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Here are the show notes for episode five of Sound Advice, get year one in business right, brought to you by Sage.
We’re bringing you real stories from some brilliant entrepreneurs. Sound Advice is all about finding those practical tips that you can take away when you set up your small business.
We want to be there to help you through challenging times and give you a little lift when a problem seems too big to solve on your own.
What if you have a fantastic invention or genius idea that you haven’t seen developed by anyone else?
We’re looking at a fascinating startup conundrum – how do you take a brand new innovation or technology and turn it into a viable venture?
Solveiga Pakštaitė is a remarkable entrepreneur and the inventor of Mimica, a unique food expiry labelling technology that reduces waste by telling the user how much food has spoilt, simply by touching it.
How did she develop her idea, and how did she secure a patent to protect it? And when she wanted to build her university idea and turn it into something that could work for a full blown business, what did she do?
Navigate out show notes to quickly find the information you need.
Pick an everyday problem and solve it. Hey presto, a USP
If, like me, you’ve ever looked at that pack of mince in the fridge, seen it’s a couple of days past expiry and wondered, “dare I?”, then you’re going to absolutely love Mimica.
Solveiga has created food expiry labelling technology that tells you when things are off – goodbye arbitrary expiry labels, hello massive reduction in food waste.
I studied industrial design at Brunel University, which is another way of saying product design, which people are more familiar with.
I was always interested in the idea of inclusive design. I did a year in industry, where I got the chance to work with people with visual impairments on a transportation project.
While observing people on long train journeys, I got the chance to ask some nosy questions, which was fun!
I learned that a huge issue for people with visual impairments is knowing when food spoils because now, expiry dates are all visual.
So, in my final year, I decided that this would be an interesting topic for my final major project.
I quickly realised that we’re all blind to when our food spoils, which is why we waste so much. 60% of the food we throw away here in the UK is still perfectly edible, so the expiry date system has needed an overhaul for a while.
I ended up developing a label that tells you exactly when food spoils by changing its texture.
When the label is smooth, it’s still perfectly safe and fresh to eat, and only when you feel bumps, that’s when you know the food shouldn’t be consumed anymore.
The way it works is that inside the label there’s a gel which spoils at the same rate as food. We can calibrate that spoilage by mapping and matching the spoilage characteristics of a specific food as beef.
By making the gel as temperature-sensitive as a piece of beef, it’s going to respond to temperature in the same way, as the product travels through the supply chain and into our homes.
Step outside of your comfort zone
That sounds like magic. You had to come up with that the solution, and then actually find the right material with those properties, so you can adjust and tweak to mimic the food in the packaging.
How did you do this?
I know that you were studying that at university, but are you just incredibly good at problem solving? Where did you start?
I got the idea through looking at an old banana.
The banana’s skin was changing and was turning brown and spotty and a bit bumpy. It was clear that the banana was not as young and fresh as it used to be, and needed to be eaten soon.
It would be interesting if our packaging could respond like an old banana, letting us know some key information about its freshness.
I knew from that point that I would have to step outside of my comfort zone of product design and step into the world of chemistry and biology.
I reached out to a chemist on campus, who suggested that I look into the field of gels. He said it was an unexplored material and could have some interesting properties for me, particularly as I was looking for a texture change.
It was a case of playing around and studying books to understand what would change the gel’s properties, and then just running loads of tests in the kitchen.
Of course these days it’s not only in my university kitchen. Mimica now has a lab team doing that 24 hours, running experiments seven days a week.
Don’t let anything stand in your way
I love that you weren’t a chemist, and that didn’t stand in your way. I think for many people starting businesses, especially when they have ideas like yours, they say, “wow, why hasn’t that been done before?”
People stop. They say, “that’s not my specialism, I didn’t go to university to study that.” But you came up against that wall and instead of going, “stop”, you said, “Hey, I’ll ask someone who knows.”
Incredibly, you haven’t let anything stand in your way. Is that very much part of your personality, that you knock on doors and push on?
The first thing we were encouraged on our programme to do was to become experts in whatever we were designing.
I took that very literally, and unofficially did an honorary science degree on the side! To achieve good design, you need to look at it from a multidisciplinary perspective.
What made me go forward with Mimica? I think for most of my life, I’ve been willing to take a punt.
