Just Another Food Revolution
Social Entrepreneurialism and China Expansion with JUST, Inc. Founder Josh Tetrick
By Min Chen | Social impact has become as ubiquitous to startup strategy as growth hacking in recent years, where it’s now uncommon to come across a company that doesn’t boast a social responsibility initiative. Tracing back to the explosive success of TOMS’s One for One campaign, startups have become conditioned to aligning their mission statement to social good as a way to reach and connect with their audience.
Food technology company JUST is going beyond a social impact focus and pushing the belief that social entrepreneurialism is, in fact, the be-all and end-all of their business. Founded in 2011 by Josh Balk and Josh Tetrick, JUST develops and manufactures plant-based ‘eggs,’ cell-cultured meat, and micronutrients to offer sustainable alternatives to the food industry’s wasteful and unethical production methods. The company also takes a stand against the industry’s overuse of low-quality and processed ingredients and its adverse effect on the health of low-income and underprivileged communities.
Ultimately, JUST endeavors to “make good food a basic right,” according to Founder Josh Tetrick, who intends to normalize the consumption of nutritious, delicious, and affordable plant-based foods for all, as reflected in the company’s website: www.justforall.com. In interviews, he stresses time and time again that they’re not catering to vegans or leveraging on the middle-class clean-eating trend; rather, they want to overhaul the public’s perception of what constitutes an egg or chicken.
A video from the company’s website sees a group of people sharing a plate of chicken nuggets with an arrow identifying what is assumed to be the name of the now battered and fried bird (Ian). But in the next shot, the viewer sees Ian frolicking happily on a grassy lawn next to the diners, leading them to realize that the chicken nuggets are grown from Ian’s cells. This message is an integral part of JUST’s vision for the future: you don’t need to cause death to create food.
The company’s crusade against the behemoth that is the food industry, which is infamously dominated by a handful of corporations, seems to be paying off. JUST is a Silicon Valley unicorn that has secured deals with 11 Fortune 500 companies and lists the likes of Marc Benioff, Bill Gates, and Li Ka Shing as among its investors. Even so, there’s admittedly a long way to go for the complete disruption of an industry worth US$8.1 trillion dollars, both in terms of market share and mindshare (Plunkett Research).
At the Future of Food Summit, which took place in Hong Kong on 21 September 2019, we had the chance to sit down with Tetrick to discuss his experiences with social entrepreneurialism and how he plans to transform the food industry as we know it.
Small beginnings, big picture
The automobile and energy industries hate Elon Musk; the food industry hates Josh Tetrick. Having worked in vastly different roles before founding JUST, Tetrick didn’t set out to revolutionize the food industry from the onset, but he did have a longstanding awareness of its degrading practices.
Growing up in a modest community in Alabama, Tetrick felt the food he was eating was filling him, but not feeding him in terms of nutritional value. Following a short stint as a professional football player, Tetrick moved to Africa to work for United Nations Development Program initiatives in Kenya and for former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf–experiences that would mark a turning point for his career.
He witnessed the effects of micronutrient malnutrition on cerebral development among Liberian children first hand, while obesity rates increase around the world. This experience motivated him to want to make more significant strides in reversing acute destructiveness of the global food system, not through charitable efforts but by addressing the root of the problem: the food.
Tetrick says that he didn’t start the company to “shoehorn a mission into it” but “felt capitalism could solve the problem faster.” He goes on: “The inception of [the company] was asking ourselves ‘how do we use a business model to make it easy for a kid to eat?’ That’s why we exist.”
His solution came in the founding of Hampton Creek (now known as JUST). The company’s business model is simple: develop a ‘toolkit’ of sustainable alternatives to what’s currently on the market (i.e., factory farmed animal products, corn, processed sugar) by analyzing the molecular features of some 357,000 species of plants we have on this planet. They would then apply their findings to creating easy-to-cook consumer products.
A notable breakthrough came with egg-free JUST Mayo, a product that led condiment giant Hellmann’s parent company Unilever to file a lawsuit against the startup for mislabeling because it did not meet the decades-old U.S. standard of identity for mayonnaise, which traditionally contains eggs.
