Vegan whiz kid’s bold plan to change the world
BEN Pasternak, the teen tech entrepreneur who moved to New York after a smartphone game he invented went viral, has revealed his bold new $10m plan to change the world.
In a flurry of profiles from the likes of Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as well as a documentary detailing his pitch for investors through Manhattan's cafes, we learned Pasternak's vision went far beyond his initial games, Impossible Rush and Impossible Dial, and a millennial trading site Flogg which turned into teenage social messaging platform, Monkey, followed.
Then, for two years, Pasternak went quiet, the subject of one or two speculative "whatever happened to…." pieces, even a footnote in an article about his successful property developer father, Mark Pasternak's purchase of a sprawling estate in Vaucluse, in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
But now, at the ripe age of 19, we're about to hear a lot more about Pasternak, and his bold new plan to change the world, one chicken nugget at a time.
Not a real chicken nugget, mind. Instead of "more primitive, animal based technology", Pasternak's recipe for Nuggs is made with "texturised pea protein" and has attracted AUD $10 million funding - including $4.5 million from food giant McCain.
"We started Nuggs because you know, I really like nuggets," he says.
"Most young people really like chicken nuggets. But the way they're made is not great. What goes into them, the whole process is not great. So when we set out to create Nuggs we set out to create the most advanced chicken nugget on the planet."
Such lofty ambition for a deep fried treat could sound ridiculous, but coming from Pasternak in the rarefied shared workspace at his spanking new Lower East Side apartment building, it all seems quite reasonable.
Combining Pasternak's tech-savvy - the Nuggs recipe receives iPhone-style updates based on consumer feedback who he talks about as "daily active users" - and the wave of social consciousness driving rapid growth in plant-based, lab-produced, alternatives seeking to disrupt the trillion dollar global meat market, the project sits firmly in Zeitgeist zone. With big name celebrity backers (who can't yet be revealed, "but they are household names") and personal advice from billionaire US food entrepreneur Josh Tetrick, Pasternak describes it as "the biggest thing I've ever done".
McCain's Chief Growth Officer Mauro Pennella described the product as "a very tasty chicken nugget simulation".
"The Nuggs team approach to fast, iterative innovation, based on constant feedback, is a great way to create products people love," he said in a statement.
A lean, 6 foot 1, Pasternak only owns black tops and is an impeccably mannered, genius boy-man from central casting, his slick, slightly American-accented finance talk cut through with frequent "like" and the occasional "yeah!" for emphasis.
Although he has no food background and has a chef and food engineers on his team, there is some family history - he says his great- grandfather Isador Madrid invented Twisties.
"I don't know much about him, but in my family, they're saying it's funny that I've moved into food," he shrugs.
Inside his slick, light-filled, apartment in a high-rise on rapidly gentrifying Delancey St, there is not much more than two coffee tables, a bed, a sculptural bookshelf stocked with leadership reads and tech-entrepreneur biographies and a towering fiddle hair fig with which he has a "love hate relationship".
"I didn't realise how hard it would be to look after and it nearly died in the first couple of days I had it," he sighs.
"But I have ordered a couch, it is the most expensive thing I have ever bought," he says, proudly showing off photos of the Poliform sectional on his phone.
While sparsely furnished, the squeaky clean, brand new apartment is a big step up from his previous accommodations.
"I lived in a tent in my office for six months, I found I was spending all my time in the office sleeping there anyway," he says.
"It was pretty fun, I kind of loved it.
"Then I went to Australia and was at the airport coming back a couple of weeks ago and I thought 'I need a home'. So I came straight here and leased an apartment."
While Pasternak says he has "no regrets" about the deal he made to drop out of Reddam House to live alone in Manhattan, he says his family copped plenty of flak for the publicity and what many perceived as slack parenting.
"It was 100 per cent the right decision. I wasn't designed for school. I was designed to be working," he tells the Wentworth Courier.
"I still think it's amazing that I managed to convince my parents to let me do that. The conversation with my parents was, essentially: 'if you can raise VC funding, you can drop out of high school'. And I was like: 'I'm down, let's make this happen'.
"But I don't think they thought it would actually happen. And then it did happen.
"I think that fundamentally, they saw the passion, they saw it was what I was going to do. And I think, you know, even though they have like legal entitlement to me, they knew I was going to figure it out and I was going to get there.
"I commend them, you know. I think a lot of people were almost critical of them because it's like a pretty, and it is, you know, maybe they should have some criticism. I don't think everyone should do it, but you know, I'm responsible. I don't do any dumb things."
Pasternak admits that in retrospect, the move was "weird, from like a child development perspective" and that it strained some of his relationships with old friends at home in Sydney, where his favourite pastime on returning to visit his family is to take long walks through the beachside Eastern Suburbs.
"I know one person who has a similar story, but sometimes I feel a bit like what a child actor would feel like," he says.
His decision to eschew almost all press for the past two years was driven partly by his reaction to the criticism his family received, something he says doesn't worry him now, but also because after the sale of Monkey in late 2017, he was at a loose end for several months about what he would do next. Monkey had attracted $2 million funding before it was purchased by US video chat app Holla. It has 20 million users who have made 20 billion calls and Pasternak retains some stock.
"I was very lost," he says.
"I knew I wanted to walk on something important. And you know, people always ask the question like, what's the meaning of life? And I think it's whatever your framework you come up with, it makes sense to you. And for me it was just reducing suffering as much as possible for the collective consciousness."
While he still refers to Australia as home and Sydney as "the best city in the world", his business interests likely mean he won't ever move back full-time.
Instead he has his sites set on building Nuggs. Currently available through direct online purchase, he says the company he started last year is ready to move out of "soft launch" phase.
"McCain, who is our lead investor, they sell one in three French fries on the planet, so they can open the door to anywhere we want," he says.
"We're already in talks with a lot of the big companies, but we won't have the rollout until we know until we have some framework that will definitely work.
"In Australia it is kind of different. But here, at a Walmart, you have 100,000 products, right? So just getting your product into Walmart on paper sounds like: 'oh my God, that's a big deal'. But having a tiny section out of 100,000 products, that's not going to create any change and that's not appealing," he says.
Pasternak, who is vegan, is wary of using "any of the V-words" in his marketing, saying his focus is to win over "clean meat virgins", which his data shows is about 65 per cent of his customers.
"I think when you are attempting to change someone's lifelong habit in a non threatening way, like, you know, people eat meat their whole life … To tell them to stop eating meat is ridiculous," he says.
"I think vegan extremism is a huge negative and I think it pisses people off. It pisses me off and I am vegan.
"I am focused on creating a brand that appeals to the masses and kind of using my tech background to implement that.
"We're working on something really important. That's what matters the most. I feel very aligned with what we're doing. And it's exciting that we have so much support to do it."