As you sit down to that that perfectly basted — okay, deep fried — turkey amid heaps of scrumptious sides tomorrow, you may be inclined to give thanks that you don’t live in the future envisioned by Soylent Corp. CEO Rob Rhinehart, a 24-year-old computer engineer by trade, and his colleagues.
“Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications,” Rhinehart blogged in a post titled, “How I Stopped Eating Food” last February. “And we're deeply dependent on it. In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation. In my own life I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming.”
And so, he invented Soylent, a drink that includes “every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras … in nearly raw chemical form.” Rest assured, ye who also have wasted a goodly portion of thy lives in front of a hot microwave, “besides olive oil for fatty acids and table salt for sodium and chloride, nothing is recognizable as food” in his prototype.
Geopolitics and obesity rates aside, the premise for the elixir is raw meat for satirists, as this Mashable parody of a what a Soylent infomercial might look made abundantly clear last week. “Solent gave me my life back,” says one satisfied young woman. “I finally have time to use Google+.”
Then again, more than 10,000 backers have pledged more than $1 million (toward an initial goal of $100,000) on Crowdhoster to ramp up production and create “an efficient form of fuel for humanity for the first time in history.” As in something that resembles a souped-up cross between Carnation Instant Breakfast (now known as Carnation Breakfast Essentials) and Stanley Burroughs’ Master Cleanse Diet (full disclosure: I am in recovery from both).
To be fair, “if you have the time or money to eat out with friends you should,” says David Rentel, Soylent’s VP business development/sales, on the YouTube pitch. “I love food. I just don’t eat 21 nice meals a week.” And in a letter announcing an additional $1.5 million in seed funding from four VC firms last months, Rhinehart wrote, “my mostly Soylent lifestyle makes my recreational meals more enjoyable than ever …”
For the initial crowd-funding pitch, Rhinehart scrupulously documented his own 30-day, Soylent-only binge. That feat was then matched by Brian Merchant (with a few drinks and the juice from one wad of gum thrown in) on Vice’s "Motherboard" vlog as part of a 20-minute documentary this month. He lived not only to write about it but also to report that he’d lost 10 pounds — “healthy weight to lose,” his doctor said — in the process. At the end of the doc, he rips into some fried chicken, though, with Rhinehart seemingly blasé beside him.
“The documentary … holds an important lesson for startups. The early days of any venture are some of the trickiest,” writes PandoDaily’s Carmel DeAmicus. “You’re trying to nail down your operations, figure out your work flow, meet orders, fix problems, hire staff, and generally get the whole thing off the ground without accidentally killing anyone or spending all your money. So, perhaps it’s not the best idea to invite a camera crew into your world …”
Rhinehart was generally pleased with the Motherboard video, though he offered a few “clarifications” in a post. He also pointed out that the company has signed a deal with RFI Ingredients to produce the actual product, which only has been in beta so far.
Over the months, Soylent has also generated clippings in the likes of the Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, Business Insider the Telegraph and, now, Marketing Daily. And CEO Rhinehart is a genial, measured advocate for his creation, both on camera and in print.
We saved the question all you aficionados of cult sci-fi movies have been asking since you read the headline: Why would anybody name a food after Soylent Green which, in the dystopian 2022 world of the 1973 Charlton Heston movie of the same name, is a “green wafer advertised to contain ‘high-energy plankton,’” as Wikipedia tells us, that’s “more nutritious and palatable than its predecessors ….”
That’s because, as Heston, a dogged NYC detective discovers, “they’re making our food out of people. The next thing, they’ll be breeding us like cattle, for food. You’ve got to tell them …,” he exclaims as he’s wheeled to an ambulance after an assassination attempt. “Soylent Green is people!”
Here’s Rhinehart’s response to the question, which was posed on Reddit recently: “At first I wasn't designing it as a product, but an experiment. I like sci-fi and I thought the name fit. I also like to troll and thought it would rile some of the people that were sure to be offended by the idea. The connotation is key because it exposes emotional bias.
“It's a good name. Like the product itself, it's not pretty but it works.”
Time will tell. In the meantime, bon appétit.