By Ben Nye (Arkansas)
Soylent Green, the 1973 dystopian film starring Charlton Heston, portrays an overcrowded and polluted America in 2022. Its people are starving and living in large, bleak cities. The primary sustenance of the day – small, green wafers made from plankton, called Soylent Green – are mass produced and distributed to feed the hungry population. As the film unfolds, the protagonist Robert Thorn, played by Heston, discovers that Soylent Green is not made with green plankton but rather human remains. The shocking revelation leads to one of the film’s memorable scenes, with Heston’s character proclaiming, “Soylent Green is people!”
Fortunately, this new startup that could revolutionize food and nutrition has little in common with the movie beyond the name. Founded by Rob Rhinehart and Matt Cauble – two Sigma Nus from the Gamma Alpha Chapter at Georgia Tech – Soylent has instead designed a product that provides a hassle-free, nutritional meal with one ingredient: water. Rob and Matt decided to name their startup Soylent as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the 1970s dystopian film.
So what is Soylent? As mentioned, the only step to prepare it is to add water. The final result is similar to nutritional, protein smoothies that are purchased from supplement stores. However, similarities between Soylent and other nutritional smoothies end right there. Unlike traditional smoothies or even meal replacements, Soylent contains more of the essential nutrients that humans need in a daily 2,000-calorie diet. Recently approved for a nutrition label, Soylent recorded at least 33% for 23 needed vitamins and elements found in a 2,000 calorie diet. In fact, Cauble and Rhinehart argue that Soylent is able to serve as a full meal. To prove their point, both are now consuming Soylent for approximately 90% of their meals.
Understandably, this new venture has created a lot of buzz – especially among the lifehacker-entrepreneur circles of California’s Silicon Valley region. Last year, two popular tech websites, Ars Technica and fourhourworkweek.com, both ran lengthy descriptions of their experiences sampling Soylent. Writing for Ars Technica, journalist Lee Hutchinson said, “Soylent worked and my body was able to handle it.”
The company also has its own subreddit on the popular internet site, Reddit. These are just a few examples of Soylent’s popularity among techies and entrepreneurs as the startup has also been featured in Forbes, The Washington Post, Vice, The New Yorker and NPR.
The attention is not without merit; Rhinehart and Cauble think they may be on the way to finding a possible solution to global food shortages and chronic health problems. “By focusing on Soylent as a staple, fool-proof meal, this could do a lot more for health,” Rhinehart said in a recent interview with Ars Technica. “Soylent is supposed to be like an ultimate staple meal.”
Soylent isn’t just a meal replacement; it is a meal – and a healthier one at that.
The production stage of Soylent has now begun in earnest according to the company’s website. As of spring 2014, over 20,000 people had ordered a supply of Soylent. It is exciting times for the startup that sees itself as part of an industry helping to create the future of food and providing a healthier and more convenient meal. “Think of [Soylent] as a new type of bread; it’s good for you and nutritionally complete,” Soylent COO Cauble told me in a recent phone interview.
Cauble and Rhinehart, who moved to the San Francisco bay area shortly after their graduation from Georgia Tech in 2011, began developing the idea for Soylent after reflecting on their unhealthy eating habits. The pair had moved to create their own startup in the information technology and computer networking sector when they began to reconsider their decision. In evaluating their lifestyle and expenses, they began to notice several problems with their diets. “I started looking at my lifestyle and saw the biggest problem was food. I was eating poorly,” Rhinehart recalls. The realization led to a change of direction for Rhinehart and Cauble. “Why am I working on wireless networks? People don’t need better wireless networks. People need better food,” told Rhinehart to The Telegraph in a 2013 interview.
Thus, Rhinehart and Cauble decided to begin a new venture. Rhinehart and Cauble, both engineering majors, used their experience and training in the best way they knew how: they turned their food problem into an engineering problem. “We broke it down to find where the inefficiencies were,” Rhinehart explains. Thus began the research and development of their new venture. Rhinehart and Cauble bought many of their ingredients – phosphorous, vitamin D, and calcium carbonate to name a few – from local supplement stores. In fact, many of the ingredients in Soylent can be purchased over the counter which allowed for significant experimentation in the early phases of their product development.
As if walking out of a classic science fiction movie, the earliest testers of Soylent were none other than Rhinehart and Cauble. For company CEO Rhinehart, this was all part of the process. Rhinehart, whose background is in electrical engineering, compared the testing of Soylent to creating new software products, a process known as “dogfooding.” Speaking about the similarities Rhinehart said, “Any time you create a new product you would try it on yourself. It was a similar approach [with Soylent] but a little more nerve wracking because I was doing it with my body rather than something on my computer.”
After getting over their early fears – and in Cauble’s case, dislike (“the first Soylent was inedible to me”) – the pair began to see positive results not only in health but in product quality. “From Rob’s perspective he had some great results. He dropped a lot of weight that he ended up maintaining, so that was a really good sign,” Cauble says. Rhinehart noticed the results as well. “It was certainly an improvement over what I was eating before,” he added. Following tweaks to their product, Cauble and Rhinehart began to consume Soylent regularly.
