The man trying to reinvent the future of food with Soylent
Meal substitute entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart lives in a shipping container with no water
Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart holds a bag of his food substitute powder. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
The man who would replace food turns out to have quite an appetite. Rob Rhinehart, whose meal-substitute drink is a hit with Silicon Valley techies who prefer not to waste time eating, meets me at Clifton’s Cafeteria and grabs a tray. Confronted with a dizzying array of cuisines at different stations, Rhinehart, a tall 27-year-old in a T-shirt and leather jacket, makes for the carvery.
“I like to get the turkey,” he announces. “You can have Thanksgiving every day!” He also chooses mashed potatoes with gravy and mac and cheese as side dishes.
When I invited Rhinehart to lunch I feared the worst: a brief conversation while we chugged bottles of Soylent, the “future food” he has consumed for much of the past three years. So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that he had chosen a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, close to the company’s offices. Even more surprising was his publicist’s description of Rhinehart as a “foodie”.
Rhinehart’s method for dealing with the choice on offer at Clifton’s is simple: order lots. “Can I have another side for more?” he asks the server. He can. A big lump of stuffing. At the dessert counter he takes a chocolate cheesecake and then reaches for a large cookie, too. “Two desserts. Why not?”
I copy his turkey and potatoes but go for just the one dessert – pecan pie – and we explore the cavernous café in search of a table.
Rhinehart’s idea for Soylent (the name is a hybrid of soybeans and lentils) dates back to when he was holed up in San Francisco struggling to build a wireless networking start-up. Desperate to preserve his dwindling funds, he identified food as one of his biggest costs and hit upon a novel way to economise. After researching essential nutrients, he ordered the rawest ingredients from the internet and blended them together – a chemical concoction that would do away with the bother of cooking.
In a blog post entitled “How I Stopped Eating Food”, he wrote about how the experiment had not only slashed his food spending (from $470 to $50 a month) but transformed him physically (“My skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker”). The idea of food was outdated, he reflected. Consuming 1,500 calories a day of dust mixed with water was an infinitely more efficient way of getting the major food groups – lipids, carbohydrates, protein – as well as some vitamins and minerals.
The posting went viral and, when Rhinehart’s wifi idea bit the dust, the side-project took over. He and some friends raised money by crowdfunding to start producing Soylent at scale. Last year the company attracted an investment from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and was said to be valued at $100 million (€90 million).
(“That report was inaccurate,” Rhinehart tells me. It was much higher).
Now, the ready-to-drink version – Soylent 2.0 – is packaged in sleek white bottles and shipped across the US and Canada. More than 25 million servings have been shipped since May 2014 (a week’s supply costs about $65, about $2.75 a serving) and other markets, the UK at the head of the list, are being explored.
Given the size of his meal, one might be tempted to question whether Rhinehart’s largely Soylent-based diet is satisfying him. However, I am still feeling full from my first sampling of the beige-coloured drink the evening before. The taste was unusual but inoffensive – it has been likened to pancake batter – though I could only manage four-fifths of a bottle.
Rhinehart is convinced we will start to abandon three meals a day and instead sip functional foods whenever we need to.
“Being wrapped up in breakfast, lunch, dinner came from an agricultural society and the industrial revolution. We don’t work on farms, we don’t work on assembly lines and I don’t think we should eat like we do. I think people will switch to eating when hungry rather than eating on a schedule.”
He stresses this does not mean the end of eating for pleasure.
“You get home from work, you’re not in the mood to cook or you’re running out the door in the morning, you don’t have time, but then Friday or Saturday night rolls around and you want to go out with your friends. That’s what I think we’ll move towards.”
Clifton’s began as a small chain in the 1930s and the decor is from a different era, if not a different planet. On one wall there is a giant redwood tree, with a fireplace stretching up into the ceiling. Around us are taxidermied animals – a lion, a raccoon, a squirrel and either a bison or a buffalo. Rhinehart gently informs me they are the same thing.
