Image: Cultured Beef
On August 4th, the first lab-grown burger was subjected to a taste-test. The prognosis? "Not unpleasant." Needs salt, maybe cheese. The same day, Google's Sergey Brin was revealed as the benefactor of the expensive synthetic meat project—that single hamburger, the internet loves to point out, cost $330,000.
Brin's lab meat isn't the only high-profile food innovation Silicon Valley is serving up at the moment, though it's probably the most expensive. Convention-thwarting food products and ideas have won headlines in recent months, from that stem cell hamburger to meat-hacking conferences to Soylent, the internet-famous food replacement serum. Part of the reason that these products are garnering so much media attention is surely because they're being "hacked" by Silicon Valley's bigwigs and aspirants alike.
Last March, Bill Gates wrote that "the time was ripe for food innovation" in a piece published on Mashable. Mr. Brin evidently shares the sentiment.
"It's really just proof of concept right now, we're trying to create the first cultured beef hamburger," the Google co-founder explained in a short film made for his lab burger's debut. "From there I'm optimistic that we can really scale by leaps and bounds." That language should sound familiar.
"The food industry is prime for technological disruption," Diane Gould, the founder of Food+Tech Connect said last June. Gould had organized the Hack/Meat Silicon Valley conference held at Stanford that month, and convened food-enthusiast tech entrepreneurs from around the nation.
You see the trend here: The floodgates are opening, and Silicon Valley is throwing itself into the culinary world. Its leading proponents are applying largely the same approach, ethos, and lexicon to improving food technology as they have to information technology. As with software, apps, and social media services, so with faux meats, prepackaged meals, and nutrient shakes. It's not in Silicon Valley's nature simply to seek to invent a better-tasting lunch meat; these efforts are aiming transform the established food system altogether.
A New York Times piece chronicled venture capitalists' movement toward investing in food startups back in April, and the first major Silicon Valley-based food acquisition occurred in May, when Campbell bought Plum Organics, a maker of healthier baby formula. But the quest for what will surely come to be called Food 2.0 lacked a marquee project—a Tesla, an Airbnb, a Tumblr. Now, come summer, we've got Brin's "Googleburgers" and Soylent, the attention-grabbing food replacement shake that's the toast of Reddit and beyond.
Soylent is a liquid food replacement that aims to deliver a full allotment of a human being's daily nutritional needs. It's cobbled together from basic ingredients like maltodextrin, rice protein, and potassium gluconate. Its founder Rob Rhinehart subsisted on the drink alone for 30 days as a proof of concept. Rhinehart, an alum of the influential tech startup bootcamp Y-combinator, meticulously blogged the experience, warts and all—at one point he experienced joint aches as a result of a sulfur deficiency—and won a devoted following. He's now soliciting data from some 50 beta testers to refine the product, which is currently at version 0.8.
The company, which is based in Oakland, has already surpassed $1 million in pre-orders, and is about to begin mass-producing Soylent and shipping to consumers by the end of September. He's also fielding meetings with VCs, who've no doubt seen the explosive and he's getting ready to mass produce the finalized Soylent formula. His project has also engendered a grassroots effort amongst DIY food drink hackers—people across the nation are sharing their own Soylent recipes.
The end goal is to make a cheap, nutritious alternative for people who don't have the time or the means to eat well. Rhinehart is aiming for nothing less than to change the way we eat; he imagines a future where meals of solid food are largely recreational, and only eaten a few times a day. He also hopes his product will be a boon to the hungry—when production scales up, he hopes to sell a day's worth of Soylent for just $5.
The so-called Google burger is further afield. First, it's a much more expensive, intensive production process, and it's still highly experimental. The Guardian describes the process that biologist Dr. Mark Post instigated to create the now-infamous lab patty:
"Starting with stem cells extracted from a biopsy of a cow, Post's team grew 20,000 muscle fibres over the course of three months. Each tiny, hoop-like fibre grew in an individual culture well, suspended in a gel-like growth medium."
That's meticulous work, and it only got more intensive from there on out: "When they were ready, the fibres were removed individually by hand, cut open and straightened out. All the fibres were pressed together to form the hamburger—biologically identical to beef but grown in a lab rather than in a field as part of a cow."
That the end project was not just edible but "not unpleasant" to eat is a small miracle—and a major scientific achievement. And yet, most people would no doubt cringe at the prospect of a "lab-grown burger." But Sergey Brin's sudden emergence as a supporter undoubtedly lent the proceedings a gloss and respectability that a Dutch scientist and his lab meat wouldn't likely have garnered otherwise—for one thing, it means there's ample financial backing.
Brin says he was compelled to support the project for environmental and animal cruelty reasons. If we can grow a tasty substitute for meat efficiently in a lab, we can stop slaughtering cows (and wasting mountains of corn feed and reservoirs of water to feed them). Like many of Google's other extracurricular efforts, it's
Together, the two projects showcase Silicon Valley's disparate approaches to new products—a basement start-up (Rhinehart's Soylent was a personal experiment first) and a high-risk, high cost, heavily R&D'd venture backed by a reservoir of Google money.
There are a host of smaller, less radical efforts, too, that indicate the trend is poised to spill over. Companies like Beyond Meat are making plays at transforming the food marketplace, too. That effort, started by Twitter co-founders, produces fake chicken meat that has already garnered generally positive reviews in the press. Tim Ferriss, Silicon Valley's self-help guru, wrote his latest treatise on cooking. Microsoft's Nathan Myrhvold is pursuing Modernist Cuisine through food science. As Quartz notes, "His exploration of the science of food relies heavily on laboratory-grade tools such as autoclaves, centrifuges and vacuum pumps."
And it's not just limited to eating food, either. One start-up has built a robot that can make 360 gourmet hamburgers an hour, so machines may be making your fast food before too long. It looks like this:
Despite some obvious bluster—this is Silicon Valley we're talking about here—some of these products stand to impart tangible, maybe even game-changing benefits down the road.
There are, after all, between 800 million to 1 billion hungry people on the planet—one seventh of all of humanity. And by 2050, there will be 2 billion more mouths that will need feeding. How we'll grow—or synthesize—enough food for 9 billion people with the same space and resources (probably less) we've got now is a looming question.
Of course, the fundamental problems with the global food system need to be addressed far more urgently than we need another food product: the rise of corn, soy, and wheat prices is more pressing an issue than the need for meat alternatives. Counter-intuitive food policies, especially those that reward an overproduction of corn and subsidize ethanol, are particularly problematic.
But there's nothing wrong with hacking food. Even much-loathed genetically modified crops may have a role to play in meeting the booming future food supply—and, as per the Silicon Valley ethos, they should be made open source and available to those food hackers, and whisked away from Monsanto and DuPont's proprietary clutches. Silicon Valley would love that, in theory.
Regardless, there's a food revolution underfoot, and while the last few years have been given over to organic, local, and slow food movements—all of which are loaded with admirable qualities—the next major transformation is likely to be paired with a glossy tech sheen and some obnoxious buzzwords. For better and for worse—expect the clashes with food regulators to be epic and necessary—Silicon Valley is aiming to do nothing less than transform the future of how we eat.