If there was a moment of validation for Josh Tetrick, this was it: sitting across from Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong businessman, philanthropist, and investor, showing off the creation of his company. It was a plant, in what might be best called "gooey gel" form. And Tetrick was scrambling it in a pan.
"I used to be in my ex-girlfriend's studio with my dog, racking up credit card debt, but now I'm in Hong Kong scrambling an egg for the wealthiest person in Asia who is telling me he wants the world to be better for his grandkids, and that I'm helping," Tetrick says. "That was a beautiful moment."
Yes, the company Tetrick founded, called Hampton Creek, makes scrambled eggs. Only, they're not the kind birthed from chickens. They are made from plants. It's not as wacky as it sounds--though this is certainly not your typical San Francisco startup.
The idea had its genesis just three years ago, upon Tetrick's return to the United States after spending seven years working for nonprofits and international organizations on education and food supply in sub-Saharan Africa. The small amount of impact his jobs had left Tetrick feeling frustrated. "It felt like using those mechanisms--nonprofits, international institutions, and government--was getting us nowhere," he said.
In looking for "nonnormal job" endeavors, Tetrick got talking to his childhood friend Josh Balk, who worked on reducing dependence on factory-farmed chicken eggs for the Humane Society of the United States. He explained that cost was the biggest hurdle in persuading restaurants to switch to eggs from free-range chickens.
"Together we thought: What would the world look like in which doing something better for the [earth] was 30 or 40 percent less expensive, rather than 30 or 40 percent more expensive?" Tetrick explains. "And Josh said, 'Well, maybe we use plants instead of animal?' And that was the spark."
Hampton Creek has analyzed the molecular structures of more than 3,000 plants and has found a dozen that, on their own, can substitute for egg, with all its properties (acting as an emulsifier, causing airiness when baked, etc.). In an expansive SoMa laboratory--a former Hell's Angels clubhouse--the company can indeed scramble up a veggie egg, but its products so far just use plant protein as an ingredient. Just Mayo, Hampton Creek's first product, first appeared on shelves at Whole Foods six months ago. Today, it's in 3,500 stores, including Costco, Kroger, and Safeway. Coming soon: cookies and (yes, you can eat it raw) cookie dough.
The company's products are already on store shelves, but thanks to the cost proposition, taste of the product, and Tetrick's unflagging charisma, the company is making sizable deals with fast-food restaurants and cafeterias, too. The goal: to get millions of pounds of healthier, less environment-taxing mayonnaise onto sandwiches and sell cookies. Hampton Creek projects an estimated 92 million pounds of cookies will get gobbled up this year, as will other products made with vegetable proteins that act like eggs.
Ka-shing invested in Hampton Creek, along with other investors, for the company's latest round of venture funding, which totaled $23 million. Hampton Creek has a total of $30 million in funding to date and employs 54 people, mostly in San Francisco. It also works with 150 contractors around the world, largely to help sell and distribute its products.
Pitching such a varied list of products through multiple distribution channels will certainly be a challenge for a company so scrappy, according to Ali Partovi, a serial entrepreneur and philanthropist who has recently been investing in startups, including Hampton Creek. But he's a believer in not just the product but also the organization Tetrick has built.
"The enormity of the opportunity is a little overwhelming," Partovi says. "Every single distribution point is at a different stage of saying yes. Can the company scale up fast enough to do everything that is asked of it? I think yes. Lots and lots of customers: That's a good problem to have."