Most people typically refer to the consumption of food as "eating." Not so for Rob Rhinehart when he's discussing one of his company's latest products.

The CEO of Los Angeles-based nutrition startup Soylent says its coffee-flavored drink Coffiest is "very functional" and "has a good user experience."

Coffiest has also been a strong seller in its first few weeks, Rhinehart says. He declines to share specific figures but says sales are increasing at a faster rate than did sales of Soylent 2.0, the neutral-flavored meal-replacement drink the company introduced a year ago. Soylent also now offers a caramel-flavored "food bar."

How do you appeal to a mainstream audience when your company's products are known for being largely flavorless and, in some people's opinions, weird? The answer, according to the Inc. 2015 30 Under 30 honoree, is more complicated than just adding some taste.

"I'd say it's about finding the balance of familiar and exotic," Rhinehart says. "You have to do something new for the customer that someone else is not doing, but at the same time you want them to be able to wrap their head around it a little bit."

Coffiest, by way of example, combines a familiar flavor with the "satiety" of Soylent's original products. Plus it offers a boost of caffeine.

Soylent, valued at more than $100 million, raised $20 million in 2015 and generated $10 million in revenue. The company first launched in 2013 with a powdered nutritional formula for mixing into liquids. The powder, popular among hackers and gamers, is "open-source," in that recipes are available online for anyone who wants to make their own version.

The idea was to create something affordable and "fully nutritious" that can be consumed without the hassle of cooking.

"Our innovation was not the lack of flavor," Rhinehart says.

The company didn't venture into the realm of flavors sooner because it first needed to build up its staff, he says, adding that headcount has doubled over the past year.

While Soylent wants consumers who aren't avid readers of nutrition labels to be able to understand the concept behind the company's products, it's not looking to do an about-face. Rhinehart says the company will keep working to improve the formula of its original powder, and that more open-source products are on the way in the future.

The company will likely open-source budget products like Soylent powder, which could be useful in humanitarian efforts to stem world hunger, Rhinehart says. Premium products like Coffiest and the flavored food bar can be expected to remain proprietary.

Published on: Aug 23, 2016