Something is rotten at food startup Hampton Creek, former employees say
More than half a dozen former employees who spoke to Business Insider say that the company used shoddy science or ignored science completely, stretched the truth when labeling samples, and created an uncomfortable and unsafe work environment, partly in an effort to meet production deadlines.
These are bold claims levied at a startup with an equally bold vision to change the world.
We described the claims in this story in detail to Hampton Creek executives and Hampton Creek's CEO Josh Tetrick. Everyone declined to comment on the record.
A vision to change the world
San Francisco-based Hampton Creek has said it's on a mission to change food by eliminating animal products. Part of that mission is making the egg obsolete by replacing it with plants.
The company's CEO, Josh Tetrick, is a vegan who grew up in Alabama before he went to West Virginia University to play football. After he switched schools and graduated from Cornell, he spent seven years working for nonprofits in sub-Saharan Africa. He first launched 33Needs, a crowd-funding website, before he teamed up with his childhood friend, Josh Balk, who works at the Humane Society of the United States, to find a way to reduce dependency on animal products.
Biz Carson/Business Insider
All of these products use plants to replace the eggs. In the mayo products, it's a yellow pea protein. In the cookies, it's sorghum.
The startup has raised more than $120 million, according to CrunchBase, including investments from Asia's richest man, Li-Ka Shing. Bill Gates, an indirect investor, singled it out as a company shaping the future of food.
Hampton Creek's other investors are big names in Silicon Valley, too. Hampton Creek has investments from Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, Khosla Ventures, Founders Fund, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, and Salesforce CEO and founder Marc Benioff just to name a few.
From the outside, all looks well. But based on the accounts of some former employees, the reality at Hampton Creek is different.
Business Insider was first alerted to a problem by some reviews on Glassdoor, an anonymous company review website. The reviews were salacious, and the company earned a score of 2.2 out of 5 on July 7. (After we started reporting this story, the reviews on Glassdoor suddenly became more positive. 19 of the 44 reviews on Glassdoor came after July 7, and the score has jumped to 3.2 out of 5.)
The complaints weren't just online musings. We spoke to more than half a dozen former employees who told us stories about questionable science, slippery ethics, and a tough work environment. None of the former employees wanted to be named in this article - some signed severance agreements, others were concerned about repercussions throughout the industry.
Not much science
Several former employees told us Hampton Creek is not employing nearly as much science as it says it does.
Many Silicon Valley startups exaggerate about how advanced their technology is, the properties of their products, and other metrics. But many former Hampton Creek employees say the company pushed them beyond their ethical comfort levels.
One former employee called it a "food company masquerading as a tech company."
The company made deliberate actions like hiring former Google employees, touting Khosla as an investor, and putting Bill Gates on its web site, to bolster its image as tech company, a former employee said. As a result, it has likely raked in higher funding rounds and valuations than a small natural food production company normally would, former employees said. It's currently valued at $300 million.
But the science behind Hampton Creek is lacking, according to several former employees. One went as far as to describe it as a "cult of delusion."
One example cited by former employees is Hampton Creek's database of plants. Hampton Creek proudly talks about having thousands of plant samples in a database that it categorizes and analyzes.
Former employees we spoke with said Hampton Creek exaggerated the number of plant samples it had analyzed. One person said that the actual number was below 1,000. Another said, "when they were saying 4,000, it was probably closer to 400. At least 5x less than it was claimed, and that's conservatively."
This may be a case of semantics as Hampton Creek includes the results of third party research in its database. But some employees felt uncomfortable with how Hampton Creek portrayed its role in the data analysis.
Former employees also grumble about Hampton Creek's initial innovation.
The first version of Hampton Creek's flagship product, the Just Mayo mayonnaise substitute, was not initially developed in-house. Hampton Creek outsourced early development to Mattson, a food tech company in Silicon Valley, according to several former employees.
"We just threw money at them, and they came back in the first week with a formulation. It's just food starch with pea protein," a former employee said. "Josh [Tetrick] got this, and he promoted it like it was an amazing invention."
