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Big Ideas

Neil Grimmer: Shout Your Ideas From the Mountaintop

Design is a problem-solving exercise and for punk rocker-turned-product designer and entrepreneur Neil Grimmer the problem was his own overweight body. But instead of going to a doctor, he set out to rethink the food, weight-loss, and diet industries.

Seven years ago, a punk rocker-turned art student-turned product designer-turned entrepreneur co-founded Plum Organics, which went head-to-head with the two largest baby food manufacturers in the world—and won! Now, Neil Grimmer is out to do it again with his new company Habit, which will trade a few drops of your blood for a personalized, genomically-specific dietary regimen, is doing it again.

We sat down with Grimmer at his headquarters in a gritty stretch of West Oakland to find out what’s happening at the intersection of food, genomics, and social enterprise.

You are best known as the founding CEO of Plum Organics, which has turned the baby food industry on its head. What on earth gave you the idea that five people in an office space in Oakland could go up against the biggest food companies in the world?

Probably a good amount of naiveté combined with an over-indexing sense of mission. My wife and I were both working parents with a three-month old daughter trying to figure out how to feed her in a way that didn’t compromise nutrition for convenience. This led to an innovative packaging concept combined with culinary-inspired ingredients that had never been seen in the baby food category (forget mushy peas; think Greek yogurt, purple carrots, quinoa, and kale). It spoke in a young, modern voice to young, modern parents.

This sounds pretty idealistic—but can you run a business on idealism?

We were early participants in the B Corps movement, which is like a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for ethical business practices. It’s based on the “triple bottom line” mindset—people, planet, profits: Social and environmental values matter, but if you don’t generate profits you can’t sustain a business. Consumers today want to back businesses that support their value system, so as a product designer I think of good corporate citizenship as a product feature.

You sold Plum Organics to Campbell’s, which has encouraged you to stay the course and invested $32 million in Habit. Why did you decide to go through the ordeal of another startup? Why didn’t you just buy an expensive mountain bike and retire?

Once you check the boxes on the things you think you’re working for, like financial security, you start to ask, “What is your life’s work?” And I realized that my life’s work is bringing my creative talents to bear on solving problems that help make people’s lives better. I found that when I was not doing that kind of work, there was a void that needed to be filled. Starting companies is incredibly hard, but I feel more activated than I’ve felt in years.

Habit, is positioned at the intersection of some very powerful forces: the genomics revolution; dramatic transformations in the F&B industries; the current wave of social entrepreneurship. Explain to us how it works.

We characterize Habit as the world’s first personalized nutrition company. Starting with an at-home test kit we look at your DNA, your blood work, and your metabolic function and we turn it into a nutrition recommendation using a methodology called systems biology. With the advent of big data and computational biology we’re now able to make sense of the interrelations among your internal functions. We look at over 60 different biomarkers.

Starting with the premise that “Every body tells a story,” we pose the question, “What’s your story?” This led us to design the test kit after a book—a story book—in which each “page” tells part of the story of you: this page is about your DNA; the next one is about your blood; then your metabolic function—how you process fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. We ship the results to a third-party lab which processes them and you get a personalized nutrition recommendation.

Every test kit comes with a 25-minute coaching session with a registered dietician who helps you come up with strategies to start applying it to your life. The last part is that we make nutrient-rich and data-rich meals:  These are fresh-prepared meals, customized to your personal biology, fully documented, and delivered to your door.

This is not just a new product; it’s an entirely new product category. How did this idea come about?

I’m basically a creative problem-solver at heart. I had some health issues—I had gained 50 pounds; I was pre-diabetic, and I was at risk of a heart attack. Instead of going to a doctor, I said, “This is a really interesting problem to solve,” which led me down a completely different path—not just solving it for myself but setting up the conditions in which I would solve it for other people. If we are able to capture what is unique about each person in a highly personalized way, it changes everything: the food industry; the weight-loss and diet industry; it could even change the medical industry. The problem becomes not where to go, but where not to go.

For somebody without a formal business education you seem to have picked it up pretty quickly. What advice you want to give to a punk rocker or beginning design student who might be wondering, “Could I actually start a business?”

I actually started a punk rock band back in the ’90s. We played in basements, bars, and barns and slept in a Dodge Econoline van. I learned about building a team; I learned how to book a tour which is really putting a business in place; we were silk-screening T-shirts out of the back of the van and selling them at $5 a pop so we could eat. But the essence of that experience was I learned that you have to have a point of view about the world and you’ve got to be willing to shout it from the mountaintop, to bring all your creativity to bear on bringing those ideas to life. And you have to be able to inspire a group of people to come along with you.

So my advice is, “Think beyond the band.”


More Posts by Barry Katz

Barry Katz is Professor of Industrial and Interaction Design at the California College of the Arts, and Consulting Professor in the Design Group, Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Stanford University. He is the author of six books including, most recently, Make it New: The History of Silicon Valley Design.

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