Neil deGrasse Tyson tries Soylent and talks future of food with CEO Rob Rhinehart

Neil deGrasse Tyson tries Soylent and talks future of food with CEO Rob Rhinehart

For science! Hi, I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson
and this is “Rising Stars.” Today, we’re featuring Rob Rhinehart, who’s founder and
CEO of Soylent, a meal replacement product that’s all the rage in the tech
universe. Rob, welcome. Thank you very much for having me. Soylent! How old were you when you started this? 24. Your company’s now
valued at $100 million That was a few years ago. We’ve
grown substantially since then. – That’s crazy
– Food is a huge market. How did you get initial funding to do this?
Were you using your savings to start this? Was it in your garage?
– We raised a small
amount of capital from a startup incubator, founded by Paul Graham,
called Y Combinator and then after we started to get off the ground a little
bit, we used crowdfunding. We raised $3M in a crowdfunding
campaign. Was it the word “Soylent” that was getting people?
– It definitely stimulated some conversation You’re too young to remember the original
reference. I’m a huge fan of the movie and the book. “Soylent Green.” Keeping that science aspect and that science fiction aspect is very
important to me because when you think of Soylent, Soylent Green in the book
“Make Room! Make Room!” that’s a very real problem about population growth and
burdening the earth’s resources. I think we need to take these problems
very seriously and catch them before they start. What are you trying to do
here? We’re trying to make food better. We wanted to see what balanced diet entails
and then meet those requirements as elementally as possible.
– So elementally, you mean sort of molecular nutritional level of the product.
– Exactly. The goal was to
use science to improve the food system. Whatever you put in here, you want
to say it’s better than like the whole meal I just had? I had like eggplant
parmesan last night. Well it depends what you’re optimizing for. Optimize for pleasure — how about that? This may not be the most pleasurable
meal in the galaxy. However it is very functional. Functional food? Right. Ever since food fortification from a generation ago. I mean, iodized salt,
fortified rice, cereal even macaroni and cheese has to be
– Yeah it’s all the grains Nutritional deficiencies used to be
just part of life and now they’re gone.
– They’re gone completely. This is an engineering problem. A food engineering problem. A food engineering
problem and it’s a very complex problem I mean it’s pretty astounding that we
can make something like this that will sit on a shelf without refrigeration for
a year.
– It’s the food you want in the zombie apocalypse.
– Exactly, preppers love this stuff. So can I try your liquid here? You can. So how do I know what flavor this is? We were trying to have something
kind of neutral, kind of bland So you managed to create this and not have much of a taste? It’s really a
perfunctory act Which is very difficult because every one of those ingredients
does have a taste, so to have something ending up neutral is much, much
more difficult than to have something that tasted strongly of, say, mint. So this will define forevermore what Soylent tastes like for me?
– Yes. Some of it reminds me of
Kaopectate. This doesn’t have the
same function. You know what it is? The urge to participate in
this brilliant exercise in food is not bigger than wanting this to taste
awesome. We have another flavor. We have Coffiest. You want to try that? OK, I’ll try some. See, that’s way better. That, I don’t know what this is. Maybe I
want to taste. That’s what it is. You put so much energy taking taste out
of this then why am I doing… This tastes like a coffee, a room-temperature
coffee milkshake. Because first we had to take taste out of everything else in
there so that we could add in something So it’d be a pure thing? And it would only taste like what
we put in there — not all the previous stuff. This tastes like a
coffee milkshake. You did it. I think he likes it. So what’s your science
background because you can’t just walk into this saying I want new food and not
understand chemistry and physiology. Personally I actually studied more
electrical engineering and computer science – This in college? Are you a
rare entrepreneur who actually graduated from college? I did graduate from college.
– (Jokes) I’m so disappointed I know, I lose a lot of credit. All it meant was that
college did not homogenize your creativity? I suppose not. And so once you
have the engineering background you just your science geeked-out anyway then
you just absorb the rest of what you need to know. Always loved
learning. Always loved studying and I realized that I don’t need to take a
class on something to learn it. What revelation that is! That
works only when you’ve learned how to learn. I wish I got more educators like