Pea protein is a common substitute for vegan food; you can buy it on Amazon. The company has since developed new versions of its mayo.
When the mayo was initially launched, it would turn brown when added to seafood salads or completely break down in other recipes, former employees said. The company didn't know this until after it shipped.
When it was time to launch the shelf-stable version of the mayo, like the kind you see in stores, two former employees say the scientists only had one month for stability testing - even though the company was guaranteeing a six-month shelf life. "We didn't know how the product was going to react to being on the shelf," one of these people told us.
"It was unsettling. The last few months I worked there I wouldn't sleep very well. There were certain projects that made me uncomfortable on ethical ground," one of these former employees said. "The idea that we understood how it worked was completely off base."
This never put customers in danger - the mayo has been updated and the shelf life turned out OK, the former employees we spoke with said. Over time though, the former employees came to believe that the company was less concerned about the science and more about delivering a product as fast as possible to meet whatever contract was due, which disappointed many of the former employees we spoke to.
"The entire time I was there we weren't aware of how it emulsified," a former employee said, referring to the egg-less mayonnaise. "We weren't able to prove how it works. Josh liked to convey this notion that we had a great understanding of the science."
Another former employee said, "It was supposed to be a science research company, and it's not a science research company, and that's a very big disappointment."
The mislabeling was never in manufactured products, but in samples sent out, they said. One example cited multiple times: The company allegedly added preservatives to the mayo product so it could last while being shipped overseas, but claimed the product was natural without preservatives.
Former employees said the company also debated how to label ingredients and knowingly used more general terms so the products appeared more natural. These employees told us that compared to other food startups and larger companies they had worked for previously, it was always a battle to put the correct label on Hampton Creek products.
One illustrative example: Former employees said that the lemon juice used in the substitute mayonnaise is actually a concentrate, and per FDA food regulations, concentrations need to be listed as such on the labels. As of August 4, the ingredient label on Hampton Creek's web site and on jars of the product Business Insider bought at Safeway and Whole Foods still said "lemon juice" and did not list that it was from concentrate.
A person familiar with the company says the labels have been changed to accurately reflect that there is concentrate. We have seen emails from Tetrick telling his team to change the labels in March of this year.
"It certainly happened more than a handful of times where there were definitely issues that made a lot of people uncomfortable," a former employee said.
All of the former employees who spoke to Business Insider said Hampton Creek's CEO Josh Tetrick knew they were uncomfortable with these practices, but the conversations were overlooked in favor of pleasing investors, fulfilling contracts, and moving fast.
"Once it's instilled in you, that's kind of how you operate. He certainly put it in there that you have to do what it takes to get that," a former employee said.
"Any pushback that we gave about his choices being illogical and unfounded in science ended up putting us on shaky ground," a former employee said.
Employees knew their time was coming when they stopped being a part of the media tours and investor meet-and-greets.
"There are certain people who consistently delivered news he has liked. The sun shines on them. That's just how it goes," a former employee said.
Trouble in the office
The slippery ethics extended to other parts of the company, too.
We spoke to two former employees who claim they caught Morgan Oliveira, now Hampton Creek's director of communications, in a file cabinet swapping out the second page of their employment contracts. The new page of the contract changed the severance package from three months to three weeks.
When Oliveira was confronted, she allegedly said that Tetrick told her to do it, the former employees said. Business Insider has seen what appears to be a photograph of the false contract page that includes both Tetrick's and Oliveira's signatures.
After Oliveira was confronted, the company allegedly reverted to the original, longer severance package, the employees said.
One source at the company said, "Josh said he was sorry in front of the company," telling everyone, "I f---ed up and we will make sure to get better." Several other sources backed this up.
But two former employees who were with the company at the time dispute that Tetrick apologized in front of the company.
Tetrick's relationships with female employees also created an uncomfortable environment for employees - and a risk to the company, according to our sources.
"Khosla would hang me - it is a huge lawsuit" one text message sent by Tetrick in 2013 said.
