From Inspiration to Incorporation: Encouraging Impact Startups with ‘SSUP! (Part 1)

Published by Sara Guaglio, Julia Streuli & Cristina Prat and the Hoffmann Global Institute for Business and Society on 07 Jun 2020

June 8 marked the kickoff of the 2020 Summer Start-up Tour (‘SSUP)!

For the second consecutive year, the Hoffmann Institute is collaborating with the ‘SSUP! giving student teams the opportunity to explore the global startup ecosystem across industries and to walk-the-talk with their own impact projects. In this two-part blogpost, we bring you unique journeys from inspiration to incorporation. We start this series with an account from the FUL Foods team who began their entrepreneurial journey with ‘SSUP! in 2019, and we shall end this series by introducing this year’s Blue Team who won our support with their innovation that addressed the multiple bottlenecks in the covid-19 pandemic supply chains.

Ready for stage one? Singapore, Paris, London, Amsterdam & Berlin…off we go!

FUL Foods (‘SSUP! 2019)

We placed our trays at an empty table in the cafeteria at the Singapore campus, amidst the hustle and bustle of lunchtime and introduced ourselves as MBA students do in the first few weeks of classes. We came from different sectors (corporate oil & gas, family business manufacturing, and startup social-impact tech), different parts of the world (Amsterdam, Milan, and San Francisco), but something clicked between us.

Despite our past experiences, we soon discovered that the three of us shared a passion, curiosity and optimism that had drawn us to INSEAD and its Hoffmann Institute: we wanted to understand how best to employ the tools of business to address some of society’s biggest environmental challenges.

In each of our respective fields, the realities of climate change demanded new solutions that polluted and consumed less, while producing more – giving rise to a huge market opportunity for new products and services that at once generated a higher output while utilizing fewer resources. Cleaner energy? Manufacturing operations that require less water and electricity? Feeding more people while generating fewer greenhouse gas emissions?

We didn’t want our lunchtime conversation to end! 

Exploring Common Curiosity

So we met the next day, and the day after that and eventually decided to channel our shared passion into a two-month summer project via the Summer Startup Tour, to explore growing markets created by business’ increasing embrace of sustainability. The Hoffmann Institute seemed like an ideal partner to expand our research with, given our aligned ambitions and academic focus. Their team offered critical support. In addition to a summer fellowship, they also helped us kick start our research by introducing us to key players in the sustainability ecosystem: from the Head of Sustainability at Deliveroo (who would later become a key advisor for our startup), to WWF to Responsible Business Forum (a global conference at which we would later unveil our startup idea).

In the months leading up to our summer research, we decided to treat the preparation for our project as if it were a startup – aligning our vision, identifying key deliverables and deadlines for organizing our research and travels, and mapping out key stakeholders. We took advantage of the deep knowledge at INSEAD by meeting with faculty like Lucie Tepla and Hami Amiraslani to discuss how sustainability can be integrated into finance and accounting practices – helpful context before we set out “into the field”.

Our summer research took us from Singapore to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Milan to interview over 100 startups, investors and policymakers shaping the evolving role of sustainability in business. We had bi-weekly calls with the Hoffmann Institute team to discuss our myriad discoveries. Given that each day was packed with interviews and calls, we ended up having a rather overwhelming amount of material. Determined to make the most of the summer experience, we decided to devote several weeks solely to processing our findings and sharing our insights through short videos and blog posts, even launching our own blog on the Future of Food.

A conference on Alternative Proteins in Amsterdam at the end of our tour, reinforced our desire to continue to explore emerging innovations in the food sector. We came away from the event determined to find sustainable solutions for feeding our growing population by 2050, and believed this offered a major market and impact opportunity. There were many compelling “alt proteins” – from “air protein” (protein from CO2), to cell-based meat (meat grown in a lab), to high potential natural resources like microalgae (responsible for producing over half the air we breathe, and one of the most nutrient dense substances on earth containing 2-3 times the protein content of beef). 

Forming a Triple Bottom Line Business Model 

Like that lunchtime conversation at INSEAD’s Singapore campus, we didn’t want our research together to end either.

