If you've heard of Hampton Creek, it's likely because of the food company's Just Mayo product, a plant-based version of the real stuff that is creating a lot of buzz for its realistic taste.
Sales have skyrocketed since the egg-free mayo hit store shelves about this time last year. Forbes has predicted Hampton Creek will hit $30 million in revenues by the end of 2014. Just Mayo is now available at most major grocery chains, including Costco, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Target, ShopRite and Safeway, and it is the top-selling mayonnaise brand at Whole Foods. The company has gained the attention of big-name investors like Bill Gates, who is more than just a financial backer. He has said the company could change the future of food production.
More than just a health food company, however, Hampton Creek, at its core, is a food technology and data science company. The business has turned to advanced data mining to sort through the 18 billion plant proteins in the world and find those that make the best-tasting substitutes for unhealthier foods.
"We like to ask ourselves the question, what would the food system look like if we started over?" said Dan Zigmond, vice president of data at Hampton Creek and the former lead data scientist for Google Maps. "There are all sorts of systems that we would not design the way they are now if we started from scratch — education, healthcare, finance." [10 Things You Need to Know About Organic Food]
Despite all the success, however, the company is facing some backlash from competitors. Unilever, the maker of Hellmann’s mayonaisse, sued Hampton Creek for false advertisement Oct. 31, claiming the product cannot be called “mayo” because it does not contain eggs. Unilever has the largest share of the mayonnaise market, according to the Associated Press, which is double the size of the ketchup market at an estimated $2 billion annually.
In response, Hampton Creek told the Wall Street Journal it does not mislead customers because it advertises the lack of eggs as one of the product’s benefits. The lawsuit has prompted a Change.org petition urging Unilever to stop "bullying" sustainable food companies.
Based in San Francisco, Hampton Creek was founded in late 2011 by friends Josh Balk and Josh Tetrick, the current CEO. Tetrick, 34, was once a linebacker at West Virginia University who had NFL dreams. When his football hopes ended, he transferred to Cornell University, where he graduated at the top of his class with a bachelor's degree in Africana Studies. He then went on to the University of Michigan Law School, where he earned a law degree.
Tetrick, a vegetarian since college, had long been interested in food production ethics. According to Forbes, it was a series of conversations with Balk, director of corporate policy for the Humane Society, that convinced Tetrick to spend $37,000 of his own money to start the company. Balk would tell him that food companies wanted to be more animal friendly, but needed a less expensive egg substitute that didn't sacrifice taste, Forbes reported.
Hampton Creek, in addition to creating healthier, egg-free foods made from plants, is trying to make food more sustainable by using less water and land to produce it. The company is also trying to make food more affordable. Many people choose unhealthy foods not because they want to, Zigmond said, but because these foods are cheaper.
Hampton Creek, now with almost 70 employees, has also rolled out an egg-free cookie dough, and the company has partnered with the largest food-service provider in the world, Compass Group, to bake and distribute the cookies, starting with college dining halls. The company is working on an egg substitute that scrambles like real eggs. Other products, from noodles to custards — all free of GMOs and other unnatural ingredients — are in development but haven't been formally announced, Zigmond said.
The company's team of culinary scientists, technologists and biochemists, which once included a notable former HIV drug therapy researcher, spent two years developing Just Mayo before the product was released. A lot of work goes into choosing the best plant protein out of 18 billion, to say the least.
That's where data science comes in.
Hampton Creek may be one of the only food companies using data mining in this way to develop new products, but it is certainly not alone in using big data to speed research. Data science is becoming invaluable in just about every industry, from pharmaceutical to auto to retail.
According to a recent study from Boston Consulting Group — "The Most Innovative Companies of 2014: Breaking Through Is Hard to Do" — the companies who are strongest at innovation are three times as likely to rely on data mining and big data analytics compared to less innovative companies.
That's why Zigmond's role is paramount to the company's product development and its ultimate success. He's charged with speeding up the process by using data mining to make predictions about which proteins are the most promising. Texture is key, as are qualities like rising and emulsification, and the right "chew and mouth feel," Zigmond said.
"We need to focus on the ones that are most likely to work," he said. "We are not about building something new. We are about finding plants that exist in nature. We're really a search company, a discovery company, that is finding ways to use what already exists."