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Benjamina Bollag on Building the Future of Alternative Proteins, Startups as Glaciers and Human Resilience

· Podcast Transcripts

I think actually the best skill is learning to learn. And I think that's the biggest thing that a startup teaches you is you're constantly having surprises and you really learn how to learn really fast. However the world changes you'll learn how to adapt to it because you know how to learn faster than in a conventional concept. - Benjamina Bollag

Jeremy Au: [00:00:00] Welcome to Brave Dynamics. This is your host, Jeremy Au. Leadership is harder than it looks. As a proven founder and Harvard MBA, I interview courageous entrepreneurs, executives and investors every week. I also share my frontline experiences, coaching insights and own professional development journey. If you're stepping up as a new leader, founding a startup, or venturing into the great unknown, this is the podcast for you.

Pooja Sinha: [00:00:30] Benjamina Bollag is the founder and CEO of HigherSteaks, a London-based food technology startup that uses state-of-the-art culture techniques to grow meat products from sample animal cells. Founded in 2017, HigherSteaks has already begun to make its mark on the agritech industry with multiple features in Forbes, Business Weekly and Yahoo Finance.

Previously, Benjamina co-founded a London-based B2B electronics company selling to FTSE500 companies. Benjamina has also worked at Israeli 3D printing company, Stratasys, at the digital marketing division of PepsiCo's joint venture with Strauss and was the lead developer of an ed-tech startup.

Benjamina graduated from Imperial College London with a masters in chemical engineering, where she completed a project focusing on the design of a peptide plant, conducting a lab based research on synthesis and liquid exfoliation of graphitic carbon nitride. In her spare time, she enjoys going on relaxing walks and reading.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:35] So good to see you again, Benjamina.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:01:38] Nice to see you too.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:39] Wow, what a year, huh? You've grown and overcome so much, and look at where you are now.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:01:47] Yeah, been through an interesting first half of the year.

Jeremy Au: [00:01:52] Yes, 2020 has been quite the year for everybody. For those who don't know you yet, could you share about your journey?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:02:01] Yes, absolutely. Grew up in Switzerland, in Geneva, and moved to the UK about seven, eight years ago to study chemical engineering at Imperial. While I was doing that, had a lot of side projects, startups, and worked in 3D printing, did some marketing work with PepsiCo. Was the lead developer of a small edtech Then when I graduated, started my own company where we were essentially selling B2B electronics to large hotel chains, such as Four Seasons and Intercontinental. And was working pretty well, but realized that I wanted to do something with a lot more impact and spent a lot of time thinking what I most care about.

For me, it all came down to people's health. And so, I wanted to really do something where I would impact millions of people's health. That's when I joined Entrepreneur First, which is an accelerator. Now globally based, but at the time, based in the UK, that takes you pre-idea and pre-team. And while I was there came across the concept of cell-based meat. And for me, it was just fascinating, and very quickly became obsessed with it and realized as well, there were very few engineers at the time working on this. So I thought that there was really something new that I can bring as a founder to the field. And here I am now as founder of HigherSteaks.

Jeremy Au: [00:03:18] How did you personally get started on the startup journey itself?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:03:25] I mean, I've been involved in startups for a while. So as I mentioned while I was in uni, I did kind of, even the charity things that I would do were a little bit startup oriented. So working with teenage cancer trials to raise some funds for them through people tutoring. Then created a website to help students find better courses and to interact with other students, as mentioned lead software developer. So I did a lot of kind of side projects. I always kind of followed what was going on in the startup field and really started, in my first startup with the fundraising and so on with HigherSteaks. And that's where I think it really brought in all the experiences that I had before. So all of the startup work that I'd done during uni, the food work that I did during uni and all really came together and in a much bigger project, I would say.

Jeremy Au: [00:04:19] Why is leadership so important in alternate proteins?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:04:26] I think it's particularly important in alternate proteins versus any other field because it's really an emerging field and this is even more so with cultivated meat. That's really just at the start. So the examples that we set as founders today is really leading where the field will go for the next few decades. And that's why it's even more important to bring people that have strong leadership into the field. And that's why, for example, recently we hired our new chief scientific officer that had a lot of leadership experience to really bring a lot of leadership experience into the field and set a really good example for the years to come.

Jeremy Au: [00:05:05] You mentioned setting a role model for so many people in this industry and for other aspiring people. Why does that drive you?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:05:16] I mean, I think it's very important because of the cause that we're doing. And I think personally setting an example as a young female founder and giving hope essentially to other young female founders that they can do this, that they can overcome some of the challenges and barriers that are in front of them essentially. And give a good example of what they can achieve if they really push for it, is really important to me.

