As a boy in Vinings, Georgia, Rob Rhinehart remembers the neighborhood pig roasts fondly. What he loved most, besides the barbecued pork, was the social aspect--how all the kids played together, how the men drank beer, how the women talked, and how everyone watched the pig cook over the fire. But as much as he enjoyed the social event, he was curious about the ungulate over the spit.
"Ever since I was very young, it was a little strange to me to eat dead animals and plants that came out of the ground. Everything else around me was made of plastic or steel and glass. Electronics changed from year to year, but food always stayed the same," Rhinehart says. "When I took time to think about the detrimental effects our food system has on the earth and the fact that many humans are overweight, I thought maybe we could use engineering to help fix this problem too."
That was the seed, which would grow out of Rosa Labs, a three-year-old company that Rhinehart launched alongside co-founders Matthew Cauble, John Coogan, and David Renteln. Its first alternative-food product, dubbed Soylent, instantly garnered a massive amount of attention--beyond the obvious Soylent Green comparisons. From quantified-life enthusiasts to the just plain curious, the powdered food drink sold more than a million units in its first year alone. Last year, the company pulled in $10 million in sales; this year, it predicts $36 million. Tack on the nearly $25 million in funding it raised from the likes of Lerer Ventures, Index Ventures, and Andreessen Horowitz, and this company's potential is hard to deny.
Still, startup success wasn't always apparent. In 2012, a few years after graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in electrical engineering, Rhinehart and Cauble got into Y Combinator and moved to San Francisco. But the wireless network startup they were pitching wasn't getting much interest from investors. To avoid running through what little money they had, Rhinehart and his co-founders turned to low-cost junk food to stretch their dollars. Rhinehart came to resent the fact his body needed food, as eating constantly took time away from working on his struggling business. That's when the idea for Soylent hit him like a bag of potatoes: How could he continue pitching his wireless startup when the simple act of eating was just so grossly inefficient?
By February the next year, Rhinehart would publish a blog post ("How I Stopped Eating Food") about his month-long experiment eating nothing but the essential nutrients and elements humans get from food in chemical form. For the uninitiated, Soylent is effectively a meal-replacement shake, containing nearly all the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals a human needs to live. The post--which detailed his futuristic, quantified-self liquid diet--gained status on Y Combinator's Hacker News webpage. Rosa Labs shortly thereafter held a crowdfunding campaign and raised $3 million on CrowdTilt. By May, the company shipped its first batch to customers.
The early days were full of Soylent Green references, claims of flatulence, and a Vice Media investigation during which the reporter successfully lived through Rhinehart's month-long challenge but found rats in Rosa's first warehouse. Despite jeers, Soylent's community grew. DIY Soylent, an online community that trades recipes and enables users to make personalized soylent (lower case "s"), grew out of a subreddit. The existence of an engaged, passionate community is what attracted investors like Andreessen Horowitz, notes Chris Dixon, an investor and a general partner at the venture firm.
"I think of Soylent, first and foremost, as a community of people who are enthusiastic about science-based approaches to food, nutrition, and health," says Dixon, who is also a Soylent board member. "If you put your investor hat on, it's about the community. The company just happens to make money selling powdered food."
Rhinehart also notes Soylent's small contribution to fixing the global food production and distribution system. One third of all food produced globally ends up as waste, according to a recent report by the Waste & Resources Action Programme and the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The cost of that broken system is around $400 billion annually. Yet as the world's population grows, this number will only increase.
"We've been held back by eating organisms," says Rhinehart, who offers the criticism that plants tend to capture only 1 to 2 percent of the sun's energy through photosynthesis. "Then we're feeding those to animals and lose even more energy along the way," he says, adding that spoilage through shipping is yet another concerning outcrop of the current food-production system. "We have huge amounts of waste through the entire process."
To be sure, food has a place in society and will for the foreseeable future. Soylent is not meant to be the total food replacement that the media circus dramatically claimed, but rather a "staple-meal" replacement, Rhinehart notes. Most people eat the same, or similar "cheap, consistent, and somewhat nutritious" meals everyday. What Soylent wants to be is the default, cheap-yet-nutritious staple-meal for everyone. Soylent is catching on; as of March 2015 the company moved into profitability.
"What I'm trying to do here is not to eliminate food or take away the good aspects. I'm trying to unbundle it," he says. "Soylent is the next step; it is embracing the promise of science and technology to make food and food production better, more sustainable, healthier, and safer."