Canada-based Chinova Bioworks made headlines recently for its $6 million Series A raise. Its CEO and co-founder Natasha Dhayagude launched the company with a mission to produce natural and clean-label preservatives to cater to increasingly health-conscious consumers. (Disclosure: AFN’s parent company, AgFunder, is an investor in Chinova Bioworks.)
Starting out, Dhayagude and her team faced a string of challenges common to hard-tech startups, such as lack of access to lab facilities, talent and financial resources. Chinova has nevertheless successfully launched six product lines in the food and beverage market under the trade name Chiber. Each product formulation protects against major spoilage in dairy, plant-based meat, baked goods, sauces, spreads and beverages, helping to curb food waste.
Dhayagude shares with AFN her journey as an entrepreneur in bio-foodtech, how she teamed up with her co-founder David Brown, and how together they’re addressing consumers’ intensifying demand for transparency in what they eat and drink.
AFN: How did you end up becoming an entrepreneur in bio-foodtech?
ND: My family and I immigrated to Canada when I was 10 years old from Pune, India. My first job after graduation from university was at Planet Hatch, which helped immerse me into the world of startups. I had the opportunity to meet with many great startups working in various industries, from cybersecurity to tech to biotech. My role was to connect companies and startups to resources they would need to grow. At one of the events I organized I met my co-founder David Brown.
My educational background in biochemistry and my position at Planet Hatch allowed me to see first-hand how start-ups work and all the resources and funding needed to make them successful. This merged perfectly with Dave’s background in microbiology and biotechnology to create Chinova Bioworks. We started Chinova in 2016.
I have always wanted to work in a field where I could combine my knowledge and experience of both science and business. [Dave and I share] a common interest in the science of mushrooms, reducing food waste and sustainable solutions for developing a clean-label preservative ingredient. Looking to nature, we came across a natural and sustainable alternative to artificial preservatives in a fiber extracted from white button mushrooms.
AFN: Go back a step: how did you discover that you could derive food preservatives from mushrooms?
ND: Both Dave and I are passionate about mushrooms and the inherent health benefits they have on the food system. The more we studied mushrooms, the more tests and research we were able to perform to bring out the traits to make a viable natural preservative. It’s the mushroom that led us down the path we are today, and it is where we still see potential for growth.
Four years of R&D went into developing the product lines and manufacturing process. The process for making the mushroom extract is a similar to how most plant fibers are naturally extracted. It involves drying the mushrooms, grinding them and using heat and water to purify the fiber from the stems. It is minimal and eco-friendly and helps deliver a natural mushroom fiber that improves product quality, freshness and shelf-life.
AFN: What’s the significance of this approach to food preservation, versus other sustainable methods of preservation, such as organic films?
ND: Chinova wants to make an environmental and social impact in the world.
The stems of white button mushrooms are typically wasted or recycled. We work with mushroom farmers to harvest the wasted stems and upcycle them into a commercially viable ingredient.
With new product development, we want to continue the upcycling of supply to produce natural and sustainable products that impact various markets.
AFN: Where is Chinova in terms of selling its products on the market?
ND: We are currently scaling up our manufacturing operations to meet the high volume demand from customers. We are moving into a new 20,000 sq/ft facility, the Bioscience Manufacturing Incubator, which is built by the PEI BioAlliance and is specifically designed to meet the strict regulatory standards required for the production of natural products.
AFN: What has your consumer education journey on natural preservatives been like?
ND: We have recently expanded the marketing team to change the way the public perceives the word “preservative.” Preservation is essential to almost all consumer products; it helps keep foods safe for consumption and safeguards products from spoiling and causing sickness.
Consumers want natural and clean-label products, because they want transparency. That comes by formulating products with ingredients the public knows and trusts. When consumers compare labels, they are more likely to justify their spending on a product with ingredients they know and can pronounce versus ingredients they’ve never heard of before.
Since we are a B2B company, we understand that increasing consumer awareness will only help our customers – the food and beverage manufacturers – be more transparent with the public. This will also contribute to changing the negative perceptions of preservatives.
AFN: How would you describe the mood of investors toward natural preservatives?
ND: Mushrooms are a top trend within the [food] industry today, and both brands and consumers are embracing them. We are at the forefront of that innovation, which investors want to see. We prioritized bringing in strategic investors who understand our mission and impact and deliver more than just capital. Our partners have helped us navigate regulatory and manufacturing demands and supply support into other operational facets of the business, which has added to our growth. For instance, Rich Product Ventures is not only an investor but a customer that is currently using Chiber.
When taking funding, it is paramount to understand investors’ standpoint and see if it aligns with your business goals. If it doesn’t align, then conversations need to be had to determine realistic goals to make the partnership successful. Our strategic investors understand the industry we are in and the time it takes to build and grow this business.
AFN: What would be your advice for entrepreneurs venturing into the bio-foodtech space?
ND: My advice would be that nothing of value comes easily. In fact, anything of value takes time, whether it’s developing a skill, building a relationship or launching a business initiative. Long timelines are a natural part of this type of business: long sales cycles, long regulatory timelines and extensive research and development to get to a final commercially-viable product.
This is why practicing patience has become key for me as Chinova continues to grow and become more complex to navigate.
Having a clear vision and deciding what really excites and challenges me is my best motivator. That’s the thing that keeps me going. I truly believe that every decision you make, from what you eat to what you do with your time, turns you into who you are tomorrow. I always try to look at who I want to be, and start sculpting myself into learning those skills or having those attributes. If you’re not prepared, that’s where fear comes from: not knowing what to expect and not feeling you have any control over what’s about to happen. I find preparation extremely important and key in keeping me moving forward.