Origin Story Interview W/ Aaron Schaller, MeliBio

Origin Story Interview W/ Aaron Schaller, MeliBio

Brighter Future

 / 

Jul 19, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #sustainablefoodsystem #savethebees #plantbasedhoney #beefreehoney #veganhoney #honey #ZeroHarmHoney #BeeFreeHoney

Brighter Future

We had the privilege to speak with Aaron Schaller about his company, MeliBio, which makes bee-free honey.

Thank you so much for being with us, Aaron. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your company?

My name is Aaron Schaller, and I'm the co-founder and CTO of MeliBio. We're a company on a mission to create a more sustainable and Earth-friendly food system for our future. To begin with, we’re focusing on making honey that doesn't use the labour of bees in the process of making it, but is just as magical as the bee-made product.

Why would you say this matters to people who don't know?

Bees play a crucial role in our food system by helping pollinate various plants, trees, shrubs, and flowers. It's important to understand that the relationship between bee species forms a dynamic and somewhat fragile system of biodiversity. To maintain a livable Earth and diverse food options, we must consider all bee species as vital pollinators worldwide.

If we continue to support and rely solely on a single bee species for pollination and honey production, it will result in an imbalance in our ecosystem and environment. This imbalance has already caused and will continue to cause harm to our food system. Everyone should care about this, and everyone should also understand that disrupting natural systems increases the risk to our future.

Let's step back from discussing your company and explore your journey. Where does your path begin? Where are your roots?

The elements that have shaped me throughout my life can be traced back to the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, and the forests and rivers of the Pacific Northwest— particularly in Washington State. My mother's and grandmother's kitchens and gardens also meant a lot to me. I mention these because they influenced my passions and interests as I grew up.

I spent more time outdoors than indoors during my formative years. I learned to love and connect with the natural world, and I became involved in wilderness survival and backpacking trips during my youth and teenage years.

And I was homeschooled, which I continued to do until college. Consequently I had a huge quantity of opportunities to explore my interests, learn through curiosity, self-motivation, and self-discovery. It opened doors to various career paths and expanded my knowledge base.

Much of my time was spent in the kitchen, learning my grandmother's Mexican cooking and experimenting with other culinary techniques. I viewed food as an artistic expression through the lens of culinary applications. At 18, I contemplated attending culinary school but ultimately pursued a regular four-year university education.

During this period, I became extremely interested in microbiology and science, realising the vast potential for learning and discovery within these fields. All these elements eventually came full circle. Spending significant time in the garden during my upbringing allowed me to become acquainted with bees and appreciate the role of pollinators in the garden ecosystem.

When I later met my co-founder, Darko Mandich, and all these interests converged on the shared mission to make honey without bees, it seemed to make sense. I could see the big picture of how I got here.

Let's discuss your co-founder and the story of how you met him. How did it all happen?

People would always say that they randomly met their co-founders when they talked to other entrepreneurs in school. But I found that answer annoying because I believed there had to be a system or a method to meet people, including potential co-founders, like attending events. However, in the end, it did happen somewhat randomly.

What brought us together was a common trait we shared. We were both individuals who sought various things: knowledge, exploration, connection, deeper meaning, and opportunities to make a greater impact in our lives and careers. This led Darko from Serbia to San Francisco, seeking an opportunity to fulfil his dream of creating a company that could produce honey without bees. On the other hand, I was seeking the next step in my career and ways to utilise it for the betterment of the Earth and humanity. We met towards the end of my tenure in graduate school.

Our paths crossed at an event hosted by the Good Food Institute in San Francisco, where students, entrepreneurs, and various individuals in the field came together. When he pitched me the idea of honey without bees and expressed the need for a scientist to help him explore it, I felt like this must be a perfect kind of product and got excited.

We continued to talk, coming to appreciate the diversity in our skill sets. Darko possessed a profound knowledge of building businesses and what it entailed. At the same time, I had extensive scientific expertise and had ideas for bringing this vision to life through science. That's how we met: a combination of random and non-random elements.

When you discussed it, was it clear that you would build this business together? Or at what point did you decide to turn it into a reality?

We brought it to life in January 2020 and officially incorporated the company in April. However, there were a few months between meeting Darko and deciding. During that time, we discussed the idea and developed our relationship, with the idea of determining if we would want to collaborate with each other. We also discovered that we shared the same mission for the company.

Our goal wasn't to build a company quickly for acquisition, nor did money drive it. This realisation showed us that we could truly work together and face the inevitable challenges of a startup. It allowed us to form a bond and have confidence that both of us were committed for the long haul.

While building the company, we went through the process of raising funds, which meant neither of us had income for a while. However, we were confident that neither of us would abandon the mission.

