Silicon Valley is Hacking Your Food
Software isn't eating your lunch…not just yet. But you've probably heard that a 24-year-old programmer who went through Y Combinator, Paul Graham's prestigious start-up bootcamp, is trying to prove humans don't need traditional food--you know, that texture-rich, tasty solid-form stuff that was or is a living organism--to survive.
Instead, he's proposing, based on his own rigorous and fairly risky self-assessment, that ingesting an inexpensive, precise mix of all essential nutrients in the form of powder mixed with water, can be sustainable. It might be cheaper and easier to produce than food, too--and it might actually make humans healthier.
His name is Rob Rhinehart, and he's co-founder of Soylent, the Oakland-based company that makes a powdered food product of the same name. (If you're getting creeped out thinking about the 1973 film Soylent Green, with Charlton Heston, hold that thought a moment. I asked Rhinehart about it in an interview, notes from which follow.)
Rhinehart's YC days last summer were spent building an entirely different company. Graham reportedly called it the "biggest pivot in YC history" when Rhinehart, whose start-up team was working around the clock to build inexpensive wireless networks for developing countries, decided to instead focus on finding a more efficient way to stay nourished. Here's how Rhinehart told me it happened:
We did demo day after YC that summer and we met with a bunch of investors, and they all said it was just too expensive to do this sort of infrastructure sort of thing. It just didn't get very far. I sort of plotted out our runway. We had a certain amount of money, and you include all of your expenses, and see how long that's going to last you to live. This is our rent, and this is our food. And I thought, this is interesting. What if I didn't need food to live? That would increase our runway.
So he embarked on research on essential nutrients for humans, purchased FDA-approved versions of each, and consulted the National Institute for Medicine for daily recommended doses of each. Then he decided to become his own guinea pig, ingesting solely this powder concoction composed largely of carbs, amino acids, fiber, and vitamins.
"I didn't really expect it to work for very long. The first couple days, I was like, 'well, I'm still alive,'" he says. "It was sort of like I was pushing off shore. After three days or so, it was strange realizing there was no food in my system and I was subsisting entirely on chemicals. But I felt fantastic. I felt euphoric. I felt full of energy."
Rhinehart had his blood tested, half-anticipating a deficiency in some nutrient, but found none. He's still in testing phase, going on five months on Soylent, with very occasional solid meals. He's launched Soylent into a full-blown company with a crowdfunding round, and a few dozen new guinea pigs--some of whom are also testing their blood for signs of trouble, and posting results online. Plenty of them are Silicon Valley types. Some are journalists.
It was at the office of YC partner Garry Tan that I first encountered Rhinehart's concoction. Tan is enthusiastic about it--he ordered an early supply through Soylent's crowdfunding campaign. So has Alexis Ohanian, YC's "ambassador to the east" who recently posted an Instagram photo of himself drinking the concoction, with the note, "Cheers to you, future of food!" (although perhaps what's most notable here is his less-than-enthusiastic expression).
To be clear, Rhinehart isn't proposing a counterargument to food-history author Michael Pollan's rough dietary guideline: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." He says there's nothing wrong with enjoying a meal, you know, per se. It's just not always an efficient use of time or energy, which irked his engineering-school sensibilities.
"I really enjoy working, I just don't like doing repetitive things or redundant things. I don't like going to the grocery store for the same things and waiting in line and cooking and cleaning over and over. It was really frustrating for me," he says.
He told Vice he's sticking with his largely liquid diet--at least for now: "Soylent is definitely a permanent part of my diet. Right now I only eat one or two conventional meals a week, but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often. I'm quite happy with my bachelor chow. I don't miss the rotary telephone, and I don't miss food."
He says he has a lengthy list of things he doesn't miss, including grocery shopping, dishes, arguments with his roommates about dishes, tedious conversations about the merits of veganism and gluten-free diets (Soylent is both), napkins, crumbs on his laptop, and morning breath.
"Because that comes from the bacteria you eat interacting with your stomach acids," he says. "This also means no indigestion."
Soylent contains no bacteria, is shelf-stable, and could be useful for stockpiling for disaster relief, or for supplying to malnourished communities in developing areas of the world. But for now, Soylent is a burgeoning meta-start-up--that is, it caters largely to other start-up community folks in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. The appeal of "disrupting food" is huge, precisely because it's so difficult to wrap your brain around.
There are a couple massive questions hanging over Rhinehart's success here, the elephant being, "Is this actually healthy? Is it actually safe?" The Magic-8-Ball version of the answer is "cannot predict now." The Washington Post asked Jay Mirtallo, a professor of pharmacy at Ohio State and a former president of the American Society for Parental Enteral [i.e. feeding tube] Nutrition for analysis. He said: "He basically made medical food. If he wanted to switch to a liquid diet, those are already available."