The text messages also showed that Tetrick thought he could not fire this woman. Instead, the woman received promotions, multiple former employees said.
"It just went along with the whole 'nobody was rewarded on work ability and efforts' thing" a former employee said, reflecting widely held beliefs among the former employees we spoke to. "It was all if you were sleeping with him or if you came from money and have influential ties."
However, Hampton Creek pointed us to another person who joined the company last year who disputed that Tetrick works this way. "I can attest, undeniably, along with many others that this is an organization that promotes based on merit only. I have never seen or heard anything to make me think differently."
In February of this year, two months after the company announced a $90 million funding round, the startup also had a round of layoffs. Including those who left with a severance offer, the company reduced its staff by about one-fifth.
Several former employees who left in February confirmed their departures, but would not comment further because of their severance agreements.
In a high-profile incident, Hampton Creek investor Ali Partovi joined the company in September 2014 as Chief Strategy Officer. Nine days later, Partovi left.
A statement from Tetrick to the Wall Street Journal at the time confirmed that Partovi had left the company, but would stay on as an advisor to the startup. Partovi later told the New York Times that he "resigned completely" and was not working with Hampton Creek "in any official capacity."
Partovi left because he was "ethically uncomfortable with the false representations about its finances and its technology," said a former employee with knowledge of the situation.
Crafting an image, not a workplace
When investors, clients, or media came to visit the company, some scientists would be asked to run experiments on cool-looking machines or using liquid nitrogen to a dramatic effect - even if it had nothing to do with their work, a former employee says.
It was all to create an appearance of a hard-working lab even though it distracted from the actual research that needed to be done, former employees said. Employees were also coached on what to say and how to avoid certain words like "plant-based" or "vegan." If an investor was arriving early, employees had to come in to make sure the office looked like it was bustling.
"When people came in there, when [TV personality and chef] Andrew Zimmern came in, he made it appear like we were doing so much. But really, we didn't have anything," a former employee said.
It was Zimmern who wrote: "Mark my words, HCF founder Josh Tetrick will win a Nobel Prize one day. You heard it here first."
Beneath the meticulously crafted mirage of the company, former employees complained of hazardous and pressure-filled work environments.
The company's first office was essentially a converted garage (an old motorcycle club) and a second story house turned into a lab and kitchen.
"There were a lot of corners to cut to do [work in the building]. You have hazardous materials that the biotech people need to use for research. There's not the appropriate facilities to conduct that sort of research," another former employee said.?
Tetrick's dog, Jake, roamed through the office and was there during our visit in May 2015. While pets in Silicon Valley offices are almost a norm, in a food lab, some former employees viewed it as a problem. The dog had a taste for cookie dough, for example, and ate several containers of it that were being used for shelf-life experiments.
"Luckily, at least that I know of, nobody ever found dog hairs in the samples, but the possibility was always there," a former employee said.
Big dreams, big problems
No one denies that Tetrick and his vision for the company are ambitious. Many CEOs in Silicon Valley cut corners and push their teams hard to "move fast and break things," in the famous words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Hampton Creek has hustled to push out new products, from ranch dressings to sriracha mayo to pancake mix. It has tried to capitalize on its media darling status and take advantage of events like a bird flu outbreak in poultry farms to promote the company's products.
It was Tetrick's charisma and his promises for the future of food, noted in most news articles about the company, that propelled it - and in the end, may have compromised it.
Still, the former employees we spoke with take a less charitable view of Tetrick's hustle. He opted to push out bad or underdeveloped products, a former employee said, rather than telling a company they missed a deadline because the product wasn't ready.
Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch
Meanwhile, former employees claim that the company is rapidly burning through cash. The savings of swapping out the egg - less than 10 percent of what is in mayo - might not be enough to overcome the costs and support the science.
Aside from former Hampton Creek scientist Dan Zigmond, none of the former employees we spoke with were surprised by any of these claims. Some even had written records that they kept during their times just in case someone reached out.
For one former employee, the airing of complaints about Hampton Creek has been "a long time coming." Another said they had been "waiting for this, forever."
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