After those few months and some self-discovery on my part after graduating from school and taking trips to India, I returned, and we both decided to make it a reality.

When did you discover your entrepreneurial skills and want to build your business?

I'm still in the process of discovering my entrepreneurial skills as I develop them. I have always been drawn to things that excited me, drove me and motivated me. I have always been willing to go the extra mile to learn more about them.

Toward the end of graduate school, my focus shifted to listening to entrepreneurs talk about their business-building journey. Every time I attended events and saw people on panels, I was captivated. But at first, I wasn't sure how I could be up there myself. I wanted to explore entrepreneurship, and I kept that door open.

Honestly, I didn't have any prior business background or training. However, I've learned everything since starting the company. This also highlights that being an entrepreneur requires a willingness and desire to learn new things rapidly, often faster than usual, because challenges come at you constantly.

I have been shaping my entrepreneurial path based on my interests, what excited me, and my constant reinvention.

What would you say is the most fulfilling thing in your work?

There are many fulfilling aspects to my work and position that I am very thankful for. There are things like the day-to-day tasks that I find fulfilling. There are different topics to talk about and different challenges to think about and solve. I enjoy critical thinking and finding ways to grow the business. It’s exciting to see projects and ideas come to fruition, especially when teams are working on them. At this point, however, the most fulfilling thing is building the team. Watching intelligent, motivated, diverse individuals join the team helps us think differently and drive the mission forward - truly fulfilling. The fact that I have a role in bringing these people on board is one of the most fulfilling things.

And since you started MeliBio, what have been the most significant learnings you've gained so far?

Many things don't unfold as expected, which has taught me to remain open-minded. It's crucial to acknowledge that there can be multiple paths and approaches to achieving a goal. Being receptive to the possibility of change is essential. However, if you keep your vision in mind, you'll eventually reach your destination.

Not everyone you interact with, whether it is investors, fellow entrepreneurs, or consumers, will grasp the purpose or value of what you're doing. Many might dismiss it as silly or fail to understand its significance. It's important to remember that you're the one driving your vision. You should have conviction and supporting evidence to demonstrate your idea's worthiness. Ultimately, belief in yourself and your work, coupled with feedback, advice, and support from others, will facilitate growth. More resources will come your way, and new opportunities will arise.

This realisation has been an important learning experience. Additionally, I've learned that things evolve rapidly. Darko and I have evolved personally and professionally, and our relationship has also transformed. Embracing the ever-changing nature of things is crucial. It's vital to remain open-minded and adaptable as circumstances continue to shift.

What would you say were the biggest challenges that you faced with Melibio?

One obvious early challenge was raising money. Getting the first couple of checks is difficult because many people don't want to go first; they prefer someone else to take the lead. That was a bit challenging. However, we had many good discussions, followed up on leads, and eventually raised money. There was a time when we almost ran out of funds, but we were able to secure a little more.

Another general challenge, although not a roadblock, is considering how and when to start different paths that eventually need to converge for success. For instance, there are ongoing challenges to determine the right timing to hire specific team members, decide when to transition from a smaller space to a larger one, and identify the optimal time to raise additional funds. Fortunately, many people have successfully navigated such situations. Seeking advice, feedback, and support from them is crucial.

You mentioned changing your mind about attending culinary school, which altered your path. Have there been any other instances where you took a completely different direction than planned, either in your personal life or with MeliBio?

Yes, attending a university instead of culinary school was pivotal for me. Additionally, I faced another significant decision when I committed to MeliBio. Before that, I studied infectious diseases from the perspective of immunology and virology in graduate school, preparing to study viruses and their interactions with the immune system. I found this work incredibly rewarding and fascinating. It could contribute to the betterment of humanity and assist people in need.

However, various signs and circumstances fell into place, indicating that starting MeliBio was the right path for me. After much contemplation, I fully embraced that decision.

Initially, it was challenging to let go of the infectious disease training and preparation I had undergone. Nevertheless, my intention and willingness to remain open-minded allowed me to recognise that while it may not have been part of my original plan, I was drawn to the direction in which MeliBio was heading. So, I decided to take the next step and move forward.

Regarding the business, a lot has stayed the same regarding our mission and product development plan, which focuses on creating honey without bees. Along the way, minor adjustments have been made, such as deciding whether to target direct-to-consumer or business-to-business models, determining our initial launch location, and establishing the product's readiness. However, overall, our core objectives have remained relatively stable thus far.

With MeliBio, where did you find the confidence to believe that you would succeed or have the confidence to start a business and essentially become a business owner?

Confidence also stems from accepting that things might not work out at all. Once you embrace that mindset, it inspires a great deal of confidence, at least in my experience. So, when I decided to go all-in with MeliBio, I knew I would have to learn a lot and be prepared to adapt and evolve. Finally, I was ready to engage in the process fully.