you. I have it easy because I just look at a camera lens. I’m not there with the
screaming kids. When I see an actual teacher, it’s like
“ahhhh” “I’m not worthy.” No but you were like the
world’s coolest teacher — you know that? You must know that? No, I got good material. The
universe is good material. Is this the future of food or is this,
say, something to get us thinking new ways about food? The process by which
this was designed is a big component of the future of food. That we need to
start thinking really seriously about what the body needs and how food is
produced. Until now, we just thought about what the body needs and we just combed
the earth to put this stuff in here. Now you’ve got this but I used 10 acres
of land, 3 cows, 4 quarts of milk, whatever and you got the full, would you say,
the vertical integration of the production of this in mind.
– Exactly
– You think that’s the future? Absolutely. Eventually, I’d like to get to
the point, and I’m focusing on protein right now, to produce everything with
single-celled organisms. Calories come from from the sun at some point. Plants
take the sun’s energy, then if you feed those plants to an animal, then you get
the energy that ends up in its meat or fat. – Right a cow is just a machine
to turn sunlight into steak. That’s the only point of a cow. But a lot of energy is
lost along the way. So the more directly you can extract
that energy from the sun, the better. Is this one meal or one whole day’s
worth of..
– We’re not quite there yet – Eventually we’d like to get to a pill
– There’s a limit to how many calories you can cram in a certain volume of the
space-time continuum. There is, but maybe if we had some sort of radioactive
isotope that in an engineered strain of gut bacteria to extract the energy from
that and then that therein synthesizes the carbohydrate and fat and protein
that you need. So you’re actually thinking about this? Oh absolutely. So we would
since we currently and we evolved to be 100% chemical energy-driven, in this
model, part of us would be tapping nuclear energy. It’s certainly possible.
Maybe you wouldn’t even need to swallow the pill. You could fit enough energy in
a tiny seed that maybe you could implant the isotope and then the bacteria could
feed off of that for a century. Presumably, you wouldn’t otherwise get
cancer from it? You could shield it. Holding aside that minor complication —
you’re dead from cancer in a week but you’re otherwise really healthy.
– And you’re very well fed. I imagine a day, as long as we’re making stuff up here, where we
understand the genome of every species. Recognize the commonality among us all
and figure out a way to turn some patches of our skin into photosynthetic
surfaces. If you had an ideal surface on your skin to absorb sunlight, it should
be completely black and somewhere under there you put in
– Well, I guess you’d need a few
photosensitive proteins like you have blue-green algae which not just uses the
chlorophyll but also phycocyanin. I didn’t know that. OK. They had
their run of Earth 4 billion years ago. Still going strong. Not what they used to be. They used to be in charge. They gave us all our
oxygen. We are not the biggest changers of the Earth’s climate.
Those bacteria were. Another thing, speaking of the genome, is
that you could, in theory we could synthesize our own vitamins. How come we can’t grow limbs
but newts can? And and why do we need some amino acids we can’t make? Or we can’t digest cellulose and most of the plant life in the world is
cellulose. Yeah you can either have cellulitic gut bacteria… Then we’d have way more methane flatulence… And then cook it on your stove.
(Laughs) The future of food! You got the whole, the whole closed loop. Well it sounds like you have just the right kind of
background to think that creatively. If you had only a pure biology background
maybe you wouldn’t have come to some of these revelations.
– Maybe not. The engineer thinks about a problem
and how to solve it. And I think a great engineer or a
scientist sees that the boundaries between the fields are not absolute. Right and you just cross them over whenever you need to. Yeah, that chemical energy, electrical energy. – Just energy
– It’s the same. So what’s next? You just gonna keep growing the company. Be a zillionaire and then help the UN? Absolutely. We can help feed
the world and in time I think we’ll invest in science and technology,
vertically integrate food production such that you can have an at-home
bioreactor that will print nutritious food directly from
sunlight, air, and water. At-home bioreactor?! Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. You gotta drop an octave. Like George Takei. “Oh my.” Oh, yeah. Yeah! (Laughs) So that’s fascinating. The future of food.
$2 — under $3. That’s a little over $3. This is
under $3. You’re out of control. Best is yet to come.

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