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….
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