One of the first keys to running a successful startup? Know your target customer. For Josh Tetrick, CEO of Hampton Creek, that one is easy: "We're really fixated on my dad."

To be slightly more specific, the products are for his dad and everyone like his dad who will only eat healthily if it doesn't break the bank and if it tastes good. Hampton Creek, which has been dubbed "the synthetic egg company" because it discovered a plant-based egg substitute, aims to create foods that satisfy both criteria.

Tetrick discussed his company at a salon-style gathering of about 70 people this week at the San Francisco home of Susan MacTavish Best, founder of Best PR. Tetrick fielded questions from NPR correspondent Laura Sydell during a literal fireside chat called "Data for Dinner." 

Yes, there was a lot of food--some of it from Hampton Creek. I had some grilled vegetables with a really delicious sauce--which I later found out was made with saffron and Hampton Creek mayo. I filled my plate and parked it by the fire to listen to the Q&A.  

The reason for the "Data for Dinner" title is that Hampton Creek isn't just aiming to be a food company; it pitches itself as a food research company. Hampton Creek currently sells an eggless mayonnaise in stores like Whole Foods, Walmart, and Safeway. But it took a year and a half of almost nothing but plant research for Tetrick and his team to discover that it was even possible to create an eggless mayo.

Why research plants? One, because the plant kingdom is largely untapped as a food source. There are 400,000 different plant species on Earth, and 90 percent of them haven't been explored for food purposes, according to Tetrick. 

And two, because farming plants is more environmentally friendly than farming animals. The atmosphere is already plagued by intense greenhouse gases from farm animals, and this will only get worse as the world's population swells to a projected 9.5 billion by 2050, Tetrick said.

So each month Hampton Creek generates data on thousands of different plant species and cultivars--which are subgroups of species. The ones that satisfy the properties that Hampton Creek is looking for are then put to the taste test. 

The results of this first round of research are found in Hampton Creek's mayonnaise and cookies. Both include the Canadian yellow pea as an egg substitute.  

Hampton Creek, which has raised $30 million from investors like Bill Gates, Hong Kong businessman Li Ka-shing, and Khosla Ventures, doesn't plan to stop its plant discovery there. There are more staples that need revamping, according to Tetrick.  

"Mayo is just the beginning," he said. "Butter is on the list." 

Tetrick is well aware of the fundamental laws of adoption for his product. For his business partners, the rule requires that Hampton Creek's products save them money. Tetrick said it does. That's why Compass Group, a foodservice company that provides four billion meals every year, now buys its cookies from Hampton Creek.

But for the end user--the person who actually eats what Hampton Creek cooks up--the food has to be both affordable and tasty. 

Whether Hampton Creek's stand-alone products fulfill that last requirement I can't say. (I most definitely approve of the vegetable sauce I had, but that was seasoned with other ingredients.) After the Q&A, I went to the kitchen to try to find a cookie, but they were all gone. Maybe that was an indication in and of itself. 

Published on: Sep 11, 2014