So, we approached Professor Andre Calmon whose class on Sustainable Business Thinking had shaped our summer project and whose close work with the Hoffmann Institute offered a natural extension of our research: an Independent Study Project (ISP) focused on microalgae as a sustainable source of food. Professor Calmon didn’t just support our ambitions, he challenged us to think bigger: was it possible to design an entire supply chain for a final food product that was carbon negative? Microalgae, if grown the right way, can be so efficient at capturing CO2, that one could, in theory, design an entire supply chain (packaging, transportation, etc.) that still produces a consumer goods product with net negative emissions.

At the end of our ISP, we discovered that it was indeed possible.

The possibility of offering food products that actually reduced one’s carbon footprint seemed – quite frankly – too exciting not to explore further. So, we entered INSEAD’s International Venture Competition (IVC) with a venture idea inspired by the discovery from our ISP: a carbon negative ingredient (“FUL”) and a line of consumer products centered around microalgae. We’d start with a carbon negative drink (“waterFUL”) to take advantage of the growing market opportunity presented by consumers’ rapid shift from traditional soft drinks to healthier alternatives.

Our startup, FUL Foods pursued a lockstep model in which there was no tradeoff between profit and purpose: our healthy beverage helped our consumers get a critical daily dose of plant-based proteins, and immune boosting vitamins and minerals while reducing their carbon footprint. The more waterFUL we sold, the more we helped our consumers and the planet and generated a profit: a triple bottom line return!

Over the course of the next few months, we realized that we needed to go “all in” working on FUL Foods, if we wanted to be competitive in the INSEAD Venture Competition and test whether our idea could indeed become a viable business opportunity. This proved challenging given that we were still full-time students and wanted to get the most out of the learning opportunities at INSEAD. Our strategy? Enrolling in classes that complemented our entrepreneurial endeavor and even allowed us to seek the help of our classmates and professors (all of whom offered key support and insights for our venture): Blue Ocean Strategy Study Group (Professor Kim), Body Business (Professor Chandon), Private Equity (Professor Aggarwal),  Entrepreneurial Finance (Professor Fang), Distribution Channel and Sales Force (Professor Padmanabhan), and an independent study project with Professor Bikard on product positioning.

We can’t stress enough how useful the INSEAD ecosystem can be for those who are proactive. The Centre for Entrepreneurship offers a wealth of resources – including their impressive network of Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: heavy hitters across a range of industries who meet regularly with students and give free advice. In addition to leveraging the INSEAD network, we reconnected with many of the people we had met in the Foodtech space over the summer: growing our reach, refining our strategy.

Our idea evolved rapidly – shaped by the input of such a diverse and knowledgeable community. In December, our multi-month hustle culminated in winning the IVC (beating out nearly 80 teams) just weeks before we graduated. With our prize money in hand (or future corporate bank account) we decided to officially launch FUL Foods as B Corp in Amsterdam.

Launching a Purpose-Driven Venture

Shortly after graduating and moving to Amsterdam at the end of January, we had the privilege to pitch at ChangeNow, a conference founded by an INSEAD alum (whom we had interviewed over the summer) and sponsored by the Hoffmann Institute in Paris. ChangeNow proved a fantastic opportunity to introduce our idea to a broader audience and connect with aligned partners and investors.

We’ve now incorporated in the Netherlands, hired a food scientist from Wageningen University (Europe’s Food Valley) – a connection from the network we built through our summer research – and just developed our first protocept, which we first tested with a group of current INSEAD MBAs (20Ds) who were visiting Amsterdam on a trek in March.

A key takeaway from our MBA experience was the immense value of actively engaging with aligned stakeholders across the INSEAD network such as the Hoffmann Institute. While our journey is just beginning, we could not have been more grateful for the Institute whose mission brought us together, and whose exceptional support and ecosystem offered us the opportunity to extensively pursue an interest to the point of full-fledged startup. We’re excited to explore ways in which we can continue to collaborate with INSEAD’s global community to grow our triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.

If you have questions or want to learn more about FUL Foods, please reach out to [email protected]

Stay tuned for the second ‘SSUP! Blogpost introducing Blue Team

Category:  Learning

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