Jeremy Au: [00:05:40] What are some common challenges that you find female founders face in this arena?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:05:47] It's always a matter of you have to prove yourself more, both as female founders and as young founders, particularly in the biotech field. It's really about knowing what you're talking about, knowing all of the different avenues, showing that you can do what you said you'll do, even though you don't have the years necessarily of experience behind you. I think that's really, really, really important to do.

Jeremy Au: [00:06:11] What else have you personally faced and how did you overcome them?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:06:15] Yeah, so I mean I've faced quite a few throughout the years, but I would say when my previous startup, we had some manufacturing problems. So how to do a product recall, have to go through all the big hotel chains that we were selling to, to get back our products. But I think the difference between some of the hurdles that I faced then and now is I think at the time I knew that there was maybe less of a big cause that I was working towards. So it was good to solve the problems, but maybe push less hard. Whereas with now, when I face some fundraising problems or co-founding problems, it’s really giving it everything I have because I know that I'm not just doing this essentially for the fun of it, but it's also for something that's really important for the planet and people around the world.

Jeremy Au: [00:07:05] So what support or resources are available for others looking to build alternative protein startups?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:07:12] There are loads of resources out there. I think if you look at all the websites of the NGOs, such as GFI and New Harvest, all of them have a wide array of resources. GFI, I think has a particular startup manual that really helps you get started. But I think it's very important to do two things. One is really talk to a lot of people in the industry and try to know as well the things behind what's just on the internet. But also learn to make your own opinion and know which advice to listen to and what not to. Someone may tell you this is an avenue that I think is absolutely stupid and loads of people have tried it, but you might find reasons why it's not. Also, know when to take advice and when not to. For cultivating meat it's also particularly important to look at the resources on the biotech field because a lot of the knowledge is coming from there. So you will find, as well, a lot by researching on stem cells, by materials, by reactors, and so on.

Jeremy Au: [00:08:11] What are some common misconceptions about the alternative protein field?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:08:11] A lot of people still believe that it will stay a niche. And that's one I think that's starting to change. One that even frankly, I had a bit of a misconception and found it very surprising is that actually some people really see cultivated meat as more natural. And I think a lot of people will immediately fall into the conception that cultivated meat is this crazy thing that's happening. Whereas actually, some people see it as more natural than plant-based sometimes because, at the end of the day, we are going through the conventional process that the cells go through. And a lot of what we're doing is natural. It's just made essentially outside of the body. And I would say that's probably one of the big misconceptions that people have and even I initially had.

Jeremy Au: [00:09:04] We've seen a new generation of startups going after this problem. How is HigherSteaks going after it differently and what's the secret sauce?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:09:18] It's hard to say a secret sauce on a podcast. So I can't go too much into details on that. But I would say there's a few things that differentiate us. One is we're really focused on pork as a first meat. The other is we're working with a specific type of cell called induced pluripotent stem cells, which are a lot more replicable, a lot more scalable than some of the other types of cells. And within that, we're really working on technology and that's our really secret sauce that is a lot more efficient and will be easier to accept for the consumers across the world.

Jeremy Au: [00:09:52] What does your day-to-day look like?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:09:56] It's a very difficult question. It changes. So for example today I had a couple of investor calls in the morning, reached out to some potential hires, had a call with potential advisors. So now having the podcast. Later I want to reach out to more potential hires. So today is a lot of reaching out essentially in calls, some other days will be more groundwork. So looking at what we're doing, reading papers. So it depends, but I would say a lot of time really spent essentially connecting with people, whether it's investors, people in the field, potential collaborators, hires, and people like that.

Jeremy Au: [00:10:37] You have a ton of technical experience. I'm kind of curious, what advice would you give for people who share a similar technical background who are looking to become founders?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:10:48] For me, personally I think I always knew that I would want to take a more business angle to it. I wouldn't say I'm the best chemical engineer there is on this planet. I always knew that I really wanted to combine it with the business side and this is something that I always had. But I've seen for one, our head of R&D that really comes from a pure academic background, pending masters, Ph.D., three post-docs, all in Oxford University and now helping a little bit as well on some of the business side, and I think it's really daring to do so. You'll learn, and you'll find ways to learn, and I think it's daring to do so and daring to ask the questions and saying, "I don't understand this. Can you please explain?" It's often as simple as that.

It's much easier to go from the technical to the business than the opposite often. So I think if you're able to do a lot of the technical skills if you really want to as well. So it's a question whether you really want to learn some of the business skills. You'll find a way and it's really daring to do so and daring to ask the questions and really finding the resources you need to do this.

Jeremy Au: [00:11:51] When did you first catch the start-up bug? Was it a book that you read, was it someone you met?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:11:58] It's difficult to say? My mum would say it's when I was seven years old and started selling unicorn-poop paintings to our neighbors. But probably a bit later, really in university I think is when I really started reading. I don't remember a specific book or article or anything that changed. I do remember though when I was doing my old startup talk from Sam Altman that I went to, and I remember him saying how if you do something really big and really ambitious, it's not necessarily going to be harder than doing something small and fairly simple. And I really found that to be true and that really stuck with me. And I think that was one of the reasons that really pushed me to do something bigger, essentially and more ambitious.

