There are a lot of surprising things to know about the Silicon Valley food startup Hampton Creek—for instance, that it’s valued at more than $1 billion, that the American egg industry has been very afraid of it, that Bill Gates is a fan, and that its biggest-selling product is vegan mayo.
Another big surprise materialized today (July 17), when Bloomberg reported that the board of Hampton Creek is down to one member: company founder and CEO Josh Tetrick. At least four directors left in the last month, a result of deep divisions between Tetrick and the rest of the board over the direction of the company, according to unnamed sources cited by Bloomberg.
Tetrick represents a corner of the food industry hellbent on overthrowing the meat and egg industries. He’s already pinched the egg companies by snapping up market share with eggless condiments, and his company recently said it would begin focusing on lab-grown meat.
The board members who left aren’t small names. They include: former US Department of Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Bon Appétit Management Co. CEO Fedele Bauccio, Google DeepMind co-founder Mustafa Suleyman, Khosla Ventures partner Samir Kaul, and Horizons Ventures representative Bart Swanson.
Through different funding rounds, Tetrick had reworked the terms of control the board has had over the company. The CEO says he did this to stick to his view of the company’s mission, which now includes expanding into lab-made meats. Now it appears Tetrick has essentially transformed the board into a group of advisors, stripped of authority.
Not all the former board members left on contentious terms, the spokesman said, citing a statement from those who said they would still advise the company.
Tetrick is among the loudest Silicon Valley food-tech leaders who seek to replace the meat, egg, and dairy industries with vegan alternatives—an effort to end a food system they say is cruel to animals and harmful to the planet. But his rise has not come without controversy. The 37-year-old’s unapologetic style has rattled many of his peers and competitors. After failing to use the power of the US government to regulate him out of business, some leaders in the US egg industry once joked in an email chain, “Can we pool our money and put a hit on him?”
“Going for it”
For his part, Tetrick says he takes an “explicitly aggressive” approach to running his company. He wants to sell vegan food to all the world’s non-vegans, and speaks like someone who doesn’t have time to mince words. “I’m fucking going for it, man. I’m fucking going for it,” Tetrick told Quartz in a recent interview. “Life is short. This mission, there is no separation between the company and the mission for me. I am going to do everything I can and use my life and the team here to change things.”
His relentless pursuit of that mission has often gotten put the company in the glare of intense public scrutiny:
- In 2015, Business Insider published a piece that alleged the company broke US Food and Drug Administration protocol by mislabeling “lemon juice” as an ingredient in its eggless mayonnaise when it was actually lemon juice from concentrate.
- In 2016, Bloomberg alleged the company, in its early days, participated in massive buy-backs of its condiments to generate the appearance its products were popular. The US Securities and Exchange Commission investigated and found no incident of wrongdoing.
- Earlier in June, the company sacked three high-ranking executives after an attempted “coup” against the CEO.
- And last month, Bloomberg broke the story that Target was temporarily discontinuing sales of Hampton Creek products following a food-safety concern and questions over whether the company left honey off the ingredients list of at least one of its products.
All the cases have a common denominator: They seem to have involve disgruntled former employees and anonymous sources. Tetrick seems to agree with the observation. “How many people? It’s hard to tell.”
Certainly something is happening on the inside of the company to cause turmoil. And that’s troubling, says Nicholas Fereday, a food-industry analyst at Rabobank. “I mean, this is inflammatory language, right? Coups don’t happen at [stable] companies.”
Whatever it means, Tetrick has ensured he’ll be in driver’s seat at Hampton Creek. Where he takes the company and in what shape it will be when he gets there remains to be seen.