Thinking about where that all started, I was incredibly shy after moving to the UK as a very young child. I was a weird Lithuanian girl who had just moved from Norway, where I was born.
I had this weird accent and stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no way of me blending in, and obviously, I was going to be the subject of some picking on and bullying.
My mum told me, “you need to stand up for yourself, as you’re not going to change who you are.”
She permitted me to punch people if I needed to. Usually, your parents might tell you something else, but she said, “If your teachers tell you off for punching someone, they can speak to me.”
While I disagree entirely with that school of thought, I think that permission to punch made me realise from a young age that I didn’t always have to follow the rules if it wasn’t in my best interest.
Find out if your idea is commercially viable
So, you started the Mimica project at university – when did you decide it could be a business?
Was that from day one, or did you have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is commercially viable”?
There were two main steps in turning Mimica into a company. The first was a mid-final year exhibition where we would get advice from industry people on how we should finalise our projects and put them forward.
I was talking to this packaging designer about a very early concept of Mimica Touch, and at the end of listening to me, we talked about it, and he said, “You should protect that.”
That was the first time anyone had planted a seed in my head – that this idea might be worth protecting and doing something with.
I was luckily enough to have some leftover scholarship money from the James Dyson Foundation, which we could use to take our projects to the next level.
Because my materials were so cheap, I hadn’t spent much of it at all towards the end of the year, so I decided to spend the rest of it on filing a patent.
I thought: “This is just for me to learn how patents work. It’s another string to my bow, and I’m sure I’ll be filing a few during my career.”
By then, the James Dyson Foundation encouraged me to apply for their award, the James Dyson Award, which looks for the best solution that solves ideas every year.
I applied, forgot about it, started an internship. In my second week, I got a call telling me that I’d won the award, which was an utter surprise.
I went through an intense and odd few weeks of being in the press and radio doing all these interviews.
Suddenly, quite a few people were finding out about my concept. Food retailers and food producers started getting in touch with me asking me for meetings, for me to write proposals, and asking me, “Can we trial this?”
At first, my reaction was, “What are you talking about? This is just a concept. I’m a graduate just trying to get on with my internship.”
But I was sneaking out at lunchtimes from this internship to have meetings at the head office of Coca-Cola and other companies, so it was quite a crazy time.
If you’re doing it, you’re an entrepreneur
I finished that internship but had been busy doing Mimica stuff on the side. I was telling my friends, “Gosh, I haven’t lined anything new up after my internship.” And they said to me, “What are you talking about? You’re doing it.”
I think I was in denial about the fact that I was starting to be an entrepreneur, and for me, it was “Let’s just see what happens with this.”
I decided to give it six months and see where it went – we’re still here, and now I’ve got 10 people in my team, which is fantastic.
That is serious denial, given that James Dyson, probably the most famous British inventor of recent years, was giving you wedges of cash and telling you, “You’ve got a great idea,” while you’re saying “no, that’s not right for me.”
That’s an incredible story. So, how did you get on James Dyson’s radar in the first place?
Dyson had a close connection to the top design schools at Loughborough University and Brunel University and gave away six £1,000 scholarships to final year students every year.
You just had to apply and explain why your project was interesting, and why it deserved the extra funding and the extra push. They selected me for one of those scholarships that year.
That’s amazing. Basically that £1,000 was your startup pot, and was that enough to get you going?
Apply for grants – you don’t necessarily need a traditional bank loan
The £1,000 paid for the early materials that I used in my final year and for finalising the patent. That’s not going to get you very far, and I needed to apply for some more grants after the James Dyson Award.
Again, I was in denial.
I’d met a business consultant called Kristina at my graduate show, and she asked me, “Have you protected this idea? This is incredible.” And I said, “yeah, I filed a patent last week.” So she replied, “Here’s my card. We should bring it forward to market.”
I didn’t think it was serious, so I was thinking, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” But I took her card anyway. And then, a few months down the line, I’d won the award, and all this madness was happening to me.
All these food producers wanted to talk to me. I dug out her card which, thank goodness, I hadn’t thrown away. I called her, and I said, “Kristina, help me.”
She helped me write my first grant applications because she said that’s what I needed to do first.
We won about, in the early days, 75% of them. So, that brought in a real chunk of cash that I could start doing something with, and we set up a lab partnership with the University of Chester, which is still where our labs are today.
That allowed me to start hiring my first team members, which, of course, were scientists.
