At 21, this entrepreneur has launched three startups, raising millions5 min read . Updated: 20 Jul 2021, 03:03 PM IST
- “A lot of kids have crazy ideas. He has the ability to convince people to bet ...significant investments,” says one investor
Ben Pasternak just raised $50 million for his food-tech company. His products are carried by Target and Sam’s Club. This is his third startup. He is 21 years old. Raised in Sydney, Australia, he has been living on his own in Manhattan since he turned 16.
Way to make the rest of us look bad, Mr. Pasternak.
His mother, Anna Pasternak, who still lives in Sydney, says that when she was 21, she was in college and working as a waitress. “I can’t decide what to have for breakfast, and he’s running this huge team in New York," she says. “I don’t understand where it comes from."
When I met the entrepreneur for coffee last week, I expected an absolute maniac, or weird genius. But he was sunny and relaxed, dressed in his “uniform" of a long-sleeve navy tee, black athletic pants and sneakers. He was happy to tell his story.
It started when he was 14. A geek with average grades, Mr. Pasternak was astounded when Impossible Rush, a game he invented while sitting in science class, hit the app charts with more than 2 million downloads. “It was a tiny little game, but addictive," he says.
Mom encouraged him to call the local paper with the story. He soon had the world’s attention and interest from a New York City filmmaker who offered to connect him with investors in the U.S.
On his last day of eighth grade in 2015, he put a note in his locker that said, “If you’re reading this, you really f—ed up."
“My goal was to never go to school again," he says. And he didn’t.
His dad took him to San Francisco that summer for a series of venture capital meetings arranged by the filmmaker, followed by a trip to Disneyland. To the family’s surprise, he landed nearly $500,000 from four backers, and the filmmaker suggested he move to New York City to launch his startup.
In August, his mother took him to Manhattan and found him a small apartment in a Hell’s Kitchen doorman building where a family friend also had an apartment.
Ms. Pasternak says agreeing to let her son live alone in New York City was among the hardest decisions she’s ever made, and did so only because she believed it was temporary: “I thought Ben would last maybe a month," she says.
She stayed with him for several weeks, until his 16th birthday, and recalls a teary goodbye. Mr. Pasternak says he spent his first night alone experimenting with a new watermelon carving technique he saw on YouTube.
The first few months in Manhattan were strange, fun and a little lonely, says Mr. Pasternak. He saw his mentor and family friends on occasion but was mostly home alone, sitting on the couch with his laptop, building his next app with an online team of hacker types.
He bought steam-table rice and peas from the bodega for lunch and ordered fast food from Seamless for dinner. He drew his goals on the walls. He slept on the floor—a teen’s idea of discipline—and watched the startup competition show “Shark Tank" when he felt lonely.
He launched his new app in Spring 2016. Flogg was a shopping and social-media platform for teens. It flopped. “No one liked it," he says.
Washed up and broke at 16, Mr. Pasternak did what any good serial entrepreneur does: He persuaded more people to give him more money.
This second attempt was harder—he pitched more than 100 investors, mostly by cold-calling—and raised just $200,000. But it was enough to design and launch another social-media app. Monkey was a hit. He built a company around the new venture. It was acquired by a Chinese firm for an undisclosed sum in 2018.
There was plenty of investor interest when he launched his third startup, SIMULATE, a “tech optimistic" nutrition company. Joe Medved, a partner with Lerer Hippeau, an early-stage venture-capital fund based in New York City with more than $1 billion under management, says he was impressed with Mr. Pasternak. “A lot of kids have crazy ideas. He has the ability to convince people to bet their careers on it. Or bet significant investments," he says.
Mr. Medved considers Mr. Pasternak’s youth a plus. “You need to have some level of naiveté to create something that is truly disruptive," he says.
Mr. Pasternak says he got interested in food because the industry has been shunning new technology such as GMO crops and factory processing in favor of production techniques from the 1800s. Starting with NUGGS, a vegan take on the classic chicken nugget, he’s applying a software framework to food.
He launched NUGGS in beta mode, selling direct to customers targeted on Facebook and Instagram and soliciting feedback. Everyone agreed the nuggets were terrible. NUGGS 1.0, launched in June 2018, was the first design to hit supermarket freezers. Each version includes release notes. Version 1.6, launched June 2020, states: “Includes fixes and improvements. This update has an improved, chicken-like flavor."
I recently visited the SIMULATE lab in the company’s oversize Soho loft where scientists are busy building a better faux nugget out of ingredients that include textured wheat protein. I sampled the soon-to-be-released NUGGS 2.1. Tastes like chicken!
The best part is the product tagline: “Kills you slower."
“One of our company’s core values is non-peachiness," says Mr. Pasternak, who came up with the slogan.
Mr. Pasternak says SIMULATE will spend the $50 million to triple distribution to more than 15,000 stores, and triple its staff of 20. Half the new hires will be scientists and engineers.
His vision goes beyond fake chicken. SIMULATE will invent new food categories and change the way we eat, Mr. Pasternak says.
I reported this back to Mr. Pasternak’s mother. “Why can’t he just be a failure and come home?" she quipped.
But she’s betting he follows through. “I’ve learned not to write him off," she says. “He seems to be able to have a vision and realize it. So watch this space!"
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