An Algorithm Is Coming for Your Food
First mayonnaise, then the world
by Joseph Bien-Kahn, The Ringer
Nov 14, 2017
The San Francisco–based accelerator IndieBio’s Demo Day is delightfully awkward. Scores of investors and journalists shuffle past nervous teams of founders into Herbst Theater, with its elegant chandeliers and grand old murals decorating the walls. Finally, with the room settled and the house lights turned down, the CEO of each of the 12 science-focused startups in the program steps to the stage, stumbles through a breathtakingly dense five-minute pitch of mind-bending products like 3D-printed kidneys, lab-grown fish, and pheromone-based insecticide, and then asks for funding. The halting presentations are symptomatic of the program at IndieBio, which strives to turn scientists with big ideas into successful CEOs within four months. So this September, at IndieBio’s Demo Day (the three-year-old accelerator’s fifth fundraising event), it was staggering when Matías Muchnick, in a Tasmanian Devil–adorned Hawaiian shirt, gave a clear, concise, funny presentation about the way his company, NotCo, would change the food industry.
Most of the IndieBio companies are speculative (the 3D-printed kidney could be available in seven to 10 years), but NotCo entered the accelerator with a product ready for market. Included in the pitch from Muchnick and his two cofounders—Karim Pichara and Pablo Zamora—was a sample of NotMayo, a vegan mayonnaise currently sold in 220 stores throughout Chile. For IndieBio cofounders Arvind Gupta and Ryan Bethencourt, taking on a company with a product already on shelves was a departure. But the mayo is just one small part of their vision for NotCo.
NotCo’s pitch is a grand one: to completely disrupt the factory-farm food system. The company argues that its proprietary machine-learning algorithm can efficiently sort through a complicated web of consumer food needs (nutrition and sustainability, but also mouthfeel, flavor, color, etc.), allowing NotCo to bring successful, delicious vegan alternatives to stores and upend animal-based markets in the process.
For the IndieBio team, the fact that the startup’s first product was already on the market proved that NotCo could deliver. But the machine-learning algorithm is what really has Gupta and Bethencourt excited.
“So then the key question is: Can the core technology become powerful enough to drive a billion-dollar company?" Gupta asks.
At the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in May 2016, executive chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) Eric Schmidt dubbed the plant-based meat industry the number-one trend in tech. That seemed hard to believe when Mark Post unveiled his $325,000 lab-grown burger to fanfare and jeers in 2013, but today, lab-grown burger startup Impossible Foods sells its veggie burger that bleeds at Umami Burger for $16. The biggest players in the food tech scene have been funded by everyone from Schmidt to Bill Gates to Leonardo DiCaprio; the nutritional and environmental benefits of meat and dairy replacements make the disruptive companies especially attractive to investors. It also doesn’t hurt that the global meat market is wildly lucrative; the USDA predicts China alone will import 1 million tons of beef in 2018...