I didn’t realise there are so many grants out there, but that’s excellent advice.
So, if you’ve got a new, ingenious invention that could make a difference to the mass market, you don’t (necessarily) have to go down the traditional route of going to your bank manager, because there are lots of pots of money everywhere.
How did you find the grants? Did your business consultant already know the best places to look?
She knew where the grants were. So, I think, if you’re starting and you’re interested in grants, speak to an entrepreneur.
Most of the grants were for social impact ideas, so not every business type will be eligible.
But if you’re developing technology, there’s quite a decent amount of funding for that. But you can also have a Google, and there are also some platforms where you can have a look for grants that you can apply for.
You can filter everything. “I’m early stage. I’m working in agriculture. I’m helping farmers do this, that and the other. And this is the amount that I’m looking for.”
And then you can find the grants that you can apply for.
The road to market might be long, keep adding value to consumers
How far are you from getting to market, and what will getting to market look like for you?
Is it about getting products on the shelves? Or is it experimenting with brands?
What comes next in your journey?
We’re still at the stage where we’re pre-proper launch. The lab work took several years before we got the process working every time, with chemistry that we could scale, but that didn’t stop us working with brands to do some tests.
We did a large consumer study with a big dairy company, which was incredibly successful.
So, I think what has to happen in parallel while developing the technology is checking that it will add value and consumers will want it by the time you’ve finished creating it.
So, that’s mostly the nature of the work that we’ve been doing with brands, and looking at whether it will change behaviour and asking, “is there a need for this? And who are going to be our early adopters? And who do we market to when we first launch this?”
That was the brand work that we’ve been doing while working on completing the development. Now we are working on scaling.
Find a good mentor to save you light years in time and pain
It’s quite tricky to go from something that works when you’re doing it in your university kitchen, through to something that works every time and is then scalable so you can manufacturer it in huge quantities.
Talk to me about that process, how tricky was it? You mentioned years, but talk me through step by step how you managed to surmount those challenges to get to that mass-market proposition.
A few different things had to happen, which I wasn’t equipped for when I first started.
I initially relied on a lot of mentorships – people who had the business expertise that I lacked. Even though I was learning a lot every day, I still couldn’t replicate other people’s many years of expertise.
I set out to be a very avid learner and met many people in the food industry and from other industries because you can learn from many different disciplines. I became a very promiscuous mentee.
Eventually, an opportunity turned up to bring a couple of experts in-house to the business, that had built a company called It’s Fresh! that was also in the smart packaging space and looking to reduce food waste.
It’s Fresh! do it differently, using different technology, that absorbs ripening hormones from the fruit and various.
These two guys, who became Mimica’s CEO [Laurence Kayson] and the CTO [Lawrence Matthews], built It’s Fresh! in seven years and sold it for a considerable sum, which was very impressive. They were looking for their next thing,
I’d already been talking to Matthews at various packaging events, after being introduced to him by the head of innovation at Marks and Spencer, who introduced me and said, “he’s a few years ahead from you, he could teach you something.”
So, I kept in touch with Matthews, who mentored me a little bit.
When they exited the company, Matthews said, “Listen, I and the CEO are exiting It’s Fresh! are we’re looking for a new challenge.”
They said that they were interested in helping Mimica. So, I had a chat with them when I was still running everything myself. I had them scheduled in for an hour conversation.
They came in and ended up staying three hours just because of how many stories they had to tell – about how to price it right and how to scale something from the lab bench to millions of units, and all of that.
I knew straight away that they were going to save me light years in time and pain.
I initially brought them on board as consultants that I probably couldn’t afford at that time, but I knew that I had to find a way to get them on board.
Eventually, maybe nine months in, I invited them to have more senior positions in the company as our CEO and CTO, and that point I decided to step aside.
Both of their names are Laurence, so the CTO [Matthews] is called Lawrie and the other one we call Laurence [Kayson] is our CEO.
I think that’s an important strategic point, realising that I can’t do it myself and knowing that I needed that help.
Building the business is something that the CEO and CTO have been able to help us do, which was incredibly crucial.
It also shifted us away from grants. We still apply, but don’t rely on them anymore, as we’re bringing in some investment.
Create the right partnerships
Was it unusual chatting to a rival? Because when you’re talking about It’s Fresh!, it’s a different technology that achieves the same aim. Is it just quite friendly in your industry where everyone helps each other? Because that’s the opposite of what you imagine.
