Start-Ups

Plant crusade: How one startup is using big data and plants to change how the world eats

Hampton Creek, a San Francisco startup, is attracting support from some of biggest names in the tech industry by using big data and plant proteins to produce healthier food alternatives.

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Hampton Creek makes egg-free food substitutes.
Image: Hampton Creek

That age-old question "the chicken, or the egg?" could soon be rendered obsolete. At least, if it's up to one San Francisco startup that has developed egg-free food alternatives in a high-tech food lab. And it's not just an experiment. Hampton Creek has backing from Bill Gates, funding from some of the biggest names in venture capital, and just lured away one of Google's lead data scientists to do research for its future products.

"We're so excited because this is the first time a food company has created products this way and truly kept a focus on making healthier products that are not only delicious, but convenient [and] more sustainable. And people deserve this...everyone, everywhere," said Josh Tetrick, the CEO of Hampton Creek.

SEE: How big data is going to help feed 9 billion people by 2050

Hampton Creek produces egg-free food alternatives. Right now, Just Mayo, an egg-free mayonnaise, is on the shelves of Whole Foods, and the company is soon releasing a cookie dough, Just Cookie Dough, as well as Just Scramble, a scrambled egg alternative.

The startup wants to turn the +$7 billion US egg industry on its head with these plant-based egg products, made from peas and sorghum. They're also going to build the world's largest plant database, led by Dan Zigmond, the new vice president of data for Hampton Creek.

"We hired Dan to harness all of the data from the plant proteins we screen from all around the world and build it into the world's first plant database library," Tetrick said.

So far, Hampton Creek has scanned more than 4,000 plants into their system, and the system scans new plants every day, all day long. To categorize the data and expand it even more, the startup hired Zigmond and decided to build out a plant database. So what is all the data for?

"We have the world's only plant database," Tetrick said. "Basically, we ... are now categorizing and sorting them so that we can go back to certain ones down the road as we expand our product line."

The company's new office in San Francisco's Mission District is going to be 90,000 square feet, and, according to the company, will host all employees including the R&D team, and a pilot facility for testing products. The move is in fall 2014 and they will be expanding the team within the next year.

Earlier this year, Hampton Creek raised $23 million in Series B funding from Horizons Ventures and other big names in venture capital after a $1.5 million Series A round in 2011 funded by Khosla Ventures and Peter Thiel's Founders Fund. Hampton Creek also has the support of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation.

Fourteen years ago, the global demand for eggs was about 14 million tons, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. By 2030, that's expected to climb to 38 million tons.

Eggs — at least, those in the major grocery stores delivered by the monopoly egg companies — are increasingly concerning for many people because of major animal cruelty and food safety issues. Even the healthier labels for organic eggs are often misleading. For instance: "free-range," according to the US Poultry and Egg Association, refers to chickens who "live outdoors or have access to the outdoors," though it's not any more clearly defined.

More than 80 million acres in the US are used for growing corn and a record number of land use for soybeans, according to the USDA, and the majority of that is for feed for livestock, not people. And as nations grow wealthier, their meat consumption increases. World meat production is expected to double by 2050, according to a report by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN.

SEE: Robot restaurants and sci-fi kitchens: How tech is changing the way you eat

Our planet can't sustain the growth of industrial agricultural production. Already, the agriculture industry accounts for more than 12% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. And with a warming climate, water scarcity, and excessive droughts, water security is at risk.

So, it's not all about eggs, Tetrick said. "We just happened to start off with the chicken egg, and products that it lives in, but that is not who we are - it's just the first step on the path of changing, fundamentally, how the world eats for the better."

The larger trend is shifting toward finding other ways to produce food, whether that's with 3D printing, making lab-grown meat, or using other plant-based products.

The important part for Hampton Creek is making the egg-free products accessible to all demographics and socioeconomic levels is crucial to Hampton Creek's mission. That's why Kroger, Costco, Safeway, and Dollar Tree are also retailing the company's product.

"We started this company to make food better for everyone, everywhere," Tetrick said. "And our movement includes shoppers at all stores. We are maniacal about our philosophy. It's a whole new paradigm."

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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