This branch, the last one left, once attracted some famous patrons for its policy of not turning away clientele who could not pay, impoverished writers such as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac among them. Ray Bradbury used to eat here, too, says Rhinehart approvingly. He is a big science fiction fan and notes that replacing food is a common trope of the genre.
“There’s the syntho steaks in Stranger in a Strange Land [by Robert A Heinlein] and the food pill in The Jetsons. In The Dispossessed [by Ursula K Le Guin] actually people use algae. I think that was a little prophetic.”
One of the ingredients in Soylent is oil from algae. Rhinehart considers it a wonder plant.
“You wait years for a cow to grow, months and months for a soya bean to grow, algae can not just grow but double within hours!” He thinks one day we will have personal algae gardens.
Soylent’s closest sci-fi link is slightly unfortunate. In the 1973 Charlton Heston movie Soylent Green, “soylent” is the name given to a future food source that turns out to be manufactured from human beings. Despite more humdrum ingredients – extracts from soy and beets are among the main ones – Rhinehart’s product has drawn plenty of criticism from nutritionists, who say something is lost when forgoing natural food.
Its creator has none of it. “Thermodynamics states that all energy is of the same kind, it exists in different forms. Who’s to say that something is natural or unnatural, or natural or synthetic, or whole food or non-whole food?”
This sounds more like physics than food science, but then Rhinehart is an electrical engineer by training. He studied at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he grew up. His nutritional knowledge is self-taught. I ask whether Soylent’s “genetically modified” label is legally prescribed.
“It’s a point of pride,” he answers, swigging a Coca-Cola. “It may be one day for legal reasons but I think that’s just silly . . .
“It’s naive to think that the food that we eat is, quote unquote, ‘natural’ or ‘sacred’. Can you imagine a stalk of corn surviving in the wild, in the forest? Food did not evolve to feed us. We steered its evolution [through] selective breeding over generations and generations. Look at the corn genome now – it’s a complete mess. It’s only recently that it was sequenced, because it’s such a Frankenstein of all these different plants.”
He is similarly animated about organic food.
“It is a little frustrating to see this organic lobby telling people not to use synthetic fertilisers [and] to use all-natural cow manure. Why would you have one of the greatest inventions to come and grace community and turn up your nose? I don’t understand it.”
I suggest that, since we are always discovering new effects of foods, his concoction might miss out some beneficial nutrients – certain plant chemicals have been linked to lower rates of prostate cancer and diabetes, for example.
“We have run a clinical trial, the results of which will be released later this year,” he reveals. The only glimpse he’ll give into the findings, which he wants published in a peer-reviewed journal, is: “definitely not terrible”.
Much the same might be said of the food. It is average café fare at best, though it seems harsh to complain given the wonderfully zany location.
I mention the difficulties experienced by another radical start-up, Theranos, which failed to back up its claims to provide a revolutionary blood testing kit – just a finger prick for those who hate needles – and is now the subject of an investigation by US prosecutors examining whether it misled investors. Rhinehart has previously extolled Theranos’s virtues and, even now, says: “It’s too easy to criticise in hindsight. It was a very promising idea.”
The Theranos investigation was sparked by reporting in the Wall Street Journal but Rhinehart does not keep up with the news, he says. I ask if he will at least vote in November’s presidential election.
“Probably not. I can’t stand all the coverage. I don’t have a TV. I’d rather study. I study my textbooks rather than get wrapped up in all that drama.
“Humans have this novelty bias where they think that new information is somehow more relevant, but most of the information generated in a day is noise and what’s really important is the patterns that have held true through generations. I feel like I could be reading a philosophy book that has held true for centuries or I could get stressed out by what’s on the news today.”
Off the grid
One foot in the future and one foot in the past seems to sum up Rhinehart. His latest project is building a home in Los Angeles, off the grid. This is surprisingly possible in one of the world’s most urban environments. He found disused land in an unfashionable part of town and plonked a shipping container in it, which he now lives in.
