Soylent organized an event on feeding a growing population without straining our resources.
Food and our eating habits have to be a major part, which I've written about:
Since many "green" ventures seem more interested in wrapping themselves in a trend than actually reducing consumption, I attended an event promoting innovation and technology in food with skepticism.
I was pleasantly surprised to find several ventures that could actually help, not just talk.
I've long heard about Soylent, which also hosts the Soylent Innovation Lab Co-Working Space for the Future of Food in Los Angeles. I met with CEO Bryan Crowley to learn about Soylent and its initiatives in advancing food and other food-based ventures.
Let's start by describing your product. Whom do you help? What problem do you solve?
Bryan Crowley: Soylent is a satisfying, complete, ready-to-drink meal designed to provide convenient nutrition with minimal hassle and waste. Its makeup--based on recommendations from the FDA, World Health Organization, and Institute of Medicine--includes the proteins, slow-burning carbohydrates, and omega-3s, as well as 26 vitamins and minerals.
While not designed to replace every meal, Soylent wants to replace those times you need food as fuel, and you either skip a meal or make an unhealthy, unsustainable, or expensive choice. We call these "food voids" and we're on a mission to make them obsolete with a better, more sustainable choice.
Food voids are pervasive because many people are very busy and simultaneously have access to limited resources. Unfortunately, these people often have to make tough choices between nutritious food that can be more expensive and time intensive, versus cheap, quick, ultimately unhealthy food. While hunger and food insecurity remains widespread, obesity is also on the rise.
We also know that hunger and food insecurity are different, and that both are massive problems in our country (more than 41 million Americans experience food insecurity, which means they don't have the resources to know where their next meal is coming from).
The more successful our company becomes the more we're able to partner with food banks, colleges, healthcare, and other organizations focused on reducing food insecurity on a national, systemic level.
Your idea makes me think, "Why didn't I think of that?!?", a thought I associate with entrepreneurial success. It seems like a lot of new food start-ups find clear missing opportunities. How did everyone miss it?
BC: Soylent came from the brilliant mind of Executive Chairman/Founder Rob Rhinehart. He was frustrated with the effort and costs associated with buying, preparing, and eating food that wasn't particularly healthy or even enjoyable--especially when trying to balance a busy lifestyle.
When he went looking for a food product that was sustainable, affordable, nutritious, and simple to make, he didn't find anything, so he made it himself. He developed the first iteration of Soylent Powder as an experiment and blogged about his experience.
The story went viral, and Soylent's crowdfunding campaign became the largest in history in the food category with $3M in pre-orders. Rob and the team changed how you can get your food by selling online with an innovative subscription model. They followed that up with ready-to-drink Soylent--proving that you can "drink" a complete filling meal on the go.
It was an unmet need in the space at the time.
Inc. readers like to innovate. Do you see other opportunities or areas outside yours that others can act on or look into?
BC: Of course! There's always room to innovate inside and outside of the packaged food space. One simple way that everyone can have an impact is to think about their personal food waste.
For example, did you know that more than 40% of crops grown in the United States are wasted? Some of this waste happens before foods even get to consumers. Great companies like Misfit Juicery, Imperfect Produce, and your local food banks are working on repurposing pre-consumer waste and salvaging that food. Supporting these companies is a great way to join the action.
At home, we can all think about not buying too much, using what we have, and purchasing products that have a longer shelf life and are less likely to be thrown away. We've all bought that bag of spinach that just sits in the fridge and goes bad.
There are a lot of food startups in health and efficiency. Has the field arrived, is it just starting, is it already mature, or where do you see it?
BC: I believe it is just getting started. Let's start with health in this country--when you are facing a growing obesity epidemic in this country, I believe more and passionate entrepreneurs will take up this fight with new and innovative approaches to tackle this multifaceted social and economic issue.
Governments and the health care systems must also continue to take action and make policies and support initiatives that will address the problem because the economic and social impact are so important to healthy and thriving communities. And you can see in the growth in these areas that consumers are taking notice and spending a larger share of their wallet on these healthier options, especially in the more educated and affluent demographics.
But we have a very long way to go to penetrate the masses and that's where Soylent is focused--making complete nutrition accessible and affordable and I hope more and more entrepreneurs and companies will focus on innovative and better-for-you options that more and more people can afford.
What is the biggest barrier you face? What about for new entrants?
BC: One of our biggest challenges is reassuring potential consumers that we're not aiming to eliminate fresh, healthy, traditional food. The truth is, we love food! It is connected to the fabric of what defines cultures and makes us human. We just think that nutrition shouldn't be difficult.
We also acknowledge that locally grown, fresh food is not available to everyone at all times (food voids) and we want to provide complete, sustainable nutrition to people and places where freshly grown food is not available or affordable.
How big is the opportunity for food entrepreneurship? How is your growth?
BC: It's big!
We're thrilled with the growth in the food tech and entrepreneurship space. There are incredible people, doing exciting things. We recently launched our own Innovation Lab housed at our headquarters in LA to help grow the community there.
The Innovation Lab is a marriage between a co-working space and an incubator. We know this sector has the opportunity to create amazing products that will make affordable, complete, nutrition more accessible to everyone. We also know there is a market for it! Within the last year, we've expanded our own accessibility, with Soylent now available in over 10,000 retailers across the country including Kroger, Walmart, Target, 7-Eleven, and via our distributor partner throughout New York City. We also have international expansion in our sights and we just launched in the UK on Amazon.
You seem personally passionate and look like you're working hard. Which came first, the hard work, the passion, both, or something else?
BC: Thank you! I would say a bit of both. I always credit my parents and my middle-class upbringing in South St. Louis for my work ethic. My Dad owned his own plumbing business with his brother and worked 6 days a week to support me and my 3 sisters. My mom also went back to work once the kids got a little older in the restaurant industry and is still working in that industry today.
All that said, I believe that the passion always has to come first. Rob Rhinehart started this company with a belief that he could change the way people consume food, solving the pain points associated with creating nutritious, affordable, and convenient meals. For me, I have always had a personal passion for the health and nutrition space as a former athlete and now parent of two great kids but struggling like all parents to make sure my kids are getting the nutrients they need to thrive.
I followed Soylent from early on so when I met Rob and the team and felt that passion for our mission, it was infectious and it was an easy decision to join the team and lead this next stage for the company.
The passion that inspired the first iteration of Soylent has never dimmed and even though our business and company continues to evolve, I credit our mission and our team at Soylent for keeping that passion alive in everything we do.
Here's a curveball since I avoid packaged food. Can I buy from you in bulk or other way minimizing waste (I consider recycling waste)?
BC: Great question and great idea!
Currently, Soylent powder can be purchased by the pouch. A case of pouches equals 35 meals and is our largest packaging available for bulk orders. But we are always looking for ways to be more sustainable and because we are a direct to consumer business, we get great ideas like this one from our consumers all the time.
The key is balancing the sustainability benefits of producing at scale versus the packaging benefits of offering larger bulk sizes for our highest volume consumers.