“If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be in sub-Saharan Africa working on child prostitution,” Josh Tetrick tells me, referring to his leapfrog technology, egg-replacement startup, Hampton Creek Foods.
The term leapfrog technology usually refers to bringing energy and access to the world’s poorest, remote populations. While phone lines and utilities are expensive and resource-intensive to build, newer technologies can be rolled out affordably and easily, without a central distribution system. Think mobile phones in Africa or solar energy in India. The idea is that we shouldn’t make incremental change – we should be leveraging the best technologies of the moment to make people’s lives better.
While many organizations are working hard to incrementally improve the food system, Tetrick wants to leapfrog it. “It’s crazy that we feed the animals we eat more food than it would take to feed the 1.2 billion people who go hungry worldwide each night.” On top of that, he wants to eliminate the need for the battery cages egg-laying hens live in, stacked up to the roof and crowded together in unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions.
These systems are in place to produce cheap eggs and keep the cost of processed foods as low as possible. But as Tetrick was quick to point out, major food manufacturers “aren’t trying to propagate cruelty, they’re trying to maximize profit.” So he wants to make a cheaper, cruelty-free product.
Tetrick, a buff former football player for West Virginia University, doesn’t look like a vegan. In fact, he’s careful to refer to his diet as plant-based, and only mentioned it in passing, almost reluctantly. He doesn’t look like the stereotypical food activist, and he likes it that way. In fact, his history in football, he tells me, is core to his story. He's been playing since he was six, and WVU is a serious football school. When they play a home game, the football stadium, which seats 60,000, becomes the most populated city in the entire state.
He grew up wanting to be a professional football player and thought of little else until an early ACL injury made the already slim chance of playing professional football a distant dream.
So he transferred to Cornell where he got serious about academics and social issues, majoring in sociology and government – he tells me, self-effacingly, that he loved pretty much any class about inequality.
After college he got a Fulbright Fellowship that took him to Africa – his first time outside the U.S. - to work with homeless children in Nigeria and then South Africa. When stationed in Cape Town he snuck into the World Economic Forum and stumbled onto a clean, shiny HP booth touting the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid and CK Prahalad’s work. Right then, he had an “aha!” moment and realized that business could be used for good. But, it took a few more years, a trek through law school (which turned out to be “a big mistake”), and a couple additional trips to Africa before he found the right business opportunity. It was, in part, through the inspiration of high school buddy and co-founder Josh Balk (an occasional contributor to TriplePundit)– then working for the Humane Society helping corporations increase their use of cruelty-free eggs.
Eggs show up in all kinds of processed foods that we eat every day, like cookies, muffins, and mayonnaise. What’s the big deal about mayo, you might ask? Mayonnaise is a staggering $18.5 billion industry (and the place where 12 percent of eggs end up). Balk would share tale after tale of conversations with egg procurers from major food conglomerates with Tetrick. “I get it,” they’d say, speaking about the cruelty and in-efficiency of our current egg supply, the risk of an Avian flu outbreak and its potential impact on the price of this necessary input, “but cage-free is too expensive.”
So, the old friends started thinking – what if all those processed foods didn’t need eggs at all? Eggs provide many important properties to a product like the beloved chocolate chip cookie: structure, leavening, richness, color, and flavor. They contribute to thickening in sauces and mayo. These qualities make baked goods taste great. But, there are plant-based ingredients that have all of these properties, right? If they are cheaper to use, there’s a market opportunity there. As Balk puts it, “If there were a plant-based egg product that had the same taste and texture as normal eggs, but it was less expensive, that would meet a need consumers and food customers have that hasn't been filled yet. That’s a huge market opportunity.” The duo set out to find out exactly how big.
Tetrick's first step was to find a technical partner who understood the biochemical properties of food and how to manipulate ingredients to make them perform better, especially in processed foods. He found his man in Johan Boot, the former R&D director at Unilever. The two went after funding and were quick to secure a seed round from Khosla Ventures. Founders Fund quickly followed along with other VC firms, bringing the company’s total funding to date to $4.5m. Next stop, San Francisco’s hip and modestly sketchy SOMA district where the company’s current count of 25 employees are hard at work refining mayo, chocolate chip cookie dough and scrambled egg recipes.
Though not a scientist himself, Tetrick is the life of the lab, jumping around and excitedly encouraging me to taste the mayo, and more enticingly, the chocolate chip cookies. His leadership style mirrors that of a coach working to bring out the best in his team. He encourages each staff member to tell me their own story, even if they aren't exactly excited to talk to a journalist. When one makes a leavening breakthrough, Tetrick runs across the room to ring a bell and the room erupts in cheers. When another sets out to prepare a bean-based scrambled egg for me to taste, someone turns up the Beastie Boys on the stereo, a clear ritual, while the entire team gathers around to watch and cheer him on. Typical startup stuff, but the energy here is visceral. The lessons about teams and hard work, learned on the fields playing football, clearly drive Tetrick's current venture's success.
Said Balk, “If there's anything about Josh that everyone agrees on, it's that he's single-minded and when he decides to do something, he moves quickly. If it can happen in six months, Josh wants to do it in one month.” When the scientists on his team estimate that it will take a year to make a vegan mayo, Josh asks what they'd do if they HAD to do it in a month. This type of thinking changes folks’ mentality on problem solving.
Tetrick tells me that work is pretty much life these days, and it will be “until we’re earning more than we’re spending.” But that should come soon with several corporate partnerships – yes, with brands you’ve heard of - in the works.
With Tetrick’s help, you might be eating plant-based mayo soon and not even realize it.
Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.