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Google's AI firm DeepMind considered launching a food division with controversial vegan startup Hampton Creek


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DeepMind, the artificial intelligence research company owned by Google, briefly considered launching a food division with Hampton Creek, but abandoned the plans amid questions over the value of the project and a string of public controversies.

London-based DeepMind was bought by Google in 2014 and has made headlines for its groundbreaking artificial intelligence research in everything from board games to structural biology. It remains heavily loss-making.

Senior execs at the company envisioned a new "DeepMind Food" unit sitting alongside other in-house projects focused on health, energy, and ethics, three sources with knowledge of the matter told Insider.

The plans were formed in 2016, at the height of DeepMind's fame, and shortly after the world was wowed by its AlphaGo computer beating the human world champion of Chinese game Go. They illustrate the scale of the firm's world-changing ambitions, and the occasional challenges DeepMind has faced in applying its AI in the real world.

At the time, San Francisco-based Hampton Creek was touting its mission to create the future of food, most famously launching a line of eggless mayo and other vegan products and attaining a billion-dollar valuation. The company was blighted by controversy through the mid-2010s, and relaunched as "Just" in 2017. Prior to its implosion and relaunch, however, its vegan founder Josh Tetrick had attracted high-profile backers including, indirectly, Bill Gates and Asian billionaire Li Ka-shing.

Two of DeepMind's three cofounders, Demis Hassabis and Mustafa Suleyman, also invested.

According to one person familiar with the discussions, who spoke to Insider on the condition of anonymity, Suleyman himself spearheaded an initiative to team up with Hampton Creek on a new AI-driven plant-based food unit.

In May 2016, during a trip to Google's Mountain View headquarters in California, Suleyman took a small group of DeepMind employees for a two-day "brainstorming session" with CEO Josh Tetrick.

One source told Insider the proposals presented by Tetrick included a "nutricube" branded as being "powered by DeepMind," a square vitamin supplement customers could add to meals to improve their nutritional content.

A second person familiar with the talks said Hampton Creek agreed to share its internal data with DeepMind engineers, which would allow them to model the flavor and consistency of different products. 

However, those familiar with the project said Suleyman's enthusiasm for a tie-up was sullied by internal disputes over the practicality of marrying DeepMind's technology with Hampton Creek's.

"It was a waste of time," a third source familiar with the plans told Insider. "It wasn't a tech company, it was a food factory."

Back in the UK the following week, Suleyman delivered a business update at DeepMind's annual all-hands retreat hosted at the swanky Grove Hotel in Watford, a suburb on the outskirts of the capital. Suleyman enthusiastically shared word of the proposed partnership with the 400 or so employees present, backlit by a photo presentation of his team's recent trip to California.

The night's entertainment was provided by Rob Brydon, the comedian best known for his role in hit sitcoms such as James Corden's hit sitcom "Gavin and Stacey" and "The Trip" with Steve Coogan.

"It was weird," one former employee present at the all-hands meeting told Insider. "People were interested because they wanted to see the real-world impact of their work. But the announcement wasn't followed by any actual work within the company."

Three months after the brainstorming session in California, Hampton Creek itself was tackling one crisis after another.

Insider had already broken bombshell claims in August 2015 by former Hampton Creek employees that the company used "shoddy science" and had a poor culture.

In July 2016, Bloomberg reported the company had spent close to $77,000 buying its own vegan mayonnaise to improve sales figures in the run-up to its latest funding round. The company disputed these allegations, however, and told Insider it subsequently "commissioned an extensive audit by a Big Four accounting firm" which found the figures reported by Bloomberg to be "inaccurate."

The following year, amid reports of internal disputes with CEO Tetrick, Hampton Creek's board evaporated, as four directors — including DeepMind's Suleyman, Bon Appétit cofounder Fedele Bauccio, and Khosla Ventures partner Samir Kaul — resigned from their positions.

In a statement issued on behalf of the departing board members at the time, departing executives said they would continue to "advise" Tetrick.

In the event, no DeepMind partnership came to fruition.

A source close to Hampton Creek highlighted that Suleyman and Hassabis remain investors in the company.

A spokesman for the food startup confirmed it had held discussions with DeepMind.

"During a single meeting in 2016, our teams discussed a number of topics, including a potential partnership, but mutually decided not to move forward," the spokesman said.

Insiders were also keen to stress that the talks never resulted in any "formal corporate partnership," with one DeepMind ally describing the talks as "very early-stage exploratory conversations."

Suleyman's time at DeepMind came to an end in mid-2019, when he was placed on leave with little public explanation, before becoming vice president of AI policy at parent company Google.

Earlier this year, it was revealed the move came amid an internal investigation into his conduct, including allegations of bullying among staff members.

In a statement, Suleyman told the Wall Street Journal he "accepted feedback that, as a co-founder at DeepMind, I drove people too hard and at times my management style was not constructive." 

Google did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Are you a current or former Googler with more to share? You can contact this reporter securely using the encrypted messaging app Signal (+447801985586) or email (mcoulter@businessinsider.com). Reach out using a non-work device.

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