Next, JUST took apart the mung bean and developed JUST Egg, which is, in essence, “a bean that scrambles.” JUST Power Gari is fortified oatmeal with 12 grams of protein derived from a soy protein concentrate, and its ingredients are sourced from local farms in, you guessed it, Liberia.
Examples of what can be made from JUST Scramble. Photos courtesy of JUST, Inc.
When asked about whether he knew from the beginning that technology would be paving the way for the transformation he envisioned, Tetrick says: “If there was a way to convince everyone to eat carrots and kale every day, sign me up. It’s not going to happen.”
While he doesn’t feel motivated by financial gain, Tetrick believes social entrepreneurialism and profitmaking go hand-in-hand: “We have a lot of issues: climate change, hunger, social inequalities. These needs require fixing, and you can utilize capitalism to fix it. And in fixing it, you’re going to make a shit ton of money, necessarily.”
JUST’s growth in the past few years has mirrored the scale of change it’s trying to achieve. The company has raised US$200 million to date and has expanded into Mexico and China. But growth is never without its setbacks, especially as the company continues its efforts to take their products mainstream, often against the grain of consumer behavior–an obvious challenge when it comes to something so innate and culturally significant as food.
“There have been times when I thought we launched too many products. We launched cake mixes, for example, and we didn’t have enough time to do the marketing that was necessary to make them successful. Now we focus on fewer, better products,” says Tetrick.
Even so, the company’s goal to take its products mainstream remains unchanged; for Tetrick, “it’s mainstream when it’s not an option on a restaurant menu, but it’s the only thing on the menu.”
Give it to Brinc
JUST’s strategy to tackle the Chinese market as a way to make the biggest possible mark on the food industry is clear. Hong Kong’s plant-based grocery shop and restaurant Green Common was the first retailer to carry JUST Egg outside of the United States, and Pizza Express locations across the city now carry JUST condiments.
The company’s planned expansion has undoubtedly been bolstered by the Chinese Nutrition Society’s “Less Meat, Less Heat, More Life” campaign, which encouraged the public to cut down their meat consumption by half.
To speed up the rate for bringing plant-based consumer products to the market in the region, Tetrick announced at the Food’s Future Summit that JUST has partnered with Hong Kong-based global venture accelerator, Brinc, to launch a foodtech accelerator. The accelerator will facilitate the rapid development of plant-based food products for startups accepted into the program by guiding them through branding, propositions, price points, and formulations suited for the local palate.
“Delicious, high-quality, affordable food options that don’t require animal ingredients will transform the world, and we’re excited to continue Brinc's philosophy of changing the way we feel, move, live and eat while making a larger, lasting impact on the environment and ourselves,” says Brinc Founder and CEO Manav Gupta.
During the announcement, Tetrick said that many startups want to do good, but don’t have the tools to do so. Participating startups will have access to JUST’s toolkit comprising of “raw materials and proprietary data from the plant and animal kingdoms,” and the final product will display a ‘Made JUST’ logo. This partnership echoes Tetrick’s sentiment of having JUST focus on fewer, better products and “the rest, [they] give to Manav and Brinc.”
Brinc will work with up to 10 teams from two cohorts and invest over HK$500,000 per team. Each team will have access to learning platforms, mentor networks, follow-on funds, service arms, access to the Chinese market, and more.
When asked about how founders should approach social entrepreneurialism, whether it’s a startup accepted into the accelerator or not, Tetrick replies that it’s crucial to “rewire how you think about it.”
He encourages startups to ask themselves how they would approach the problem if they could wipe the slate clean. In the case of the food industry, it’s not about making our current food system more sustainable, but asking the question: what would it look like if we started over?
Instead of incorporating social good into your startup, Tetrick challenges startups to “make social good what you’re about; make the entire mission, energy, everything about solving a problem, and you’re more likely be successful because of it.”
Believing that building a company is “not for everyone” and a clear fan of the tough love, Tetrick urges founders to “stop complaining and focus on bringing their business models to bear on things that matter.”
Min is Jumpstart’s Editor in Chief.