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October 3, 2017 4:14 AM Subscribe
How did Josh Tetrick’s vegan-mayo company become a Silicon Valley darling—and what is he really selling? Mayonnaise, Disrupted.
Peter Thiel instructs start-up entrepreneurs to take inspiration from cults, advice that came to mind when [Hampton Creek founder and CEO] Tetrick told me, after the job interview, that he screens for employees who “really believe” in his company’s “higher purpose,” because “I trust them more.” But buying into the mission has become a more complicated proposition, as Hampton Creek has recently been besieged by federal investigations, product withdrawals, and an exodus of top leadership. Silicon Valley favors entrepreneurs who position themselves as prophetic founders rather than mere executives, pursuing life-changing missions over mundane business plans. That risks rewarding story over substance, as the swift implosion of once-celebrated disrupters such as Theranos and Zenefits has shown. Fans of Hampton Creek say that Tetrick is “one of our world’s special people” who “will guide us into the abundant beyond.” Critics allege that he is leading a “cult of delusion.” Either way, he seems to be selling far more than just mayo.How Hampton Creek Sold Silicon Valley on a Fake-Mayo Miracle
Flush with new cash, Tetrick bulked up R&D and hired seven data scientists, led by Dan Zigmond, who’d been Google’s data chief for YouTube and Maps. While Zigmond gave media interviews and helped woo investors, his team of six Ph.D.s—a mix of biochemists and experts in artificial intelligence—grew frustrated with the paucity of plant data to analyze. The research was “super, super basic,” consisting mostly of mixing and matching plant extracts to see what worked, says a former member of the team. “There was no attempt to infer causality,” he says. “That’s not really science.”Hampton Creek’s Entire Board Leaves Except for CEO
Still, in August 2014, Tetrick told investors in an e-mail that “the application of machine learning to plant biological data is increasingly becoming the focus of our tech platform.” A year later, after Hampton Creek completed another fundraising round, its biggest yet, four of the seven data scientists were gone, including Zigmond, now director of analytics at Facebook and co-author of the new book Buddha’s Diet. He praises Hampton Creek’s ambition and perseverance but says he left to work for a company more focused on data science. “I didn’t want to feel like a sideshow,” he says.
Departures include Bon Appétit Management Co. co-founder and CEO Fedele Bauccio, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Google DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman and Khosla Ventures partner Samir Kaul, said the people. Bart Swanson, who represented Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing’s Horizons Ventures, also left. Lynne Benioff, the wife of Salesforce.com Inc.’s chief executive officer, stepped down from the board last year.Previously and previously-ish.