It's clear for now that Rhinehart has more critics than believers. If you're still curious what more he has to say for his foray into biohacking, here's a bit more of our conversation, edited and condensed.
You're a software engineer by training. How are you learning about nutrition?
I've been reading a lot, talking to experts, and observing people's habits in grocery stores.
Wait, how often are--or were--you stalking around grocery stores?
Probably every other day. I'll just go in and observe what people look at on labels, the kind of products they buy. Once I really understood what the body needed to be healthy it was interesting, like, how things developed naturally to be a balanced diet. Nutrition kind of hobbled along on its own for a long time, and certain behaviors evolved around eating. And it's cultural now. And what I've discovered lately is what an emotional issue it is for a lot of people. As soon as you start talking about it, some people get really defensive about it. I think it's interesting.
It used to be food was life or death. I mean, it still is, no? So it's not so hard to understand why humans defend food and eating.
Our current perception of it might not be aligned with data. There's a huge backlash toward using technology to make food, but I really think that thinking is detrimental. Lots of the other things we make and use are pretty far removed from nature. We process everything, because it makes it more useful; it makes it better. It seems strange we would go almost backwards in terms of the food we consume.
I mean, everyone likes eating, right? And some people like cooking.
No one asks me to make my own pharmaceuticals or car, so why would you ask me to make my own food? I'm bad at it. I have other skills, but that just seems strange that that would be expected of me.
Why confront all of people's defensiveness about processed food with a brand and pitch that's entirely up-playing the sort of laboratory-made nature of this?
Like other food products, where it's made in a factory and it's got a picture of, like, your mom cooking?
What about the fact your name makes people think of the horror movie Soylent Green?
I think it's a pretty stimulating movie (laughs). It's a very thought-provoking film, I think. But I did have the book [Make Room! Make Room!, a 1966 science-fiction novel by Harry Harrison] more in mind. A lot of people have a reaction to the name, but it also gets people thinking about what does "food" actually mean. A lot of people forget that there's nothing special about the chemicals that make up life versus other matter. There's no reason we would need agriculture, plants, or animals to produce food. Because it's really just made out of chemicals. We are positioning ourselves as, "yeah, it is made in a factory. It's good. Everything useful is made in a factory. Food should be no exception." But we really want to be transparent and honest about that.
Forgive me, I'm no scientist. But where can you get Beta Carotete if not from a carrot or a sweet potato or the like?
A lot of them can be synthesized. The plants synthesize them through a series of biochemical reactions. And those can take place easily outside of a life form. You can make all sorts of wonderful healthy things from petroleum. And for electrolytes, they're already often mined. It's just more efficient; the plant was going to extract it from the earth anyways, why don't we just take it straight from the earth? Cut out the middle ground?
Is your primary market right now Silicon Valley?
It did start with a personal need, I mean my diet was pretty poor. I was just a lousy cook. It's really about the nutrition. I just want to be healthy and full. We can cook and eat socially, and that's fun, but most of the time eating is just about nutrition. Initially I wanted to make it a pill. I thought that would be really cool if you could just take a pill. But you just need more mass.
It's that classic question: If you could take a pill and never be hungry again, would you?
But I think for most people it's a spectrum. Some people are really into food, and that's great; for others it's more of a chore. I see food as a form of art--someone who's really skilled at cooking and sourcing foods and cooking recipes, that's interesting to me.
And it's fun.
Well, I have different hobbies. So.
Have you told your mom you're living without food?
I didn't tell my mom until I came home about six weeks into Soylent. She looked at me with new eyes, and said, "what happened to you? You look so healthy!" At first I told her I stopped eating meat, which is something I told a lot of people early on who would say I looked healthier, when I didn't want to explain the whole thing. Which was true. I mean, technically it's vegan. And it's gluten-free. We're really serious about having no allergens or anything; we want this to be a solution for anyone who has any trouble with food allergens.
So my mom was kind of put off initially, but she really came around to the idea because I just looked so healthy to her. Now she's waiting on her batch. I'll test anything on myself, but I wanted to make sure it was totally healthy before giving it to other people.
Is the goal to feed the world?
I see really it as energy. As I walk around Brooklyn this week, and I see people on the subway, people just look tired. They don't have a lot of energy. And that's a very important factor in someone's quality of life and in success. All forms of energy are really the same. The body is in a sense a machine, and if it had better nutrition everyone would be healthier.
So, a supplement? Is there a bigger goal?
I see this as if you could make this ephemeral. You could make it like a utility. In the United States, the way that no one really worries about water, it's just always available, you don't really have to think about it. I mean it does cost something in places, people pay their water bills, but you don't really have to worry about it. That's what I would like food to be.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.