrick explains, is to replace all factory-farmed eggs in the US market – more than 80bn eggs, valued at $213.7bn.

Beyond Eggs isn't the only fake-food startup in Silicon Valley. In the last couple of years, venture capitalists, including Bill Gates and the co-founders of Twitter, have been pouring serious cash into ersatz animal products. Their goal is to transform the food system the same way Apple changed how we use phones, or Google changed the way we find information.

Sounds a little grandiose? Food industry experts think that Tetrick and his ilk might actually have a shot. According to the market research firm Mintel, some 28% of Americans are trying to consume fewer meat products. Patty Johnson, a Mintel analyst, believes that this group, manyfollowing doctors' orders to cut cholesterol, will be game to try meat substitutes that don't require them to change their recipes. "Products that can mimic chicken the best will do well with that group – the reluctant vegetarians," she says.

 


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