The world’s most famous underdog story is the original David and Goliath tale, where the young boy killed a giant. Today, the world still loves a good underdog story. And there seem to be plenty of them to keep us entertained. One of the most interesting underdog stories is that of Hampton Creek Foods, founded by Josh Tetrick. But this young David has the potential to become a Goliath in its own right. They claim to be “the fastest-growing food company on earth.”
Hampton Creek Foods has begun a journey to create healthier, cheaper, and safer alternatives to things like the hen’s egg. Today, they market cookie dough and egg-less mayonnaise that rely entirely on plant-based proteins instead of eggs. But their plans go much further than that. They must be on to something. Big Silicon Valley investors and other venture capitalists have put up $120 million to back them.
However good these plans may be, Hampton Creek has already met its own Goliath. And he is a really big one. When you challenge a food industry giant like the egg industry, you have a tough road ahead of you. That industry, along with government agencies such as the FDA and the American Egg Board, have tried to block the growth of Tetrick’s young company.
The Hampton Creek plan
The plan at Hampton Creek is to find substitutes for many popular food items. But for now, the egg is still at the center of their business. Their cookie dough and egg-less mayonnaise are growing in popularity. The company also markets already-baked cookies. And they are working on a whole-egg substitute called Just Scramble. But the egg is just the first food they have cracked. To go further will take some time.
This is about reimagining food. What they are doing is not just incrementally better. It is a fundamentally different approach to what food is. They want to find out the individual properties of existing natural plant proteins. Then they want to mix and match those proteins to use their combined properties for the desired characteristics.
Hampton Creek runs about 30 tests on each protein to save its many properties in a database. The goal is to map the protein properties of over 400,000 plant varieties. For now, Hampton Creek’s research and development team is concentrating on legumes and grains. They hope that the right combination of proteins can re-create just about any popular food characteristics. So, you can make egg-less mayonnaise, for example. You can also make an egg-less omelette, or do any of the other things that eggs are so good at doing. But you no longer have all of the drawbacks and possible health concerns from using eggs.
How do you do that?
The “how” is the hard part. But it is getting a lot easier. Just five short years ago, what they are doing would have been impossible. But with today’s advanced analytics, modeling and simulation tools, technicians can examine the food potential of thousands of plants. The individual characteristics of plant proteins can then be combined for the desired results. The extensive database will provide the characteristics as well as the projected results of their combinations.
What Hampton Creek Foods is doing is reimagining the future of food production. But they are not doing it in the same way as genetic engineering. Here they use only the naturally occurring properties of existing plant proteins. Fundamentally different but all natural. Only because of the recent digital transformation of technology can this now be done. The digitally enabled processes they are using allow them to leverage those technical advances for never-before seen levels of analysis and modeling.
The result is a new ability to profile plant properties. They can now identify chemical compounds that relate directly to nutritional values, but also to the flavor, texture, and color of food. They can identify plant sources that combine to imitate, for example, the ability of an egg to bind or emulsify other ingredients.
A digital transformation to fundamentally different re-imagined food
In this case, reimagining the future of food production means many things. It means eliminating the high costs of raising and feeding chickens in large numbers. It means eliminating all of the Avian flu health risks to chickens that recently cost the industry millions of birds. It means eliminating the salmonella risk to humans and the high cost to the industry of salmonella prevention. It means people with allergic food sensitivities can again eat the “eggs” they used to enjoy. And it means eliminating all of the animal cruelty issues.
This is not just about making a substitute that looks and tastes as good as the original. It is about making one that is nutritionally superior. And about making it cheaper, while you are at it. And doing all of this without resorting to genetically modified food. In only four more years, the world’s population is projected to be 7.7 billion. With the disappointing results and health issues surrounding genetically modified food, the direction and leadership taken by Hampton Creek Foods seems like it may be just in time. The digital transformation has enabled Hampton Creek to re-imagine food that is not just incrementally better, but fundamentally different.
Because of this digital transformation, Hampton Creek is changing the way people think about food and about plants as potential food sources. Because they have adopted a simple, digital approach to their task, they are on the verge of changing the entire food industry. They are about to change the way the world eats. About his company’s likelihood of changing the entire food system, Tetrick said, “I am really positive about this outcome.”
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