If you're into the whole “quantified self” movement (wear a FitBit, for one), you probably know Soylent’s oft-repeated origin story: Three years ago, Rob Rhinehart and his partners were a group of techies in San Francisco whose funding for cheap cell-phone towers had vanished. Still eager for success but struggling to pay the rent, they determined that food—both the time it took to prepare and consume it and the cost of purchasing it—was getting in their way. They set out to engineer an efficient food containing all the ingredients they need to live and costing less than the average meal. After tinkering with the formula and living on it for extended periods of time, they started selling it on the Internet.
They called it Soylent in homage to the 1973 science fiction film, Soylent Green, in which humanity has exhausted its ability to feed itself on anything other than the eponymous wafers. (Spoiler: They're made of "people," as star Charlton Heston famously screamed; this product isn't.) The team gained new venture-capital investors, started marketing its product, and by 2014 was shipping 30,000 units of commercially made Soylent a month, leaving everyone from dietitians to sociologists up in arms. Bloomberg Reserve's Peter Elliot spoke with Chief Executive Officer Rhinehart and Dave Renteln, chief marketing officer, at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. Comments have been edited and condensed.
We did an informal study of who would like to try Soylent at Bloomberg and the group that responded most positively were all in research and development. Why do you think it's such a compelling idea for people who code?
Rob Rhinehart: Because the idea is quite logical and practical. Perhaps they have an easier time identifying which food occasions are more for function and which ones are more about an experience where it's more about enjoying the food and company. But anyone should be able to see we need food to survive and its just a number of parts and elements—calories and energy our bodies need.
David, what's the boilerplate on what Soylent actually is?
David Renteln: It's a nutritiously complete staple food that you drink. So it's everything your body needs. It's not meal replacement. You can use it to replace your meals, but we're regulated as a food.
Is it right to say you created Soylent because you were broke?
Rhinehart: It's important to realize that it wasn't just a financial constraint; it was also a time constraint. And sometimes that can be self-imposed. Some people may rather do something else with their time than go shopping and cook. To me, the beauty is in the optionality, the flexibility. You can [cook] when you want to and enjoy it maximally because you are making the choice. If you want something more convenient, that's just as nutritious and you wouldn't have to worry about a lot of the trappings of the food system, especially in the U.S.
Soylent has touched off an existential nerve about what food is, about food in our culture, the value of money to time—
Rhinehart: And about the definition of "natural."
Did you realize you were stepping on an existential cow patty?
Renteln: I don't know that I'd put it that way. It does beg some philosophical questions. The intent is pragmatic, functional, and entirely optimistic. We're not seeking to destroy or replace food; we're really trying to enhance it. If you take an historical view, you see that food is in a constant process of evolution. We're just a part of that.
But you're also offering Soylent as a solution for a lot of other ills than just busy people working through lunch or forgetting breakfast.
Renteln: Some people just don't want to confront their food lifestyle choices on that level, but it's very important that we do, from food waste all across the supply chain, to the prevalence of diabetes, to the fact that healthy farm-to-table food is just not as accessible at a reasonable price to all people. Yes, there are a lot of existential questions and we don't have all the answers, nor are we saying we do. The key is to keep exploring.
It's lunch time. You have to sell the average lunch versus Soylent. What do you say?
Rhinehart: You're serving soup [at Bloomberg]. Soylent does the same thing, but better: It's a quick liquid that's as nutritionally complete as possible and it takes a minimal effort to digest, which is important. What you don't want is this post-lunch crash. It's strategic really; it doesn't weigh you down the way heavier foodstuffs do for the traditional lunch time options.
Renteln: Lunch is one of the markets we're looking to take a bite out of; it's one of the meals that are more for fuel. We want our clients to enjoy the meals that are social; we want to occupy the space where you might be tempted to get fast food, or just not have time at all.
There are plenty of articles about people living on Soylent 24/7, but you seem to be selling something quite different. If Soylent is something you use when you don't have time, how is that different from packets of Carnation?
Rhinehart: Because the truth is you could live on Soylent if you had to, but that's not the application we're trying to sell at all. But it's a salacious, easy story that we're trying to drastically change people's behavior, or do something against how people would want to live. We're not. We're trying to use science and technology to make food better.
So how's business?
Rhinehart: We're up 300 percent this year and trying out and experimenting with new products. We should be in Europe by next year, so ... very good, thank you!
Peter Elliot is editor of Bloomberg Brief: Reserve and manages the lifestyle functions on the Bloomberg Professional service. He isBloomberg's founding food critic and a James Beard Award winner. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.