This might be eccentric but it’s not a millionaire’s whimsy. The land was cheap because it is not served by electricity or water; the shipping container was $1,500. Rhinehart proudly says he is not wealthy – whatever his paper worth, he draws a fairly modest salary.
“Do you wanna see a picture?” he says, passing me his phone. “The only drawback is the area’s still a little rough, so it got graffitied.”
The container’s power is solar-generated. Of course there is no need for a kitchen. Rhinehart is currently relying on a “Porta Potty” but has hopes for advances in new toilets that vaporise waste. He once tried to save water by taking an antibiotic to minimise trips to the toilet. “I massacred my gut bacteria,” he wrote in his blog.
I ask if we all need to take such radical steps on water conservation. “I don’t think that’s necessary. But I was being the guinea pig just to see what’s possible. Think about all the infrastructure that goes into sewage. I think it has a lot to do with the cost of the city in general.”
Surprisingly for a sustainability guru in drought-stricken California, Rhinehart is not censorious about individuals’ water consumption. “It’s agriculture that’s using all the water. I don’t see the point of telling people to take shorter showers.”
We are on to our multiple desserts by now but I realise that I forgot to pick up a spoon for my pie. Reassured to see Rhinehart gamely chopping into his cheesecake with his mashed potato-smeared fork, I use my hands instead. Rhinehart, who usually has Soylent for lunch, acknowledges that he has had “a pretty big meal. I’m going to feel pretty tired. But that’s okay. We work from home on Fridays. I really like the four-day work week, too. I think that’s going to catch on over time.”
This might be the real rebellious idea, I suggest. This is a country of people working seven days a week. “But do they need to? Obviously you need to communicate, you need to meet, you need to collaborate, but really creative work comes from states of flow and concentration, and it’s really hard to get into that and it’s really easy to become distracted from that. I think having that flexible day allows people to increase the chance of entering that creative flow, and that’s good for them and it’s good for the business.”
His lifestyle is fascinating. Does he share his shipping container with anyone? “I like to share it,” he says in such a guileless way that I can’t tell if this is sexual bravado or not.
Is there a partner? I prompt.
“That’s too personal,” he says.
I remind him that it’s a personal interview.
“I mean for the past few years I’ve mostly been entirely focused on work. But now the company’s pretty stable so I have been seeing someone. She’s great.”
Does she appreciate your lifestyle? “She . . . I wouldn’t say embraces but definitely supports.” Is she a Soylent drinker? “I don’t think so.”
This is not just prying on my part. The previous evening, as my family ate a cooked meal while I opened a bottle of Soylent for myself, I wondered how much of its appeal is confined to single young people, perhaps not too dissimilar to Rhinehart himself. The idea of families sitting around drinking their individual Soylent bottles seemed somewhat dystopian.
“That’s not exactly the future I want,” says Rhinehart, though he says busy parents are big customers. “Kids apparently love it. I hear a lot of them flavour it, so we may come out with flavoured versions.”
He seems torn on how far to alter the formula that has sustained the company this far.
“I do like the simplicity of the one product. We’ll probably expand in time, though. Maybe people would cook more if they could do things a little differently. Maybe, functionally, a new ingredient would allow that. People are still using eggs and milks and bread. When were those invented? People upgrade their iPhones every couple of years but we’re still eating the same foods that our ancestors did.”
Will he get the chance to develop more future foods? The mood has soured in the past 12 months among other start-ups. The pessimists think the surge in private valuations is overheated, recalling the 2000 dotcom bubble, and it could become much harder to raise money.
“This is why I can’t read the news,” says Rhinehart. “I just want to focus on building a great company. I don’t want to worry about other people complaining about prices. I don’t want to get wrapped up in all that. Is anyone going to die if banks have less money? I don’t see what all the drama is about.”
The repercussions of another bust would hurt all start-ups, I suggest. Rhinehart would not be able to ignore the consequences.
“Sure I could,” he says. “I’ll stock my shipping container with Soylent. I’ll be fine.” - (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016)