I would say they weren’t a direct competitor. It’s Fresh! extends shelf life by removing the ripening hormone. They made these pads that go into the punnet, which aren’t labels.
So, you could almost use them together, as they’re complementary technologies.
That’s what our CTO and started talking about. He was asking, “Can we extend shelf life and prove it?” So, that was quite interesting for them, but Laurence and Lawrie ended up doing that work internally at Mimica as well, we’re so lucky to have them on board.
Go for small events, rather than big trade shows
But you met them at a trade show, right? Is that quite a good idea if you’ve got an innovation, to get out to trade shows and meet people? Otherwise, you would never have made that connection, and you wouldn’t have your CTO and CEO.
I’m not such a fan of trade shows. I met our CTO at a very small smart packaging seminar with only 30 people. But the right people were in the room.
I’d look more for smaller, niche events – the smaller and the more niche as possible.
I had to travel three hours outside of London to go to this one seminar. I did have a speaking slot, so I think that made it worth my while, but you might show up and think, “gosh, I’ve done all this travel to meet 29 people.”
But what if they’re the right people?
Trade shows are so big, and I don’t think I’d recommend going to them when you’re first starting because you’ll just get lost.
I think you need to be in smaller, more comfortable rooms to develop your value proposition. You need to find out what works when you’re talking to people, and that smaller setting is a perfect testbed for that before you do the bigger shows.
I was ghosted by an investor, but I emerged the stronger for it
That’s brilliant advice.
Do you mind telling me about your funding history? So, you started with grants, but then you did some fundraising.
Talk to me about what it’s been like to raise money for your startup, and about the bumps in the journey. Because, a little bird told me that you’d had a few interesting twists and turns along the way, so please, do share them.
Yeah, so one story that comes to mind, it’s not a very easy one for me to tell, and I’m a bit scarred from it.
There was time I was at the point of thinking, “maybe I should raise some investment. We’ve done quite well with grants, but they might not last forever.”
I had this one angel investor, a private investor very interested in what we were doing. He had committed to putting in some money, about £50,000. That was a considerable sum at that time and still is. He was enthusiastic and said, “the money’s ready. The terms look good.”
He even gave me a date when the money was going to come in, and all that was left was for him to sign the contract and send the money.
And that day came. Nothing – I couldn’t get hold of him.
The weekend passed and still couldn’t get hold of him. He’d completely ghosted me, so I guess he got cold feet at the end. I’m not sure what happened.
Because I was naive and trusted that money would come in, I hadn’t made any other provisions. I relied on that money coming in at that point because we’d run out of grant money.
And, it got to the end of the month, and I couldn’t pay people. Of course, I was never going to let that happen. I would never get in a position where people wouldn’t get paid for their work.
So, as a plan B, I had looked up some high-interest loans where I would have to put down my name as security, which means that they could go after me.
But that was what I was willing to do for my team. But, in the end, I said, “This is stupid – these interest rates are crazy.”
I’ve never been the child who asked her parents for money, and they’ve always told me, “You need to save for something. You need to be independent.” So, it was such a moment of embarrassment for me to have to call my mum.
And picture this. We’d moved into a new office space. I found a room that hadn’t been turned into an office yet, and I sat under a desk on the floor, calling my mum sobbing, asking her if she would lend me any money because I needed to pay my staff.
She agreed, but she said, “Just so you know, this is your wedding money that we’ve been saving throughout your whole life, so don’t mess this up.”
So, of course, I thanked her and took the money.
It wasn’t a small amount – about £10,000. I managed to pay my team, and of course, the next month was going to roll around, and I had to pull in a new investor within one month. I managed that, so that made us more stable for a while.
Charge money for your time
I was slowly able to pay my mum off within a year after borrowing that money. That’s when I realised that I should start charging for my time.
I’d been quite lucky after winning the James Dyson Award in that I had, as a result, some cool speaking gigs. I’d done a TED talk earlier on, and then afterwards I was invited to speak at a lot of conferences. And I never thought to charge for my time.
I was speaking to an influencer called Lauren Singer, who is active in the zero-waste community. I told her about all this speaking stuff, and she asked me, “What rates do you charge?” I replied, “I hadn’t even thought to charge them.”
I remember, she put her hand on my knee, and said, “You don’t work for free.”