Jeremy Au: [00:12:40] What books would you recommend? So you've shared a bit about Sam Altman's talks. What else would you recommend for other prospective founders to think about?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:12:50] Yeah, so I think you'll have your obvious start-up books in a way that are very good, like 'The Hard Things About Hard Things' by Ben Horowitz. But I think you'll also have other books that will really help you out on your journey. So 'Why We Sleep', again, really changed my perception of how important it is to sleep and goes, I think, against some of that perception that you really shouldn't sleep and if you work 20 hours a day that's the best thing you can do. So I think working hard, but also making sure that you are sleeping enough. Another is 'Man's Search for Meaning' by Viktor Frankl. And again when you're actually going through things that you feel are hard it's a really good one to read about resilience, just human resilience and it will very, very quickly, put you back into perspective. So I think probably these would be three that come to mind, feel free to reach out to me, I have loads more to share.

Jeremy Au: [00:13:44] What meaning do you find in the startup day-to-day?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:13:49] For me, it's two things. One the bigger cause. So knowing really whatever I'm doing is helping the field advance. So no matter what ends up happening to my startup, it's really the field of cultivated meat. I really think we'll do something good for the future and whatever I'm doing will help that field advance. And I think the second thing is the people that I'm meeting along the way, for example, yourself. But I think really meeting amazing people along the way gives meaning to what I'm doing. And I think helps on the not really long-term horizon, but on the really short term, helps me give meaning essentially to what I'm doing.

Jeremy Au: [00:14:26] That reminds me about how we met in a leadership peer group of other founders. And, it was such a blast to share our woes and progresses. So I always say it feels like startup life is like 90% goals and 10% successes that we're just working towards. How do you feel about that?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:14:47] It's really important to have that peer group that you can rely on. And sometimes as well, I think a couple of us mentioned that having several peer groups so that you don't burn out one of them with all your 90% problems. I mean, it's really important to take the time sometimes to discuss this because some people will have gone through the problems that you've been through. You can have different perspectives with the problems that you've been through. But it's often you're so much in the every-day of it. In the same way as you have advisors having as well people that are at a similar stage as you and going through some of the same problems that you are going through really helps.

Jeremy Au: [00:15:26] Who are your peer groups that you activate and find companionship with?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:15:34] So I would say some of my peer groups, my friends from home, some of them are founders. I have the people that I've met through Entrepreneur First, we met on Better Work Circles which was really helpful. And I think as well as some of the people in the industry that I'm in. So it's a very friendly overall industry in the alternative proteins and I think I created some friendships as well with some of the founders in the field.

Jeremy Au: [00:15:59] That's awesome that you have all these peer groups that you're able to tap on. What do you do for fun to unwind on a weekend?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:16:07] Recently I've really enjoyed walking because I think with COVID we're really trapped inside and I'm not moving as much for meetings and for work. So I try going for walks and either I'll call a friend or try as well to see friends that don't live far and sometimes even friends that live a bit further. So try to walk a lot, I think that's probably the one thing and it's really helped me throughout the lockdown. How about you?

Jeremy Au: [00:16:34] I think I've really enjoyed spending time with family during this time. It was just nice to just circle up and get meals together and cook and just catch up on life. It's nice to do that because I think the entire world seems to be retreating back to the homes with family and it's what's important during this time. So that's been a nice way to unwind and as the lockdown eases, nice way to also unwind has been doing more exercise outside as well. So I also really enjoy walks and it's been nice to do a few more of the more adventurous hikes just to walk around the forest or climb a small hill. And it feels good to do that with another friend as well. So I try to bring my friend with me so that we both go on a hike together and we can talk along the way.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:17:26] I love hikes. Sometimes the problem is if it gets really, really steep, I get height fright. And it depends, if I'm with a friend that's confident, then I'm good. When I go with my mom, we get scared at different points and it's the blind leads the blind. So it's usually not a good idea, but I'm still alive.

Jeremy Au: [00:17:47] Well, it does feel like it describes the startup journey a little bit. Like we all get scared along the way and we help each other kind of cross those tough points and somehow we're still alive.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:17:58] Exactly. I mean, a friend of mine climbs professional pretty much and climbs glaciers and I'm like, I don't know how you do this. And he says, "Oh, it's a bit like startups." I can deal with the problems of startups, but I'm not sure I'd go climbing without any ropes yet.

