If there’s one thing Silicon Valley is doing better than anywhere else right now, it’s optimism.
The success of companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Instagram, Nest, Tesla, and others, have pushed people in the Valley to start trying things outside of the typical purview of the Valley.
San Francisco-based Hampton Creek is one of those companies. It’s trying to replace eggs with a plant-based substitute that’s cheaper, but just as tasty and just as good for you. It’s backed by Bill Gates, Peter Thiel (who co-founded PayPal, was an early investor in Facebook), and Khosla Ventures.
When I first heard the idea I scoffed because eggs are plentiful and cheap. You can buy vegetarian fed, free range eggs, so it’s not a huge ethical consideration. This seemed like another Silicon Valley company trying to find a solution where there is no problem.
After I made some snarky comment on Twitter, Hampton Creek reached out to chat. As a former vegan I was intrigued, so I met with the company’s CEO (and current vegan) Josh Tetrick at our office.
Tetrick quickly changed my mind.
I asked him about readily available cage-free eggs. He said, “1.8 trillion eggs are laid, 99% come from these places,” pointing to a photo of chickens in cages, “In America, 1/3 of them end up in mayo, and muffins and things like that, we absolutely want to create a model that ends this system because we’re cheaper and better.”
In other words, only a sliver of the eggs consumed in the world come from free-range, fairly treated chickens.
Optimism from a Silicon Valley startup can sound like arrogance, but with Tetrick it sounded like confidence.
His company has a research and development team filled with biochemists. “These people know nothing about food. They know about protein structure,” says Tetrick. They’ve looked at 1,500 plants on a molecular level. They then break down the proteins in those plants to replicate what eggs can do.
The benefit of this approach is that Hampton Creek can be iterative. So, it can make a plant-based mayonnaise 1.0, then mayo 2.0, and so on, just like Apple does with iPhone software.
Animal products like eggs, on the other hand, Tetrick notes, are what they are: “They’re good, but they’re not getting any better, there’s not an iterative process.”
Right now, Hampton Creek sells mayo in plain, chipotle, and sriracha flavours. All three are good. I tried them on pretzels. It also sells an edible cookie dough, which is also tasty. Sure, you could eat raw cookie dough with eggs in it, but it’s risky because of salmonella.
Its mayo is used for pre-made chicken and tuna salad in some Whole Foods. “It has nothing to do with tasting vegan, or being vegan, it just has to do with being a good mayo,” says Tetrick.
He’s also focused on making his product low-cost. “We have no interest in being looked at as a premium product, we always want to undercut the competition.” He says his egg substitute is 48% cheaper than eggs. He also says he’s profitable at current prices.
As for why Silicon Valley investors are interested in Hampton Creek, Tetrick says, “they look at the inefficiency of [the egg industry], it’s like, I’m investing in iPhone technology where I can monitor my heart rate, and these f–king eggs are coming from rusty cages with chickens shitting all over each other?”
He adds, “For some reason, innovation decided to pass food along the side of the road. And yet there is this incredible innovation — at least in some part — in energy, in software, in mobile, across the board, and we’re still getting our eggs from chickens crammed in rusty cages? Savvy investors like Bill Gates, Peter Thiel, and Vinod Khosla look at this and they think it’s f–king bizarre. They think it’s antiquated 19th century technology for a world that requires more.”
Hampton’s next major product under development is going to be its real game changer. It is working on making an egg substitute that scrambles up just like normal eggs. It’s working on the taste of the scrambled egg right now. “We’re going to get there,” says Tetrick.
Once that happens, it’s a major shift for Hampton Creek.
“For what ever reason our society has gotten stuck on this notion of animal protein the paradigm by which we do things,” he says. “Selecting plant proteins isn’t a vegan thing, it can be, let’s save some money and demolish a rotting industry thing.”
His big vision is to get his Dad, a non-vegan, to not feel weird about picking a plant-based egg: “I want my dad to walk into Piggly Wiggly and see a dozen eggs for $US1.50 and see ours for $US0.49 and say, ‘Give me that.'”