I will always remember that advice, and from then I started asking for my time to be compensated. That’s how I managed to pay my mum back, in speaking engagements.
So, I’m pleased that I learnt that lesson and found a new income stream to support myself while building Mimica.
What that taught me is that, especially if it’s someone you haven’t known for that long, the deal isn’t done until the money is in the bank.
It taught me to be a lot less naive, and that’s another reason why it was such a good idea for me to bring people in.
I’m a natural optimist, and it was such a good idea for me to bring in someone like our CEO, who is a lot more cautious. Even if the signs are there that things will go well, he will always think of how it can go wrong.
So, I believe that balance works very well for us.
Ensure your business plan takes a bottom-up approach
And when you were going after funding, presumably you had a business plan.
How tricky was that to do given that you developed something brand new, and how on earth did you try and do forecasts and work out how much money you were going to make?
With great difficulty. It was a lot of fingers in the air and trying to research what I could. I studied the RFID (Radio Frequency Identification Technology) sensor market, which I thought could be similar to ours, even though the pricing is higher.
But there’s very little information available about the limited smart packaging market, so it was all based on what we think we could sell the product for.
We always knew that it had to be very low cost for it to scale and have the impact that it needs to have.
We try to take more of a bottom-up approach.
Say we’re going to do red meat. We would ask who sells the most red meat in the UK, from our contacts, and is it feasible that we could work with them?
And if we get that sale, how many units do they produce a year? What percentage of those units could we go into in the first year?
If we convince them maybe that could go onto 30% of their stock, and then 50% and then perhaps up to 90% of their stock. And then, what does that mean for us? And how much do we need to pay everyone to produce it?
So, I think it’s much easier when you’re just entering a brand new area, to take the realistic bottom-up approach. Your numbers will be smaller, but they will at least be believable and achievable.
Under sell and over deliver to investors
You can always excel and outperform your numbers, and that’s what investors want. They want you to under sell and over deliver, not the other way round.
I initially had to work out these numbers before Laurence and Lawrie joined the company, but then after they joined they had stories where they had a real increase with a retailer going up from year one to year two.
And then, investors ask, “Is that possible?” And Laurence and Lawrie have three examples of where retailers liked something, where they ramped up sales, and where retailers put it across all of their stores.”
So, it’s nice having them say, “Yes, this is what happens in the industry.” Rather than me just speculating on what could happen.
That can’t be understated – you need that experience in the room, especially if you’re dealing with major retailers and food producers.
Use visual shortcuts to make people remember you
How receptive have people been? You mentioned causing a big splash after the James Dyson Award, and that’s when I heard of you.
But, that period where you’re all over the papers is short lived.
You’ve got to maintain that trajectory, so how hard was it to have meaningful conversations with the big brands? And how did you get your foot in the door?
My strategy was to say yes to all of the speaking engagements that I got invited to, mostly within food innovation type conferences and seminars.
I quickly realised that I only had to do five to 10 events until people felt that I was everywhere because it was a tiny bubble. Eventually, you start getting invites to meetings, and people wait behind to speak to you after your speaking engagement.
Having something memorable, like my red glasses, doesn’t hurt as well. Because if you’ve spoken to that person in the past and then you’ve seen them again at another conference, they might be a big person at a large company, who have a lot of people approaching them.
And so, having that visual shortcut to, “I remember what we discussed last time. You’re the label girl.” It helps and builds that familiarity and confidence to bring you in and meet some other people in the company.
A combination of being memorable and a bit cheeky, and just saying hello even though you might be a bit too nervous to say hello. You grit your teeth and introduce yourself.
Eventually, if you practice what you do in 30 seconds, hopefully, they’ll be interested enough to find out some more and invite you to some meetings.
Visual shortcuts, I love that. How did you learn about that?
I did an A level in psychology, where I learned about memory, how the brain works, and shortcuts. Because the brain is lazy, it has to do a lot of stuff, so if you give it a chance to shortcut, it will take the shortcut.
Knowing that I think I realised why people remembered me because people always commented on my glasses. I said to myself: “OK, these aren’t going anywhere.”
Follow your passion
You seem so passionate about reducing food waste, where does that come from?
As a Lithuanian, everyone has a first-hand or second-hand experience of rationing while Lithuania was under the Soviet regime.
My parents and grandparents that were under that.
