VentureLabs is thrilled to share a series of interviews highlighting the stories of our amazing women entrepreneurs.
For our first interview, we had the pleasure of chatting with Dr. Lili Mesak, the CEO and Co-founder of Nutrienvisus – a triple bottom line business looking to revolutionize how we grow crops. With a Ph.D. in microbiology and biochemistry, a Masters degree in Food Science and over twenty years working with microbes, Lili brings her passion and drive to tackling the challenge of more sustainable plant production.
VentureLabs (VL): How did you start your business?
Lili: I’ve long dreamed of starting a business. In the summer of 2017, my husband and I took the leap together into this journey. We are both scientists with deep expertise in microbiology, so we’ve spent significant time learning about “good and bad” microbes and how we can use that knowledge to impact how we grow food more sustainably.
With less and less plantable area and an ever-increasing global human population, preserving the environment and sustaining our food security is a pressing issue for all of us. We want to be part of the solution, so we developed a bio-organic plant nutrient from brewery waste to help supplement plant growth. Not only can growers increase their commercial yield, but they can also do so in a more environmentally responsible manner.
Also, we live in BC, and there are great business opportunities here at home. With many craft breweries and many greenhouses, we have both the prime nutrients for our products (from brewery waste) and the end customers (the growers) in one region!
VL: What did you do before starting Nutrienvisus?
Lili: I used to work as a scientist in a variety of microbiology labs. I have been working with various microbes: beneficial- & pathogenic- microbes for a long time. This experience really helped me to design and develop the product formulation of Enviotics™ – our flagship product, which is a bio-organic plant nutrient. I’ve also spent many years researching and teaching at university. I’ve loved my time – over 20 years – in the lab and scientific environment, but I was ready for entrepreneurship.
VL: What makes your business unique?
Lili: Our product is a precision formulated bio-organic plant nutrient. It’s different from both chemical fertilizers (obviously) and other organic materials (like compost or manure that may have contaminants like E. coli or other bad microbes). We have complete control of the composition of our product.
We also believe in the triple-bottom-line approach to business, where we value people, profits, and the planet.
VL: How did you decide what market to target?
Lili: Longer term, our target markets include greenhouse growers and farmers in North America. Right now, we are focusing on the floriculture (flower) growers in BC. The floriculture segment currently has less stringent regulations than the food-growing segment; for us, this translates to fewer barriers to entry into the market. Going forward, we do anticipate targeting the vegetable growers.
VL: What do you see as the exciting opportunities in your industry?
Lili: The industry is in a transition period, which is always a good time for innovation. The agri-food industry must keep growing to meet high market demand. And farmers and growers need fertilizers to increase their crop productions, yet we know that chemical fertilizers are not good for the earth and increase toxic waste. We are at a crucial junction where we need more sustainable methods of growing, while reducing waste production. There’s a huge market opportunity for more viable alternatives like our bio-organic plant nutrients.
VL: What are the challenges or threats in your industry? How are you
Lili: In our industry, even one extra penny of cost per plant is enormous for a grower. We are going to need to shift thinking to a more holistic approach that it’s the cost and long-term benefits of the entire growing cycle that must be factored in, not just the cost of the fertilizer. While a chemical fertilizer may appear to be “cheaper,” in the longer term the damage to the earth is not sustainable, just as there are many other aspects that affect costs.
As an example, we just finished a commercial trial of Enviotics™ in growing Cyclamen – which the grower advised was a very challenging flower, requiring time-consuming multiple cycles of manual harvesting (since the plants don’t grow at even rates.). When the grower used our Enviotics™ , the plants grew at a more uniform rate – essentially evening out the growing cycle, making the plants available for automated harvesting – which saved a significant amount of time and production costs.
We want to improve the quality and quantity of crop production. We want to reduce waste in the growing process. It’s critical that we make the best use of the limited resources we have available on our planet.– Lili Mesak, CEO and Co-Founder, Nutrienvisus
VL: What impact do you want to have in the world or change you want to see or make happen?
Lili: Our goal is two-fold. We want to improve the quality and quantity of crop production. We want to reduce waste in the growing process. It’s critical that we make the best use of the limited resources we have available on our planet.
VL: Looking back, are there any indications from childhood that foreshadowed your becoming an entrepreneur?
Lili: I believe the entrepreneurial bug came from my parents. My mom and dad had no formal education, but they worked incredibly hard at our family grocery shop in Indonesia. Long hours, teamwork, cost awareness, caring for our community and our large family… my mom and dad were great role models. Even as a young child, I worked in our family shop, contributing to our family business. I confess that I spent some of those hours dreaming of being both a scientist and a business owner.
After I finished my formal education, I worked extensively in a scientific lab environment, but I knew it was time to take my knowledge beyond the lab and start a business.
VL: What is the biggest challenge for you as an entrepreneur?
Lili: While both my husband and I have an entrepreneurial mindset, we certainly don’t have all of the skills it takes to run all aspects of a business. We need to be hiring people to complement the team and help us grow, but we also need customers to fuel our growth!
VL: What are the pros and cons of being a female entrepreneur in 2019?
Lili: While I’ve got flexibility in adjusting my work time and my family time (which is awesome), I find that it’s difficult to not work at every possible “free” moment! I love being my own boss, but I suspect it’s similar with any entrepreneurs in that it’s really hard to figure out when the day ends.
What podcasts or books do you refer to?
Rick Warren – the author of The Purpose-Driven Life
What’s your favourite thing to do in your free time?
What’s your least favourite food?
Offal – anything intestine based!
What’s your superpower?
I’m amazingly diligent. I get stuff done!
If you could spend an hour with one person not currently in your life, who would it be?
VL: If you had a “magic wand,” what 2 things would make it easier for you to succeed in your business?
Lili: Alas, there is no magic wand in business. We set goals, we build strategic business plans and we work hard on the business.
VL: What keeps you going in the difficult times?
Lili: My family and my faith.
VL: What do you look for in your team members as you grow?
Lili: We are absolutely going to need specific functional skill sets – like marketing and sales – but perhaps just as important is the mindset that all team members will bring – positivity, creativity, and resiliency. Those are the values we want at Nutrienvisus.
VL: With the knowledge you have today, what advice would you give your younger self at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey?
Lili: Dream big, never stop learning, never give up, and never stop trying.
VL: If we are sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it’s been for your company, what did you and your team achieve together?
Lili: We have set a number of targets; we are hoping for over 10 growers as reference customers this year, and we plan on determining the best financing model. Whether it’s an angel round, VC injection, a loan, or some combination, we’re working with our advisors to determine the best path for us.
VL: How do you define success?
Lili: Set big goals and go for them. If you fail or encounter a roadblock, use that to move forward. For example, I’m from a family with 7 children. There were no available funds for university, yet I really knew that I wanted an education. I had to get creative and applied for a whole bunch of scholarships. I ended up doing my undergraduate and masters program in Indonesia, and then went on a full scholarship to Germany to get my doctoral degree.