Which comes first: the chicken or egg? If Hampton Creek has its way it will be the egg and the chicken will no longer have a job.
The California-based start-up is disrupting the multi- billion dollar egg industry by providing egg-replacing products, which it argues are cheaper, healthier and more humane.
It produces egg-free mayonnaise and cookie dough and, in the first quarter of 2015, plans to launch a plant-based product called Just Scramble that looks like a beaten egg and possesses a similar nutritional profile minus the cholesterol.
Major fast food chains are already lining up to serve Just Scramble because it tastes good and costs 48% less than the cheapest chicken eggs, says Hampton Creek CEO Josh Tetrick, a speaker at Web Summit in Dublin on November 4th -6th.
“If you are a chicken egg farmer and you can not imagine the world using something different than you definitely should be worried,” he says.
Hampton Creek is just one of a growing number of start-ups that are using tech to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, including the future of food, energy storage, disease eradication, affordable housing and clean water.
Upstarts like Hampton Creek, which has raised $23 million in venture capital to date, are attracting big dollars because they think big.
“We are not interested in marketing to niche groups,” says Tetrik. “We are interested in solving problems for massive groups of people in the mainstream.” The company is starting to make headway with its goal.
“Whereas three years ago we were ready to take down [large food manufacturers] now we think about them differently,” he says.
Tech Is Tackling Big Problems
3D Printed Houses
3D Printed Houses
3D printers are expected to revolutionize home building, making it more affordable and green. Winsun New Materials, a Chinese construction-materials firm, recently made headlines when it built ten 200-square-meter homes in 24 hours with a 3D printer that used a combination of cement and glass fibers.
In Amsterdam a team of architects is working on a 3D-printed canal house using bio-based, renewable materials.
Italian 3D printing company WASP (short for World Advanced Saving Project) has developed an easily transportable 3D printer that can build affordable houses out of natural materials, such as mud or clay.
Thanks to its design, the 3D printer (which can be assembled quickly for use in remote areas of the developing world) can help build houses that are taller than traditional mud huts and the huts dry much faster, making them inhabitable quicker.
Backed by $15 million in funding from Khosla Ventures, Berkeley, California-based LightSail aims to reinvent the power grid to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly. The big idea is to store the world’s excess energy in tanks of compressed air plugged into wind and solar farms, so energy can be stored for times when it’s needed..
An estimated 1.1 billion people live without access to clean drinking water. Lockheed Martin says it has found a way to use graphene, a pure form of carbon that is very thin, to improve desalination. Its technology promises to enable thin carbon membrane filters with holes about a nanometer in size. The holes allow water to pass through but block the molecules of salt in seawater. The breakthrough could spare developing countries the expense of building plants that use a desalination process called reverse osmosis.
“The General Mills, the Kellogg’s of the world, the big food service companies, we like working with them” says Tetrik. Compass Group, a contract food services company that serves around four billion meals per year in offices, factories, schools, hospitals, and other locations in more than 50 countries, now serves cookies made from Hampton Creek’s egg-free dough.
Big retailers like Walmart, Costco and the Dollar Store as well as major grocery stores in the U.S. such as Whole Foods, Kroger and Safeway are stocking Hampton Creek’s egg-free products, he says.
UK grocery chain Tesco will start selling them in the coming weeks and PARKnSHOP stores in Hong Kong are already carrying them.
Food Getting The Attention Of High-Profile Investors
What’s more, “some of the largest chicken egg companies” have reached out to ask if they can distribute Hampton Creek’s eggs-free products, says Tetrick.
Farmers from the U.S., Canada and China are also contacting the company about growing the dozen or so plants, including peas, sorghum and a type of bean, that Hampton Creek uses to mimic the properties of eggs.
Food is getting the attention of high-profile investors such as Hong Kong magnate Li Ka-shing, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Google’s Sergey Brin, Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Twitter’s Biz Stone and Evan Williams because hatching eggs and raising cattle are hugely inefficient ways of producing protein for human consumption.
For example. it takes about five kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of chicken, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.
Demand for alternatives is growing, due to the cravings for protein of an exploding middle class in Asia and ethical, health and environmental concerns over industrial-scale breeding of animals.
In countries such as China massive reliance on egg and chicken products has helped spawn avian flu viruses; alternatives could reduce health risks while providing affordable food options.
Offsetting the negative health impact of diets rich in animal proteins is another factor.
Food scientists and entrepreneurs have tried to reinvent meat for decades, with little success, but recent progress in the lab is now translating into egg and chicken substitutes that are affordable and getting high marks from well-known chefs and the general public.
A burger from Beyond Meat, another food start-up, received a thumbs up from baseball players and TV presenters in the U.S. last summer.
Of course the motivation for tackling big problems is that if you get it right you reap big rewards — and not just in the food sector.
Joe Lonsdale, a scheduled speaker at Web Summit and the co-founder of Formation 8, one of the largest new venture funds raised in Silicon Valley in recent years, says his investments focus on five key areas: transforming healthcare, finance, education, government and energy.
“If you can fix these five industries you can impact the prosperity of the world as a whole, do some real good and have real impact,” he said in a 2013 interview with Informilo.
Not Just A Question Of Technological Fixes
But solving the world’s biggest problems is not just a question of technological fixes. “It is great to be optimists and have faith and believe that tech can solve things,” says William Hoffman, head of the World Economic Forum’s Data-Driven Development initiative.
But “it is important to adopt the approaches of human-centered design and take a bottom-up perspective that will really address the needs of individuals.”
And protect them. In order to leverage fully the promise of Big Data to address socioeconomic problems such as financial inclusion, food security, disaster response and some of the other big global challenges, and build solutions that are commercially sustainable, privacy issues need to be resolved, says Hoffman.
For example, 3D printing can bring affordable housing and cheap prosthetics to economically weak and war torn regions. However, the technology is also raising “a complex debate involving a great many political, moral and financial interests,” says technology consultancy Gartner.
3D “bioprinting” (the medical application of 3D printing to produce living tissue and organs) is advancing so quickly that Gartner is predicting that it will spark major ethical questions about its use by 2016.
In August 2013 Hangzhou Dianzi University in China used a biomaterial 3D printer to produce a small working kidney that lasted four months.
And among the World Economic Forum’s 2015 Tech Pioneers is Organovo, a San Diego, California-based company which has started 3D printing human tissues, including those of the lung, liver, heart, breast, peripheral nerves, bone, and blood vessels.
The company said it will begin commercial sales of 3D printed liver tissue by the end of this year, targeting pharmaceutical companies looking to perform liver toxicity tests. The goal is to reduce the reliance on animal testing in clinical trials.
Bio-Printed Human Organs Not Far Off
These advances mean that the day when 3D-bioprinted human organs are readily available is not far off, says Gartner. This will raise questions such as what happens when complex enhanced organs involving nonhuman cells are made? Who will control the ability to produce them and who will ensure the quality of the organs?
The challenges surrounding the introduction of game-changing technologies are great.
But the good news is that a growing number of entrepreneurs are willing to tackle them, even when it means dealing with complicated legal and ethical issues or disrupting things as fundamental as the food chain.
Take the case of Tetrick, who led a United Nations business initiative in Kenya and served as an investment advisor to the government of Liberia before becoming a tech entrepreneur.
He says Hampton Creek isn’t about to stop with egg replacement in its quest to make healthy food affordable and available to all. He wants to leverage his company’s experiments with plants to improve upon all sorts of things.
But the world will have to wait until 2015 to find out what Hampton Creek is going to hatch next.