They brought me up in a way where I was told, “You do not waste anything. You must eat every grain of rice on your plate. Whatever you don’t eat today, it’s just going to be your next meal, so you better eat it now.”
Coming to university for the first time, I hadn’t realised how much food waste was happening. Seeing students not planning meals, having blind faith in expiry dates, and not checking their food, was particularly shocking.
So, that was on a small scale.
But then I started working at the campus café, and that’s when I got a glimpse into industrial levels of waste. At the end of the day in the café, we threw out everything past the expiry date.
There were colossal bin bags full of sandwiches, paninis, salads and all sorts, being chucked away.
So, I started saying, “Can I just take them with me?” And the manager replied, “Yeah, whatever.” So, I started feeding my halls. Wednesday night was the night I would close, so we’d feed all my corridor.
That’s when I realised, “Wow, how many cafés in the UK do this, and not just cafés…”
It opened my mind about how much waste must be happening. And then, when I looked into the expiry dates, I started picturing these numbers.
Take time to research and understand your industry
Where do expiry dates even come from? And how are they calculated? Because they seem to be a bit random sometimes – stuff goes off before, and stuff can last.
Like jars that say you have to consume within two weeks, and then three months later they’re perfectly fine. Where does it all come from?
The expiry date hasn’t been around for too long – just under 50 years. Marks and Spencer brought it in, but it wasn’t actually for how we use it now.
They just wanted to print sell-by dates, specifically just for staff to use. They wanted to be known as the supermarket that sold all the freshest food.
Before that point, the stock wouldn’t be rotated and would stay on the shelves until it got sold.
That is wonderful for food waste, but not so good for getting the freshest produce. So, Marks and Spencer was the first to start rotating stock and using these encoded dates.
So, word spread and consumers started knowing where to look for these secret dates, and so Marks and Spencer said, “OK, let’s just print them big, on the front of the pack.” And they did a lovely marketing campaign about it.
Expiry dates were a point of innovation, but not for the purpose that it was initially for. And that’s why still, these days, a lot of older people might call them sell-by dates because that’s what they were.
Very quickly, the UK government thought that these were a lovely idea, and by that point, a lot of supermarkets had copied and brought them in. And so, it got legislated.
There was no foundation to how expiry dates got calculated, what they really mean, and that sort of thing.
And then around the same time, the EU (European Union) was being formed and was pulling together laws. The UK law of expiry dates got brought into the EU and spread throughout Europe. But no one had considered how to define or calculate waste.
And still, to this day, in law expiry dates are called dates of minimum durability, meaning that they have to be the worst-case scenario.
Expiry dates don’t have to be, but they recommend the worst-case scenario because you don’t know with so many producing so many units, who will be the person who takes it home and doesn’t refrigerate it.
And they have to work to that worst-case scenario – it’s assuming that we’re not going to keep our food correctly, so that’s why we’re wasting so much good food.
Don’t be afraid to think big
So, if Mimica is a massive success, how much waste do you think you could eliminate?
How much food are we throwing away even just in our homes because we believe it’s past it? Could this have a massive impact? How big could it be?
In the UK we throw away about one-quarter of the food that we buy. That’s like coming out of the supermarket with four bags of full products and then just leaving one of them in the car park, every single week, so that’s mad to think about.
By extending shelf life by a couple of days, it can have a massive impact, because an extra couple of days gives you the chance to find something at the back of the fridge and use it in time. We know for perishable products, if you increase shelf life from seven days by two days, to nine days, in-store waste gets cut in half, and waste in the home goes down by 63%.
It might easy enough to say, “OK, well why don’t producers just do that increase? Job done.”
But again, the issue is that you still don’t know which of those units are not going to be held at the right temperature after they get purchased.
So, it’s still a risk, and that’s why we need individual level freshness indication, which is what we’re providing at Mimica.
Work out you will get to market
So, when are we going to see them on shelves? When am I going to be able to use this stuff? Because I know, it takes a lot of development, but you must be champing at the bit to see these in the real world.
Late last year the UK government announced some grants to help businesses that are going to help the economy and the country… not just build back, but build back better.
Because in the crisis, it’s a good time for innovation, because when you put processes back in place, we can make them more sustainable.
So, I’m pleased to say Mimica was the recipient of one of those grants.
