Soylent Abandons Food Disruption as Its Brand
Soylent wants you to know it's not the same dystopian tech bro food liquid that it used to be. With a new strategy and an updated formula, the Downtown L.A.-based nutrition tech company is no longer billing itself as the only thing you'll ever need to eat again… although CEO Demir Vangelov says a 100% Soylent diet is still possible, just not recommended.
"We've shifted from being a meal replacement company to a complete nutrition company," says Vangelov.
Unlike the company's original CEO Rob Rhinehart, Vangelov brings food industry experience to the business. Before joining Soylent as chief operating officer and chief financial officer in 2018, he was the CFO and COO at Califia Farms, a plant-based milk company also based in California.
As Soylent has matured—and especially since he became CEO in 2020—the 20-person company has sought to distance itself from its Silicon Valley roots. Soylent's goal is not to "disrupt" nutrition, but to supplement it.
This pivot has also come with financial gains. The eight-year old company turned a profit for the first time in years in 2020, thanks to a new formulation, new flavors and a continued focus of premixed, bottled products available in retail locations rather than the traditional mail-order powder the company launched with. The premixed protein drinks are sold at Walmarts and in drug stores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and, most recently, CVS.
That level of distribution, Vangelov says, has made Soylent into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.
To long-time Soylent followers, this move to prepackaged, flavored drinks may seem to be a stark departure from the original business model. The company began as mail-ordered powdered formulation that Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley computer engineer dreamt up in response to his busy lifestyle and the high cost of eating well.
The new iteration comes in eight flavors, including, café chai, banana and "original." (Full disclosure: I ate plenty of "original" flavored Soylent back in 2016 and 2017. It was paste-y, rich, and sort of nutty. It tasted like what it was: Something that was filling, probably not bad for me, and designed by people who seemed to hate food and eating.)
As easy as it is to make fun of Soylent, it's got a lot of things going for it. It's vegan. It's gluten free. It contains 100% of all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals a human being needs. It's a liquid, which is convenient for people who can't chew or don't like to chew. It requires essentially no culinary skills to prepare. It's even cheap—as low as $1.50 per meal in its original powdered formulation.
Jane Burrell, a dietician and professor at Syracuse University, says there are other considerations to make when weighing a cuisine. "It does have a lot of nutrients in it, but it's not a very satisfying and fulfilling way to eat," she said.
"We think about eating as really nourishing your body in terms of the nutrients you need, but it also makes you feel good and gives you a connection with people. It's the context of eating and thinking about your culture and all those things that make you a person. That means eating food that has textures and flavors and smells and brings back memories and feelings."
Of course, not every meal needs to be a culinary experience either. There are plenty of use cases where Burrell says Soylent makes sense. People are actually busy and healthy food often takes time to prepare. If having a Soylent drink keeps you out of the drive-thru line, great, says Burrell.
There's also something to be said for how the drink can help consumers gain or lose weight thanks to how precisely it's formulated. There's no guessing about calories or portions. If you eat a scoop, you know exactly what you're getting.
The company has had success in hospitals, where doctors have used Soylent with patients who are having trouble eating for one reason or another.
"We did a scientific study at UCLA with the throat and neck cancer department. They were extremely happy with the performance," says Vangelov. "The takeaway was that this was the best performing nutrition that they'd seen."
With a freshly-inked deal with CVS and existing distribution channels at Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Target and Wal-mart, the business is transitioning from the first food tech company into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.
Is it soulless? Maybe, but who cares? It's healthier than the average American diet and better for the planet. It's not going to become the only food anybody eats, and it doesn't want to. Soylent is finally becoming what it has always been: bland.
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In this episode of LA Venture, Julie Wroblewski talks about starting Magnify Ventures and helping modern families.
Wroblewski worked with Melinda French Gates to start Pivotal Ventures. For Wroblewski, it was her dream job as she got to lead venture capital investment strategy for five years. One of the focus areas at Pivotal was around caregiving innovation and American family homes.
Wroblewski cites a report from one of Magnify's partners that estimates the care economy at $648 billion in the United States, already larger than the pharmaceutical market. Wroblewski's fund is writing up to $2.5 million checks into companies that will transform life, work and care for modern families.
"I started to see what I thought was a very exciting and still overlooked category of investment in venture capital around the care economy, and family-focused technology and was also seeing a lot of flow and founders," said Wroblewski.
As an investor, she is particularly interested in tools like household optimization that help families be both more efficient and joyful. She also wants to let parents know they don't have to be experts. Technology can help give them access to what they need, when they need it.
"Technology is moving closer into our lives all the time and solving increasingly human, complex, difficult problems, including, how we care for and manage care for children and our loved ones--the things that are most personal to us," said Wroblewski.
"We've seen such a wave of technology innovation in the workplace. You know, we now use so many different tools to help increase our productivity at work, to improve our health and well being in some cases in the workplace," she added. "And I think we haven't yet seen the same sort of investment in innovation move into some areas of family life and household management. And so I think that that's going to change."
dot.LA Audience Engagement Intern Joshua Letona contributed to this post.
Pejman Nozad, a founding managing partner at Pear VC, joins this episode of LA Venture to discuss Pear VC's current initiatives, including its accelerator and fellowships. He's seen as one of the most successful angel investors in the area, and for good reason: he has made more than 300 investments in his lifetime.
"I'm a child of revolution and war and difficult times," said Nozad of his upbringing in Iran during the revolution.
Nozad went to college before dropping out. That's when his brother told him about his dream to go to America. After his brother was denied a visa multiple times, Nozad went himself to the embassy and got lucky; the woman in charge of the process liked him enough to approve him.
"When you're in [your] early twenties, you don't analyze much of the future. And then your risk-takers. I came to America in 1992 with $700 and I didn't speak any word of English," said Nozad.
Nozad went from working at a carwash, then a yogurt shop, to a (now famous) Persian rug store in Palo Alto. Many of his clients happened to be CEOs and venture capitalists; Nozad wanted to be part of that community.
"I was very lucky because I had access to people who normally nobody can see them, but I was hanging out with them at Sunday barbecues while selling carpets," said Nozad.
In his early days as an investor, Nozad bet on companies that included Dropbox and DoorDash. He said he took inspiration as a venture capitalist in lessons he learned from his time playing professional soccer in Iran.
"In soccer, you can score minute one, or you can score at minute 90. Both of them [are] one goal and you can win the game. So, when you go to fundraise, don't get disappointed if you hear a lot of nos, because the yes could be the last meeting after the whole two months," he said.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Joshua Letona contributed to this post.
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