According to CNN Money, Switzerland is a leader when it comes to innovation and female entrepreneurs are at the forefront. This summer, CNN Money Switzerland is highlighting startups founded by female entrepreneurs in a special series. They teamed up with www.startupticker.ch and handpicked those businesses with strong Swiss roots but an international outlook. One of the featured startups is Alver. Co-founder and CEO Mine Uran was invited over to Zurich for an interview with Ana Maria Montero.
What is SWISS START-UP TOUR by CNN Money Switzerland all about?
This is what is says on www.cnnmoney.ch: “Let CNNMoney Switzerland introduce you to the emerging companies making their mark in Switzerland and beyond. We travel across the country to track down female CEOs who have been recognized for their distinctive vision and ability to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs. Discover the challenges and lessons they’ve learned, the hard choices they’ve had to make, and about that one moment when they knew that they had made it. Food engineer Mine Uran prides herself on upending conventional wisdom: She launched Alver, her superfood start-up, at age 50; rejected the advice that she needed to hire a man in order to raise more capital; and dared to turn down VCs over term sheets that didn’t suit her. This is her story.” Full interview in this video >>>
Mine, you are a food engineer who has been looking for the last 20 years for the ideal, non-animal super protein. Now this seems to be a long time looking for something so specific, what brought this on?
I started my career in the food area, and more and more realized that animal proteins are not very sustainable in the long-term. The reason I have looked into micro-algae today is also for the land use. Because today our land use per capita is decreasing. Not only because of the growing population but also because of the urbanization. Currently, we are using only 12% of the arable land and it will be reducing. The land use per capita is very important this is why I decided to look into the sea. As the sea covers about three quarters of our planet, I looked into microalgae as a source of sustainable protein.
Okay, so it sounds like your motivation is really much more about sustainability than it is about health, for example. Or both?
It is both. As we know, well as we started to figure out over the last few years, too much animal protein over the long term, is really not that healthy for our body. To find sustainable protein, which is also healthy, was my aim. Microalgae naturally contain 60% of protein, but also a lot of minerals and vitamins. Especially our microalgae contain also Carotenoids, so it is a very healthy food that can really feed the world.
Talk to me about the market for this kind of microalgae products!
Okay, algae are commonly knows as a healthy product. But the problem is the taste. That is why we grow microalgae in an environment that prevents them from developing this typical algae taste. Ours tastes natural but neutral. And because of this neutral taste, it can be added to any food without altering its taste. If you want to eat pasta, you eat pasta, if you want to eat sauce, you eat sauce… no taste of algae!
That sounds like you have to overcome this issue of perception, right? Because people perceive that algae is going to taste terrible. How challenging is it to convince people otherwise?
It is challenging for us, which is why we do a lot of tastings. This summer, we will do a lot of tastings with smoothies at COOP. So if you are at COOP, look out for our products and taste them in a smoothie. You will definitely be surprised!
Now the main ingredient, I guess, is something called Golden Chlorella, a 100% natural algae that is yellow and comes as a kind of powder. Walk me through: how it becomes that! How do you get the algae out of the sea and into the products?
Okay, so the baby algae we found in Holland, in sweet water. But then, we started to grow it in a very good, closed environment to make sure it grows healthy and that only microalgae are growing, not other bacteria. In addition, we keep the algae away from light and only use sugar as a feed. Growing in the dark, it doesn’t develop a green color. And it develops carotene, which gives it this nice yellow color.
This sounds quite complicated. Is it a complicated process? And is it expensive?
No, it really is not complicated. You just grow it with sugar and dry it. It is not an expensive process either. The cost is only high at the moment because the quantities we produce are small. Once we grow, the cost of production will significantly reduce with volume. And this is what we are doing now: we want to extend our production capacity. That is also why we are looking for an investment of 3 Mio. So, if somebody wants to do something good for the world, just call me!
So this is where you are with your funding at the moment: you are looking for 3 Million Swiss Francs in order to start scaling.
Yes, that’s right. That will allow us to scale and once we can produce large quantities, the price can be reduced to just CHF 2 per kilo.
That really is not a lot. And talk to me about your searching for funding. What kind of investors are you looking for? Do you go for venture capital, for private investors or just any kind of investment at this stage? And how do you go about finding funds?
No, we really are looking for investors who are interested in making a long-term investment and also want to do something good for the world. For me, it is not a question of getting this money and then selling the company 5 years later. It is a long-term investment. It is a 10-year plan that I have, not a 5-year plan. So maybe Alver is less for venture capitalists and more for family offices and private investors who want to make a long-term, sustainable investment. We started with crowd funding, with private people. We raised CHF 250’000 two years ago which allowed us to develop the product. Now we finished our second seed-funding round and obtained 1 Mio. from a person that is a business angel. This money will allow us to develop our marketing and to increase the notoriety of our brand. To this day, we have 12 different products: powders, bars, soup, pasta and sauces… and then for 3 Million, well, this is the next round.
How much independence do you have?
Well, to be honest, we refused some well-known venture capitalists when we saw their term sheets. Because my focus, my goal is not to make money but to do something good for the world. We need money, yes. And we will make money, but this is not my primary goal.
And do you find that the fact that you are a woman has any influence when it comes to investment and looking for funding?
Yes! When we were first going out and looking for funding, because we are two female founders, someone told us “You need to get one man into the team to raise more money.” Which we didn’t do… But that’s okay. Those are all perceptions. I always worked against perceptions.
Alright, so no men. It’s a fully female team. And is there anything in startup that you consider company policy?
For us, the philosophy is… we are really looking for sustainability-focused people. They need to have this feeling and sense of urgency to do something for the Earth.
You are a vegetarian, right? So you are really living the talk as we say. And now you produce this superfood. We hear this and that about superfood. Honestly, how much of it is just hype?
Yes, I am vegetarian and it’s good; really satisfying. Now with regards to superfood, I cannot speak for the others, only for our products. We are very open and transparent. We always share our nutritional information; there is a full page of nutritional profiles of our products: the minerals and vitamins they contain, which micro materials, like leucine or carotene…even our amino-acid profile is perfect. Just to give you an idea: why do you think the life expectancy of Japanese women is so high? Because they eat microalgae! The Japanese diet contains a lot of microalgae. In Japan, Chlorella is even considered a food of national interest.
So Mine, after managing teams at Unilever, DuPont and more recently, as Head of Protein R&D at Nestlé, working for the man – or woman – you decided last September to just leap out on your own. What motivated this? Why did you decide that Now, it’s time?
Well, I turned 50. And I thought to myself, I have another 10 or 15 years of work; this is a good time. I have three kids; all of them are grown-ups now. Time to step up and do my own thing. I always had this on my mind, so the moment my life became a little less complicated I felt it was the right move.
And your family is super proud and supportive? Do they all have to eat your microalgae?
Yes, absolutely. They are very supportive. As for food, yes, they are really happy with it. We had some just yesterday. I prepared a Mexican salsa with microalgae. We also have vegans in the family, so we had a veggie burger. But of course with veggie burgers, the protein is missing. So we added a sauce with microalgae in order to have a balanced meal, with 12% protein.
At the end of the interview, Ana Maria Montero tried our tomato sauce with Alver Golden Chlorella. How did she like it? Click through and find out here >>>
Thank you so much, CNN Money Switzerland for having us, and Startupticker for all the support.