Jeremy Au: [00:18:17] Yeah. I mean, I think this is such a true thing, right? Because I guess for us it feels like such a risky thing to do to climb without ropes, but for them, they feel like it's not that risky at all from their perspective, right? And I feel like there's something similar happens for us as startup founders because everybody thinks we're these crazy risky people taking on humongous risk. And I don't feel like that. I mean, I feel like maybe it's not that risky as they think. I mean, there's still some risk obviously with the product-market fit, how to scale, how to fundraise, the team dynamics, but much more manageable or much more under control compared to what the general public thinks. What do you think about that?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:19:00] I absolutely agree. I mean, I remember a candidate asking me, "What, if I join you, and six months later the company fails?" And I said, "Well, what if you join, I don't know, GSK and they went bankrupt or they fired you?" Anything can happen with this. You see some way, way bigger companies with Coronavirus at the moment, get rid of a lot of people. A lot of people are going bankrupt whereas some startups survive. So I think there's sometimes a false sense of stability. I'm still not keen on the climbing without a rope, but I think it's, as you say, it's very personal and risk is a very personal thing and how it's perceived. As human beings, usually, we're not necessarily great at really calculating risk in general and anything that's really statistics.

Jeremy Au: [00:19:45] That's so true. I think the pandemic has really shaken, you know, the kind of foundations of all the big companies and lots of other companies that was seen as iron bowls. It's very true that these days the only true stability you have is the skillset. I think you and I have really built a lot of skills from building startups because we're forced to read papers faster, forced to hustle about understanding the economics of the business faster. So we really always being pushed out of a comfort zone. At least that's how I think about it. How do you think about being outside of the comfort zone and what you've learned so far in startups?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:20:21] Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think actually the best skill is learning to learn. And I think that's the biggest thing that a startup teaches you is you're constantly having surprises and you really learn how to learn really fast. However the world changes you'll learn how to adapt to it because you know how to learn faster than in a conventional concept. So even if you're not the biggest expert in this tiny thing you can learn what some people will learn in 10 years in a couple of months because you know how to learn faster essentially.

Jeremy Au: [00:20:53] Reminds me of the tweet where someone was saying that we have to teach children how to Google because Google lets you learn a subject faster than anybody could have done five years ago or 10 years ago. I mean this day you could pull up a field on anything like quantum biology and just start learning about what's the implications, what they're trying to do differently in that field. And that was this totally inaccessible to the world let alone myself 10 years ago. So it's kind of crazy how the internet lets us have a competitive advantage by just learning faster, right? Because otherwise it would be using encyclopedias and trying to cobble it together by asking friends or being forced to study it at a university.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:21:40] No, absolutely. I think it's really helped make everything more accessible. I think the key is also knowing to remove some of the distractions and knowing what you should be learning and what is really just a distraction. And I think that's the hard part about having so much information.

Jeremy Au: [00:21:58] What are the models that you use to filter information that's relevant, but as this information that's nice to have versus information that's really not needed?

Benjamina Bollag: [00:22:09] You often kind of know. And I think it's really about the time you put in each. So making sure you spend the most time on what's really helpful, but it's also sometimes good to look at the things that are not necessarily directly relevant because you often can get ideas and more and more, you see the best inventions come from crossing fields. And maybe I'll read something in physics that will really help us, even though reading about, maybe astrophysics is not necessarily directly relevant to what we're doing, but it might be that there's something there that can help us. And there's a lot of inventions that happen this way. So I think you have to allow yourself time as well to go outside of your field, but also know that the majority of time shouldn't be spent on things that are not necessarily directly relevant, again, time management.

Jeremy Au: [00:22:58] How do you handle time management?

 Benjamina Bollag: [00:23:01] It's a hard one. I've started really putting everything on my calendar and that helps a lot. I've been using a lot [of] 'notion' to just handle everything. So between that and the calendar knowing kind of my, to-do list, when I want to do it, but it's definitely something that I need to work on because it's something that is constant improvement. You always have all the things you plan and then one takes a bit longer and it's hard to be strict on yourself. But yeah, I would say there's a couple of things. If you add too many tools, then it takes some more time to go through the tools, than actually do what you need to do. So I think keeping it fairly simple, I try to plan a week in advance and then the night before, and then the morning before. So for example, the night before I might have planned something, but in the morning, if I see an email that's something more urgent then it might change, but really try to have those allocated time slots in which I plan my day and try as much as I can not to change it.

Jeremy Au: [00:23:59] Awesome. Last question. If you could go back 10 years in time what advice would you give to yourself?

 Benjamina Bollag: [00:24:06] I think read more that would be my number one. I've done well on the networking, getting to know people, getting a good network, and things like that. But I think I started really getting into reading a little bit later. I think reading more from a younger age and not just getting into the subjects that I cared about and more just general literature. I think that would be one thing that I would tell myself.

 Jeremy Au: [00:24:34] Awesome. Thank you so much.

Benjamina Bollag: [00:24:36] Thank you.

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