Three years ago I drove across the United States because I was looking for something. I wanted to join a community of benevolent technologists, laboring for the betterment of society at large. What I found were startups serving startups. I found billions of dollars of private education building apps. I found people with PhD’s eating organic, as if they were afraid of fertilizer. It frustrated me to see the fruits of engineering siloed in redundant electronics and digital advertisements, and it frustrated me to see food siloed from the culture of progress. Why did a tomato cost as much as a million transistors? Why have all our products gotten better and cheaper but food has gotten worse? Perhaps it doesn’t have to. Perhaps the food industry could leverage the forces of science and technology, rather than fighting them. And if it did, what sort of world could we create?
Two years ago today I decided to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt. I theorized that food and the body were reducible and a novel foodstuff could be superior to that which was naturally occurring. Three months of “Soylent” produced a remarkably healthy physiology, and continues to do so years out. Next, while the systemic advantages were obvious, I theorized that there would be consumer demand for such a product. Perhaps food focused on function, simplicity, and transparency would be a relief to a consumer burdened by a vain, frantic, confusing food market and culture. Turns out it was a good bet, and, while profitable, our growth has continued to accelerate and having more resources for expansion and research seemed logical. We are honored to accept an investment of $20 million led by Andreessen Horowitz, who has been behind us the whole way, with participation from Lerer Ventures, Index Ventures, and David Friedberg. Chris Dixon is joining our board. The money will be used to expand manufacturing and invest more in research.
However, the most beautiful theory can crumble under the weight of a single experiment, and the brightest idea can fizzle overnight if packaged in a subpar product. Making and shipping a million of anything is non-trivial, and yet we went from an idea to a shipped hardware product in barely a year, even achieving multiple iterations since. This is largely thanks to our COO, the indispensable Matthew Cauble. CTO John Coogan built an e-commerce powerhouse overnight, CMO David Renteln does the work of 10 men, and Julio Miles is the Steve Wozniak of branding. Without my friends I am nothing.
Similarly, Soylent would be a mere shell of a company without the support of our fantastic community. The patience and passion of our users gives our work meaning on a daily basis, and gives us the drive to do better all the time.
What is it that we have made? Quality without luxury. The world’s most useful and popular products are deceptively cheap and simple, deftly abstracting away volumes of complexity. This is the dream of Soylent, to be so useful it is taken for granted, like tap water or climate control.
The insatiable demand for Soylent is telling. Consumers demand and deserve a food system that is more transparent and more practical. Producers deserve the ability to develop and use new technologies and tools to improve their production. The environment deserves more than a modicum of long term thinking.
Like life, culture is in a constant state of evolution. Today cooking is manufacturing. Tomorrow it will be art. Domestic kitchens will go the way of the loom; the grocer the way of the bank teller. Dishes will be for satellites.
It doesn’t end there. The entire protestant ethic underpinning capitalism stands atop the inefficiency of food production. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat”. Shoving the largely unsavory business of food on to the weak was the genesis of social stratification. Suppose we were fed from the eternal bounty of the sun, tireless fusion reactions creating all the energy we will ever need, structured, automatically, by the machines tailored to our exact requirements..
Look to history. The market, and most physical systems, obey the principle of least action. Why hunt for food when the food comes to you? Why go to the store when you can order online? Why order when you can subscribe? The automation of basic tasks frees the mind to focus on higher arts.
Humans are distinct from animals in that we possess the ability to increase our means within a single generation. The automation of food production is distinctly and proudly part of our lot as an intelligent species. Cows don’t seem to mind chewing all day, ruminants who never ruminate. Only humans have developed processing, agriculture, pasteurization, and fortification, all of which began with reflection and ended with serialization.
Food tradition is often upheld as an inalienable part of humanity or society. This is backwards. Society as we know it would not exist without food processing and humanity is unique in its capacity to break free of tradition. To structure is human.
We have successfully structured communications networks and antibiotics. Why are we putting up with the waste and violence of agriculture? Agriculture butchers billions of animals, covers over a third of the earth’s habitable land and uses 80% of our water supply. Every year. One day the vast swaths of polluted land will be free. Our Anthropocene will be beautiful, peaceful, and healthy.
The future of food is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it. In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer microorganisms. Genetic engineering to enhance our microbiome, and eventually ourselves. I don’t know who was the first farmer, but I want to be the last. We will make food so cheap only the rich will cook.