That’s what going to fund scaling up to pilot levels, our first product, which is the label on top of a cap for juice. We’re going to be doing a small pilot of those in the middle of this year.
We’re starting this month on another project, with some significant meat producers across Europe, not just in the UK. We’re going to be scaling up our flat label specifically for red meat.
We’ll be seeing a pilot on those in a couple of countries towards the end of this year.
That’s so cool, congratulations. That must feel like a culmination of years of hard work, and then you’re going to see people picking up these packets and taking them home.
I can’t wait. So, when they first get produced on the line, I want to be there in the factory seeing them off.
How to apply for a patent, and protect your idea
You mentioned, “I applied for a patent.” A patent registers your invention and lets you take legal action against anyone who makes, uses, sells or imports your invention without your permission, according to gov.uk.
How tricky is that to do? How much paperwork is it? How expensive is it? So for anyone who is listening that thinks, “I want to get something patented.” What’s the process?
The patent process is incredibly technical and fiddly. There are two scenarios. I was in a scenario where I didn’t have much money but had a bit of time on my hands. Filing a patent is almost free. I think it’s about £30.
But a patent is so expensive because usually, you want to work with a lawyer to write all of it. After all, they’re going to make it watertight in legal language, and they are expensive. The administration fees aren’t so bad.
I studied patents. There are specific rules, such as how big the margins in the technical drawings have to be.
So, I researched all of the rules, looked at loads of examples, and wrote the first patent myself. I then paid a lawyer for an hour of his time to check it and then sent it off.
Within 12 months you are allowed to make some amendments. So, within that 12 months and after it’s filed, you can start talking about it because you’ve got what’s called the priority date.
You can get some grants in or get a bank loan, whatever you want to do, and then actually pay that lawyer for a bit more of their time to upgrade the patent before the 12 months is up.
So, that’s the way that I’d recommend to create a patent – kind of like a hack to getting your idea protected.
Now we have two patents – we filed a second patent for the cap product. Our lawyer did the whole thing because ultimately that’s much better and you know it’s going to be watertight.
But especially if you’re not sure if you are going to take something forward, I think writing it yourself is not a bad idea.
You haven’t got that much to lose.
And have you had to use the patent at all? Has anyone come to market with something similar? Any copycats nibbling around the edges?
Not exactly with what we’re doing in terms of with gels and texture change. Even before we started there’s been other solutions working on expiry date alternatives.
The food industry is the largest globally, and there’s fantastic innovation happening at other companies – I think it will take a group effort.
I think this is more of an industry shift – it’s not just going to be one solution on the market. So, we see each other at smart packaging events, and we ask how it’s going and share best practices.
Understand compliance in your relevant industry
That’s great. And how did you manage to make inroads in the regulated food industry? Because there’s quite a lot, in terms of compliance, similar to the patent.
Did you just have to learn and read all you could, or did you have some outside help?
So, the Food Standards Agency does free online learning courses, so I did labelling regulation. I would recommend just going straight to the source, learning the rules yourself and getting certification at the end.
That’s what worked for me.
On top, I would bolster that with asking questions. When I was at conferences, I enquired about practices. I asked questions like “How do you calculate shelf life?” and “What tests do you run?”.
They run shelf life tests and calculate how much they want to add on to have the most significant risk minimised. I was very interested in how they do that.
You need to be careful about what you write on the package and what you can say. The critical thing is not to mislead consumers or confuse them, particularly as we’re supplementing the printed date system.
Business valuation is a made-up figure; it’s based on growth, value and risk
When we talked about fundraising earlier, it can be very hard as a startup to put a realistic valuation on your company.
And Dragons’ Den watchers have seen the to and fro between the investors and the entrepreneur. How did you value Mimica when it was in its early days? And what process did you follow?
That’s an interesting question. There are many different methodologies out there to calculate a company valuation that’s not yet making any revenue, which is where everyone starts.
I think that after you’re making revenue, it gets much more comfortable. You calculate multiples of your sales according to how quickly you think you can grow.
But, before that, you can take a top-down approach, bottom-up approach, or you can take very complicated ones like, “How many senior people and how much IP do you have?” I tried all of them, and every single time, you get a different number.
So, in the end, of course, it is made up because it’s just impossible to do that any other way. In the end, it’s just what your investors are willing to pay and what they feel is good value, and what is going to grow.
