In December of 2012, three young men were living in a claustrophobic apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, working on a technology startup. They had received a hundred and seventy thousand dollars from the incubator Y Combinator, but their project—a plan to make inexpensive cell-phone towers—had failed. Down to their last seventy thousand dollars, they resolved to keep trying out new software ideas until they ran out of money. But how to make the funds last? Rent was a sunk cost. Since they were working frantically, they already had no social life. As they examined their budget, one big problem remained: food.
They had been living mostly on ramen, corn dogs, and Costco frozen quesadillas—supplemented by Vitamin C tablets, to stave off scurvy—but the grocery bills were still adding up. Rob Rhinehart, one of the entrepreneurs, began to resent the fact that he had to eat at all. “Food was such a large burden,” he told me recently. “It was also the time and the hassle. We had a very small kitchen, and no dishwasher.” He tried out his own version of “Super Size Me,” living on McDonald’s dollar meals and five-dollar pizzas from Little Caesars. But after a week, he said, “I felt like I was going to die.” Kale was all the rage—and cheap—so next he tried an all-kale diet. But that didn’t work, either. “I was starving,” he said.
Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me.
What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it.” Rhinehart called his potion Soylent, which, for most people, evokes the 1973 science-fiction film “Soylent Green,” starring Charlton Heston. The movie is set in a dystopian future where, because of overpopulation and pollution, people live on mysterious wafers called Soylent Green. The film ends with the ghastly revelation that Soylent Green is made from human flesh.
Rhinehart’s roommates were skeptical. One told me, “It seemed pretty weird.” They kept shopping at Costco. After a month, Rhinehart published the results of his experiment in a blog post, titled “How I Stopped Eating Food.” The post has a “Eureka!” tone. The chemical potion, Rhinehart reported, was “delicious! I felt like I’d just had the best breakfast of my life.” Drinking Soylent was saving him time and money: his food costs had dropped from four hundred and seventy dollars a month to fifty. And physically, he wrote, “I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone.” He concluded, “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in thirty days, and it’s changed my life.” In a few weeks, his blog post was at the top of Hacker News—a water cooler for the tech industry. Reactions were polarized. “RIP Rob,” a comment on Rhinehart’s blog read. But other people asked for his formula, which, in the spirit of the “open source” movement, he posted online.