It is late evening and biochemist George Bonaci, 27, is standing in the kitchen of the San Francisco technology hub where he works, casually making the next day’s breakfast and, quite possibly, lunch and dinner too.
He puts various protein powders, fish oil, vitamins and minerals into a blender and gives it a whizz. He’ll down it tomorrow as a replacement for at least one meal. It has the texture of raw pancake batter, only Bonaci’s is chocolate flavoured. He says he likes it because he can get so absorbed in his work that he sometimes forgets to eat. “I will have my mind on something and the next thing I know it is eight hours later,” he says. This way he gets exactly what his body needs with minimal fuss and disruption.
Bonaci’s tipple is a DIY version of Soylent, a powdered meal replacement invented in 2013 by Rob Rhinehart, a San Francisco programmer who decided it cost too much time and money to eat. But after about nine months on a largely Soylent diet, Bonaci came to the weighty realisation that he needed a low-carb, high-protein alternative. But Soylent only comes in one formulation. “I began mixing up my own carb-free version,” says Bonaci.
He may not need to be going to quite so much trouble. Since Soylent first appeared in May 2014, others have developed their own DIY versions and begun selling them, providing options they say are cheaper, tastier or better optimised to individual lifestyles. They have names such as Keto Chow, Powder Chow and Joylent.
Alex Snyder, 27, is the software engineer behind Super Body Fuel (formerly Custom Body Fuel) whose products include Schmoylent and Schmilk. I meet him in the company’s new premises: a cement-floored food production facility shared with a jam company in an industrial area of San Francisco. The equipment isn’t set up yet and the shelves are empty except for an enormous bag of tapioca flour but, Snyder assures me, that will soon change. He went into business in early 2014: people were clamouring for Soylent and the company couldn’t deliver it fast enough. Snyder, who had been making his own DIY product while he too was waiting for his, responded to a request on a forum asking for someone to sell them some DIY soylent. He made a customised batch for the buyer and soon other requests began rolling in. He hastily set up a website to sell both standard and customised products (he has since dropped the latter because it didn’t scale). By August 2014 it was going so well he quit his day job.
Of Snyder’s five product lines, which all cost less than Soylent and come in three flavours in addition to plain, Schmoylent — inspired by Soylent – he says is probably the most popular. But he also now wants to de emphasise it in his range. “The name is perfect for what it was, but I don’t want to be known as the Soylent knock off.”
Schmilk, introduced this March and to which milk rather than water is be added, is also a best seller. “It has turned out to taste a lot better to most people,” he says. There is also a high protein product as well as a no carb and a low carb one.
Snyder is now refining his recipes — gritty rice flour is being substituted for tapioca flour – and he has employed a friend of a friend to help optimise for taste.
His customers aren’t all in tech he stresses but he thinks there is a reasonable swathe. It is a good fit: the tech industry likes efficiency so why not apply it to yourself, but nutritionally optimised for your lifestyle?. Efficiency was the reason Snyder became interested in Soylent in the first place. Preparing and cooking meals was cutting into spare time that he wanted to spend developing a new coding venture. He also thought it would allow him to move to a place without a kitchen and therefore save money to start the business. “I just was like, ‘food doesn’t have to be this amazing part of my life right now’,” he says. Now, ironically, food has taken it over.
For its own part Soylent, which has received $24.5m in funding, stresses its edge is its quality control and product development process which includes doctors and food scientists. And Rhinehart famously warned on a forum post on the Soylent website last year: “I won’t stop you from selling ‘Schmoylent’ on legal grounds, but I must caution you it is unwise to enter [into] direct competition with us.” Though Snyder says things are actually friendly – his products are different and he is focussed on providing things that Soylent right now isn’t. Rhinehart declined to comment when asked about his swarm of DIY competitors.
Bonaci, for one, is pleased to see the competition and looking forward to experimenting with some of them. “There is definitely room,” he says. Soylent’s choice is limiting and, he points out, making his own takes time – which of course could be spent more optimally.
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