So, we threw a negotiation and ended up just agreeing on a valuation with our early investor. They’ve been pleased with the value ever since, and we’ve been able to increase it.
So, would you say though, to start by going high because there will always be a negotiation? So it’s worth going for something a bit more ambitious because it’s fair to get knocked down?
I initially went in at a pretty high valuation based on some real numbers in terms of the market and things I thought we could achieve, but if it’s too high for the people who are supporting you, you need to bring it down a little.
So, I said, “There’s a percentage of risk here, so let’s lower it by that per cent.” So, we ended up coming to a valuation that we could all agree.
You need to realise that they’re investing in the person in that early stage, whether or not you can make these specific numbers in the market. The plan changes as soon as you write it down because there are so many things you can’t control.
But if they believe that you took a logical way of working out the valuation and think that you can go after these prospects that will make these numbers happen, that’s the most important thing.
The fact the numbers are not real is beside the point. It’s whether you used a logical process to get them and understand the unknowns that will affect those numbers.
Like when you get points because you’ve shown the right working out from your maths teacher, even if the answer isn’t what they were expecting, at least you showed your workings and how you got there.
Yeah. Most of it is showing up and attitude.
Develop your confidence
I want to go back to something that you talked about right at the start of this episode, about how you’ve had to evolve in your confidence as an individual to weather all the vicissitudes of this journey.
Because you said that when you were a young Lithuanian girl, you had an accent and that you were picked on. You would never know talking to you now that you ever experienced any challenges, because you’re so confident and eloquent.
Talk to me about that development as an individual, what did you have to go through to get over any fears or hang ups from your youth?
One of the big things that helped me is making an excellent friend at the start of university, who had absolute full confidence in herself at all times.
Just being around her just made that rub off on me and realised that many of my hang ups were unfounded.
That was a massive confidence boost. People showing interest in my design work boosted my confidence as well.
In terms of public speaking, speaking in groups, and having that level of confidence, it’s practice.
I want to say “watch my TED talk”, but I also want to say “don’t watch my TED talk”, because I was so nervous and it was the most awful talk I’ve ever given because I gave that at the start of this journey,
Many people don’t realise that developing confidence in speaking is just showing up and doing it. If you don’t get the chance to do a lot of public speaking, get in meeting or group situations.
If you’re listening to a talk, be the first person asking a question. It’s not going to be the best question because it’s your first one. But then you ask another one, and that one will be slightly better, and better phrased.
Also, it’s about realising when you’re talking about your product or solution, that you need to get over yourself, as they’re listening to what you’re saying.
They’re not particularly interested in your weird mannerisms.
Try to keep those at bay, but they’re here because they’re interested in what you are doing. If you are passionate about what you are doing, you won’t need notes. And you’ll keep doing it.
One day people will start complimenting you on your speaking skills and you’ll think, “Where did that come from?”
Return the favour and share your expertise
I love the notion that confidence is almost like a muscle, and the more you use it, the better and stronger it gets.
So, do you do any mentoring yourself now? Having been the promiscuous mentee?
Yes, I do.
I never forget the people who helped me take my first steps, so wherever I see an opportunity where I feel like I can teach people about the first grants that they can apply for, or I can help someone figure out what’s the easiest way to get some prototypes manufactured, I will take the opportunity to meet with someone and continue to meet with them.
It’s not just giving advice, I always try to vouch for them as well. If I spot a competition they should be applying for, I’ll do that, and if there are nominations for an upcoming entrepreneur, I will nominate people I’m mentoring.
It’s also talking about what they’re doing in groups they might not be in yet, so being an advocate is as crucial as being a mentor.
Take the path that works for you
You mentioned that you did an internship. When you’re at university, there was a specific path that you envisioned for yourself, that probably works for someone else.
How does it feel to have taken a different route?
Do you think that being an entrepreneur and having a startup has been a more rewarding choice? I don’t know if that’s a tricky question to answer, because you haven’t lived the other life.
It’s been much harder, longer than I thought it’d be. But I’d be a fool not to choose this path again, because of the speed at which I’ve been able to become a much more well-rounded person and the networks that I’ve built.
Most of it is arduous work, but it’s gratifying. You sometimes end up in cool situations, like being invited to Houses of Parliament, and getting to travel.
There are cool moments, and I wouldn’t trade the well-rounded professional person I’ve become today. However, I’d love to get back to doing more design work in the future.
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