When Silicon Valley meal replacement powder Soylent was first launched, its founder Rob Rhinehart went viral with his self-inflicted challenge to survive only on the substance mixed with water for 30 days. Rhinehart survived, and Soylent generated a phenomenal $1.5 million in pre-orders after completing a successful crowdfunding campaign. But an unmitigated PR disaster soon
When Silicon Valley meal replacement powder Soylent was first launched, its founder Rob Rhinehart went viral with his self-inflicted challenge to survive only on the substance mixed with water for 30 days. Rhinehart survived, and Soylent generated a phenomenal $1.5 million in pre-orders after completing a successful crowdfunding campaign.
But an unmitigated PR disaster soon followed when its early adopters started experiencing nausea and diarrhoea, leading to the company removing the ‘Algal flour’ ingredient the company believed was making people ill. However, a Vice investigation found rats and mould in a warehouse where the early products were being made.
Perhaps understandably, the viral stunt, the illnesses and the rats struck a blow to the nascent brand.
Despite all this, the company, along with its new suite of products, claims it has a “near-cult” following within the US – with grassroots advocates who are keen and loyal users. In September, Soylent launched in Britain, targeting “gamers” as a key market, a segment that according to popular stereotypes might be swept up in clan raids or otherwise lengthy marathon sessions, skipping meals in the process.
Andrew Thomas, VP of brand marketing for the company, was not shy about discussing the company’s torrid beginnings when he talked with Techworld by phone – nor the firm’s distinctly Malthusian roots concerning its outlook on global food production.
The Silicon Valley founders, he says, were inspired by their own inadequate diet of frozen pizzas and takeaway as much as they were inspired by the book Make Room Make Room by Harry Harrison, which was adapted into 1973’s Soylent Green – the cult film where Charlton Heston hysterically announces that the titular foodstuff was made of people.
“[The book] talks about overpopulation and what the world will face if there’s not enough food for everyone,” Thomas says. “The UN is estimating there’s going to be 9.7 billion people on the planet by the year 2050, and our current food supply is not equipped.”
There is, of course, more than enough food to go around the planet were it to be planned rationally.
“That’s the great thing about Soylent,” adds Thomas. “We are all about human ingenuity and we actually believe that when you leverage science and technology mankind can accomplish and overcome any challenge… so we agree there’s ways to do it. The way we are currently structured and the way we currently treat food, there’s some stats out there that we waste 40 percent of the food we supply.”
Whether this fundamental shift in thinking on food waste can be achieved by a startup selling £40 12-packs of the 400 calorie-a-bottle liquid is up for debate.
But that is, Thomas says, a segue into the company’s mission today: “Our vision is to change the way the world looks at food. We want to eliminate unhealthy, unsustainable expensive food voids for people – food voids being those moments when you don’t have access to the nutrition that you need.
“We don’t want to be doom and gloom about the stats, but we do want to be progressive in our thinking and do want to be thought leaders in saying ‘hey, let’s bring these communities together and find solutions for these problems.'”
The drink, which Thomas describes as “engineered to be nutritionally complete” with “36 essential vitamins and nutrients” found a “grassroots” crossover between technology entrepreneurs and gamers in the USA, and so is targeting the same demographic here in the UK.
The bottles are designed for people in “those moments where you feel you don’t have a better option and you’re somewhat forced into a bad decision,” although Thomas adds that the company doesn’t like to say it is replacing any food – even junk food – and that it is just trying to provide a “better alternative” to unhealthy eating.
The LA-headquartered business employs 60 people, many of them sales associates dotted around the USA. Next the company hopes to cultivate a similar kind of grassroots brand loyalty that it claims to have fostered in America.
Three flavours are currently available on Amazon and the firm hopes to offer more products in Britain soon, which could mean more varieties of the drink or the powder itself.
In Britain, Huel successfully marketed itself as an alternative to unhealthy fast food, and in 2018 was making £14 million a year, and has positioned the powder as an accoutrement to the arsenal of the average gym-goer.
The UK market, then, might well be ripe for this kind of product. Thomas believes that some of the competition is “pretty good” but that the “ones that are of a better quality or better taste resemble where our company was four or five years ago”.
“We at Soylent intentionally designed our original product to be neutral so you wouldn’t fatigue of the flavour,” he says. “So I think a lot of the people who are doing a good job out there have taken the same approach.”
When we ask Thomas about the initial reaction in Britain he wouldn’t discuss sales but does say that the coverage in the press had been “overwhelmingly positive for us” – despite a recent Guardian article that described the mixture as everything that was wrong with the modern world.
“There’s some people who tend to go back to the early Soylent days where they’ve read blogs about, ‘oh is Soylent trying to replace all food’ and ‘Soylent hates food’ … we’ll get some of the negative comments and coverage there, but we are happy to talk about those things, our history, and where we’re going.”
On a recent UK Tech Weekly podcast by IDG, where Soylent’s CEO was originally scheduled to appear, our panel of taste testers had varying reactions – from being repelled by the drink to describing it as “better than Huel”.
“In general we have seen some of that and I think that’s to be expected,” says Thomas on our mixed reaction to the products. “People really like food and any inkling that someone is trying to come in and be this dystopian replacement for food – look, I get it, I understand why people might have a visceral initial reaction. That’s why we’re willing to have this conversation.”
Do Thomas and his colleagues at Soylent headquarters like the drink? He insists that yes, they do, and that there’s even some gentle ribbing in the office about each other’s preferred flavours. He says that he drinks on average “one and a half a day” and that when he doesn’t have time to grab lunch he’ll drink a Soylent.
“You can see people throughout the office frequently consuming them,” he says.
The company, which has raised over $72 million in venture funding, is not seeking further capital at this time, but does have plans to broaden out its business model beyond the products, including an at-present nebulous ‘platform’.