After finalizing their initial formula, the pair began to expand their testing, including their family and friends. Seeing the success of development, Rhinehart and Cauble launched an online campaign to help fund an increase in operations. The campaign became wildly successful, raising over $2 million and in the process gained significant media coverage from the aforementioned media outlets NPR, The Washington Post, Vice, The New Yorker, and Forbes. With the new funds, Cauble and Rhinehart were able to expand their operations and began to hire staff to assist them in production. By summer 2013, Soylent was ready for consumption.
During the summer of 2013, Shane Snow, a freelance writer for WIRED magazine and FastCompany decided to spend two weeks consuming only Soylent and wrote about his experience on fourhourworkweek.com. Snow noticed the results almost immediately. He felt better and more alert during the day with one of his coworkers telling him that he was “more wired and chipper than he’d ever seen me.” Snow went on to proclaim that he would happily continue using Soylent.
Despite the excitement about Soylent and its early results, some argue that it isn’t a new innovation. In an interview with The Washington Post, Jay Mirtallo, the immediate past president of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition, noted that Soylent is basically liquid, medical food. Mirtallo, whose organization focuses on administering nutrients through intravenous injection and feeding tubes, added that liquid diets have been around for a while.
Rhinehart and Cauble are undaunted by this perceived similarity. Cauble was quick to point out that although meal replacements have been around for many years, Soylent is in a whole new category of its own. One of Soylent’s distributors confirmed this; Cauble and Rhinehart received word that Soylent would be placed in an entirely new merchandising category.
They both insist that this is exactly what they envision for Soylent. “This is really a new product. It saves you time and is cost-competitive with groceries. You’re also getting more nutrition. Traditional meal replacements are not really meant to supplement what you would get from a normal diet,” says Rhinehart. The point: Soylent isn’t just a meal replacement; it is a meal – and a healthier one at that.
Soylent has quickly grown in popularity. The increased exposure has meant a significant rise in orders and in turn the production of Soylent has had to be improved. Cauble and Rhinehart have refined their supply chain from producer to consumer – an activity that Cauble is especially suited for as chief operating officer. Cauble, who compared the orders they make to commodities trading, routinely has to pay attention to the price of global agriculture. “A certain crop may have done poorly and that may affect the price, but we still have to nail down the price for our consumer,” added Rhinehart.
It seems fitting that Rhinehart and Cauble deal with global food prices: their ambitions for Soylent are global. In an interview with Vice, Rhinehart admitted that his ambitions for Soylent are larger than simply saving time not having to prepare dinner. “Food should be optimized and personalized. If Soylent was as cheap and easy to obtain as a cup of coffee, I think people would be much healthier and healthcare costs would be lower. And I think this is entirely possible.”
The pair is ambitious about their possibilities – and as they see themselves – convinced that they’re offering something entirely new. As Rhinehart sees it, Soylent – unlike other commercially produced foods – will be holistic and seek health first. “I do see a social component for this business; we could provide a substantial amount of aid to those who have struggled with food security or malnutrition. I think this will be something that is a part of many people’s lives,” Rhinehart predicts.
When speaking about their undergraduate days, both Rhinehart and Cauble credit Sigma Nu for introducing each other and for teaching them how to run an organization. “Seeing the way things were run at the chapter level reminded me of a company, especially having a diverse make up of individuals and turning it into a positive outcome,” Rhinehart observes. Cauble, who served the Gamma Alpha Chapter as Commander, added that Sigma Nu helped him develop a strong peer group from day one. “We always prided ourselves on how diverse we were and how our different personalities were still able to come together,” added Cauble. “This showed me how creativity flourishes with the right group of people in the right environment.”
Ultimately, Rhinehart and Cauble’s days in the active chapter at Gamma Alpha laid the foundation for them to create a successful startup. Rhinehart recalls being impressed by Cauble’s role as chapter Commander in 2010. “A huge hurdle to successful entrepreneurship, is knowing that you can’t do it alone … I really credit the fraternity for bringing Matt and I together,” said Rhinehart.
For Cauble, Rhinehart, and Soylent the possibilities for expansion and growth look large. The 20,000 orders that have been placed have come from all over the United States with a few international orders mixed in. Not bad for a company that is only one year old.
This past spring, Rhinehart spoke on a panel on the future of food at the popular SXSW conference held in Austin, Texas. Along with other CEOs and entrepreneurs, Rhinehart spoke to the future of food and the uses of technology in developing it. Like their SXSW counterparts, Rhinehart and Cauble are using technology to improve food products, and if Soylent’s early sales are an indicator, they’ll continue to do just that. “I see us introducing different products, both novel forms of food and products that would enable the user to quantify and improve their health and their quality of life,” Rhinehart says.
For Rhinehart and Cauble, this is perhaps the biggest departure from Soylent Green the movie. Their Soylent isn’t people, it’s for people.