Rob Rhinehart on the a16z Podcast: The Future of Food


I’d recommend giving that a listen if you get the chance. Rob was very articulate and gave a great interview, represented the community very well, and gave discourse a shout-out. Hi Rob, :wave:.


A couple highlights for people who are likely to have heard the usual Soylent pitch before:

Rob: The goal is total vertical integration. I think we could, in theory, make everything, including the bottle, out of microorganisms that have been engineered to produce these components far more efficiently than traditional processes.

Rob: It [Rob’s envisioned food system of the future] is something that would work just as well on Mars or in space as on Earth. I mean, the inputs are the same, you know, you need CO2 and you need energy which can come from light, and you need water which you can recycle. I would like to make food without burdening the Earth’s resources whatsoever, and I think it’s totally possible.

Rob: Bioreactors. These beautiful big photobioreactors. You know, spheres or, or columns–
Chris: Big blue glowing orbs. We’re going to have a bunch of them in downtown LA and you can go tour and see these beautiful blue orbs.
Rob: Um, exactly, yeah. Going to the Soylent factory in LA in a few years, people are going to come from all over the world to see these giant blue glowing orbs.

Rob: Imagining a modular system where instead of, you know, one huge tank that could fail, you have many many smaller ones. And, in fact, in the future I think they may be efficient enough that anyone could have their own. … Just like the Mr. Fusion, I think we could have the Mr. Soylent sitting on your counter, or you could put it on your porch and it gets sunlight or you have your solar panel which powers your LEDs and, uh, you know the fundamentals; there’s certainly no physical limit that would make this impossible.

So they’ve been putting some more thought into bioreactors. “A few years” is probably extremely optimistic, but I’ll be looking forward to it whenever they figure it out.

Rob: One thing we are working on is called an “RUTF”, a Ready to Use Therapeutic Food, which is kind of like a paste. So, it’s between the powder and the drink so that it is ready to consume but it’s cheaper to ship because it doesn’t have as high moisture content. And, the World Health Organization has a nutrition standard around this that we can just meet and from there we try to make it as low cost as possible, and for that we’re trying to get it down to one dollar per day.

From what I can tell, RUTFs aren’t typically designed to be something the general population should live off of, instead being focused on helping malnourished people (specifically children) get back on their feet. But if it’s not too much more difficult, a paste with the same nutritional content as current Soylent that they can sell and ship for $1 a day would be awesome.

Rob: Plenty of food is produced to feed the world twice over, so why are so many people malnourished? Because it spoils. And, you know, it’s expensive to ship because the moisture content is so high.

Chris: We should mention one important feature of Soylent is that it lasts, at least, what is it, a year unrefrigerated and doesn’t need to be chilled. It’s not part of the chill-chain, so like a lot of food needs to be chilled all the way through including in the trucks and things which adds a lot to the expense and the energy consumption.
Rob: In the United States, the amount of energy spent on refrigeration is just unconscionable. It’s insane. It’s very important to me that we have a product that does not require refrigeration.

The quotes above may not quite capture it, but I feel like they’ve put more thought into shipping costs recently. I guess they’re seeing it as a good place to cut expenses.


You put a lot more effort into listening than I did, that’s awesome.


A couple things I found interesting. On the notion that Soylent is not food:

Rob: [Soylent] is food itself. This is not the end of food, this is not anti-food, this is another option for food. … A lot of people just do not have that many good options for food. They just don’t. I really felt that way, and I feel like this is an additional option that makes a lot of sense.

Rob also mentioned the current price reduction target:

Rob: $8 a day on the powder, and I’m trying to get that down to $5.

I don’t know if they shared that yet. Current powder price: $1.54 / 400 calories ($54 for seven bags). Target: $1 / 400 calories ($35 for seven bags). An impressive 65% price reduction, if they can pull it off. Keep in mind for comparisons that all these prices include shipping. One of the cheapest meals I personally eat (not often!), and it’s not particularly healthy, is the cheesy bean and rice burrito from Taco Bell ($1 / 420 calories). And I have to, like, drive there.


Thank you for posting this link! That interview reaffirmed everything that initially attracted me to Soylent and has kept me committed to it. It is rare that I find myself agreeing so completely with everything that an individual–or in this case, individuals–is saying. I am a hard core Soylenteer who just enjoyed an absurdly involved and utterly awesome Thanksgiving dinner prepared by my mother-in-law, who is one of those rare people who builds meals up entirely from scratch. This interview provided multiple articulations of why my zeal for both Soylent and these meals are consistent with each other. The doubters (to put it nicely) who surround me would be well served to listen to this interview, but they won’t even listen to me for three minutes, at least not with an open mind, so I won’t bother to ask them to give it a listen.

I especially appreciated the observation about how the anti-science attitude infects the anti-industrial food community. A friend of mine from France perfectly captures this odd and discouraging intellectual tendency. He is smart–he has a Ph.D.–but he simply will not entertain the view that GMOs are fine. Those French have a romance for their agriculture to be sure, which leads to the production of great food and better wine, but it also leads just as directly to pure myopia about food science. Ironically, these sorts of observations are exactly why I am much more pessimistic than Rob and Chris about their goals. As a political scientist, I have been trained to recognize how people systematically think in very unsystematic ways, and I know that ignorance and intolerance drive behavior in very powerful and durable ways.

Soylent is the most eminently sensible new product I have encountered in my adult lifetime, and while it has been and will become even more revolutionary, bias, self-interest, and romantic ignorance will almost certainly prevent its full blossoming. But at least we’ll all get to keep enjoying it. I also like the paste idea, quite a lot. It would be the best backpacker food ever. As in, Ever.


The a16z Podcast has so many great episodes if you’re interested in the business side of the tech industry.

[quote=“austonst, post:3, topic:24402”]
The quotes above may not quite capture it, but I feel like they’ve put more thought into shipping costs recently. I guess they’re seeing it as a good place to cut expenses.
[/quote]Shipping is probably about 1/2 the cost of Soylent.

That said, i don’t think there’s much they can do about it. Not until we get self driving delivery trucks.

Good post. I guess soylent has to throw in the word ‘organic’ on the packaging or the bottle to attract those people i think.

Wait,its organic right?

I think you were joking, but no, Soylent is not organic.

I like the idea of the paste. That is exactly what I was thinking as a way for them to reduce shipping costs (which will decrease the final price you pay).

All you do is add the concentrate to water and viola, Soylent time.
Some people might be inclined to brush their teeth with it if it is in a tube.

A paste form like an RUTF would require a particular oil percentage. If you want to be able to eat it directly from the pouch, it would need to be ~60% of energy from fats. This allows it to flow, otherwise it would be a viscous, sticky paste that would be very dry to eat directly.

Personally I really like the idea of the paste form since the cost should be very low, convenience is high (if you eat it directly from the pouch), and one could even potentially mix the past with water similar to powdered Soylent.

No i was not, i had a feeling at the back of my mind that it might be organic (due to algae and all) but seems like it isnt.

The algae is genetically engineered, so the oil it produces is not organic.

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Thank you for the work you put in. at work can’t listen but reading… well that works just fine :smile:

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Genetically Redesigned Reactor Microfactories. We can call them GRRM.