Mary Beth is the founder of Innovesca, a food technology startup based in Pittsburgh. A West Virginia native, she began researching global nutrition through underutilized plants while completing her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Could you summarize Innovesca?
Innovesca is a food technology company. We take nutritious plants that go to waste in developing regions and transform them into value added ingredients that have optimized nutrition.
What inspired you to start the company?
Halfway through my PhD I was looking for a side project to work on. My main PhD research was focused on engineering vascular networks to create liver tissue. At the same time the Gates Foundation was looking for ideas to improve infant and child nutrition. Knowing of my love for food, my PhD advisor encouraged me to come up with an idea to fit that proposal. I had two weeks to write a two page proposal, which looked not only at the idea of mechanical forces that impact texture but also at how processing can affect the nutritional value of food. For the Gates proposal, I identified amaranth as an underutilized leafy vegetable found throughout the developing world, and proposed to develop an processing method to turn it into an ingredient with high nutritional value.
How did you start Innovesca?
At first, I didn’t see Innovesca as a for-profit business. The research could have been implemented as an educational intervention to train mothers in developing regions in providing more nutritious meals for their infants. Again, my PhD advisor encouraged and supported me to think about submitting a proposal to the National Science Foundation for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant, which funds technology development through small businesses and helps commercialize research from the University setting out to the public domain.
While finishing my PhD, I wrote the grant to the National Science Foundation around this idea, and it was awarded to Innovesca in July 2013. This provided the first funding to launch the company. So that’s what prompted the formation of Innovesca. I founded Innovesca to further develop this research behind optimized ingredients and to commercialize this technology with the goal of improving global nutrition. But also, through our business operations, we aim to maximize the positive social impact of what we do.
You come from a research background. Was it difficult transitioning to business and running a company?
This has been my first introduction to the world of business. I’ve never taken a class in accounting or economics. After starting Innovesca in the fall of 2012, I was still a student at CMU. Starting to get interested in startups and entrepreneurship, I actively participated in a lot of workshops and seminars provided through [CMU’s] Tepper School of Business and other startup events in Pittsburgh, so I could learn about all of the key issues to consider in starting a business, such accounting and legal. It’s definitely about learning by doing and seeking out appropriate mentors to learn about the different parts of starting a business. Between educating myself and seeking out mentorship, it’s made the transition easier.
Why is Pittsburgh the ideal place to anchor your company?
Pittsburgh has a lot of benefits for startups. A big one is the cost of living. You can have a lower salary and still have a nice lifestyle. That’s why it’s a great place to be a grad student. But cost of living also benefits business, because there are a lot of great co-working spaces that are affordable for startups, like StartUptown. Another great resource Pittsburgh has to offer are all of the supporting organizations, such as Idea Foundry, that help guide and mentor early-stage companies in the region.
How has the Pittsburgh startup scene helped or influenced your company?
There continues to be a lot of great events here. When [AOL founder] Steve Case came to Pittsburgh, the local startup community really rallied around that. His visit to Pittsburgh was a great opportunity that a lot of other cities did not have, and he was attracted to Pittsburgh for its incredible potential as a technology commercialization hub. Like this events, there are a range of activities that encourage communication and collaboration within the local startup community.
What was it like pitching to Steve Case?
It was great experience to be able to give an elevator pitch to someone who probably hears thousands of pitches every year. So I think it was a wonderful opportunity and good practice for pitching Innovesca effectively. I also hope to have some helpful follow-ups from that interaction.
What is your favorite thing about running a startup?
I like the diversity in what I do. As a graduate student you’re so focused in research and achieving one goal. With Innovesca, it’s been nice to put my head up and broaden what I work on. While I still do research on the technology side of Innovesca, my schedule is different every day. Some days I’ve been up to a farm north of Pittsburgh where we’re cultivating an acre and a half of amaranth this summer, other days I’m doing accounting and legal work. I also work with interns and employees of Innovesca, so there’s an aspect of managing people and building a team. There are so many things to do all the time, which can be daunting, so you have to pick what you’re working on and take it one step at a time. I think that’s the exciting part of starting a company, too.
What is the most difficult thing about running a startup?
That diversity of tasks might also be the most difficult thing. There is so much to do at all times of the day. It can be challenging to prioritize and focus because if you think about everything you have to do, it can be overwhelming. So really prioritizing and taking it one step at a time is key. The diverse roles required in starting a company are both a good thing and a bad thing.
Where do you see the company in the future?
I aim to grow Innovesca into a global food technology company. We plan to source and manufacture our ingredients in developing regions, establishing a global presence through our operations. Down the road I can see branches of the company in rural southern Mexico or East Africa, working with small-scale farmers in these regions to source plants that are indigenous in those regions as a way to boost developing economies. It’s a big idea to tackle in terms of both doing R&D to develop ingredients based on scientific data and trying to implement the technology in a global context. which could have offshoots in terms of how we expand the company to different countries. It’s going to take a lot of expertise and building a great team on the R&D side and international development side.
How does sustainability play a role in Innovesca’s future?
On one hand Innovesca could be just an R&D company, selling our technology and products to food manufacturing companies. But for me, having a positive social impact is inherent to our operations and is just as important as research. We’re creating that impact throughout our supply chain, so it is not an afterthought but part of our core operations. We’re really building a business case for working with small shareholder farmers as we source raw materials and manufacturing locally to create our ingredients. By being purposeful about that impact in our business operations, it ensures sustainability in the model we are creating with Innovesca.