Additionally, I have confidence in my co-founder. Getting to know him and realising that I truly believe in him and he believes in me, along with our shared belief in the company, gives me a positive outlook. It will turn out well, though of course failure is always possible.

Should failure occur, it may not actually be our fault; perhaps the timing isn't right in the market, or we're too ahead of our time with this innovation. We may also face challenges with the supply chain or lack the necessary resources. But accepting these possibilities and still moving forward, seeking the best feedback and resources available, instils a great deal of confidence.

It's important to regularly check in with each other and ensure we’re actively involved and interested in MeliBio. Then if one of us starts to slow down, we can find ways to uplift and support each other. Having a co-founder is amazing because you're not alone in this journey. You can rely on each other and provide mutual support, which is a great boost for confidence.

Do you have a favourite epiphany or “Aha!” moment that you've had?

I had planned a trip to India after I graduated, in the first couple of weeks of January 2020. When I met Darko and started talking about the company with him, I mentioned that everything sounded great and that I would provide some materials before I left. However, I also told him that I was going to India to disconnect from the online world, engage in yoga, meditation, and reset after completing five and a half years of graduate school. I told them we would continue our conversation when I got back.

In India, I participated in a meditation retreat, focusing on maintaining a healthy diet, waking up early, and practising yoga in addition to meditation. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience, but I had this underlying question of whether starting a company was right for me. About a week into the retreat, I did a morning yoga session on the rooftop of a 16-story building at sunrise. While performing the tree pose, I suddenly sensed something and opened my eyes to discover an enormous bee in front of my face. It was the largest bee I had ever seen. It buzzed right in front of me, seeming to stare at me, and in that moment I had this incredible sensation in my body and gained mental clarity. I realised that this was it. I thought, “Let’s do it.”

Oddly enough I didn't see another bee for the rest of my trip. It was only during that particular instance. This experience was a significant sign for me to start the company and gave me the confidence to take the risk. I thought, "Okay, this is something important. I'll take the risk."

Where do you find inspiration for your business? Have you read books, listened to speeches, watched movies, or perhaps encountered individuals who inspire you in business?

Numerous people inspire me, and I do read a lot of books. I find inspiration by reading leadership-focused literature, as I try to become a good leader within my company and uplift others.

I am consistently inspired, primarily by my peers whom I encounter at events or witness their achievements on LinkedIn. I also draw inspiration from other companies at a similar or slightly more advanced stage in their journey.

Witnessing their success is incredibly motivating for me. Experiencing their excitement during product launches, fundraising efforts, and recruiting exceptional employees is remarkable. It's an amazing community to be a part of, and I always feel inspired by observing the missions of others. Moreover, it is inspiring to offer my assistance in any way possible.

Many startup entrepreneurs feel they have to leave things behind, including certain parts of their lives. What were the personal sacrifices or compromises that you had to make?

I have had less time to explore new hobbies in general as I have needed to focus more on the company. I'm the type of person who loves learning new things, exploring new hobbies, and even picking up a new instrument or engaging in outdoor activities. Gardening has been a passion of mine for a long time, and there's always been an urge to make my garden bigger each year. But as you can imagine I now have much less time, so I've had to adjust by choosing one or two things I want to do in my free time. Fortunately, I don't feel like I've lost anything significant by being in the business. While I spend more time thinking about the business almost constantly, I have learned to manage my schedule in a way that allows me to pursue activities I enjoy and maintain a good work-life balance. It's about staying focused and ensuring that my time spent at work is efficient rather than scattered.

What future do you hope for or envision in your collaboration with MeliBio?

We believe we are one of the puzzle pieces in our mission to alleviate the pressure on bees in honey production. This puzzle piece contributes to the broader goal of creating a sustainable, environmentally friendly, and healthy world. My vision for the future is that things like nutritious food produced sustainably, ideally through upcycling or within a circular sustainability system, become the norm and the default choice.

I envision a world where everyone is engaged in this cultural shift, reaching a tipping point where it is ingrained in our values and actions. This future entails significant government funding and assistance to develop new systems in communities and cities, leading to green environments powered by sustainable energy sources. People will reduce waste not only out of necessity but because they genuinely want to care for our planet. It will be second nature to take responsibility for the world we inhabit. This is the world I envision, and I really hope we can achieve it. We can make substantial progress through innovation, applied in various ways that foster positive transformation towards this desired future. That's what I hope is in store for the future.

And what specific ambitions do you have for MeliBio in the next ten years?

I hope we become a significant producer, if not the number one producer, of honey in the world. There may also be other solutions for pollination services so that bees aren't overly relied upon for that purpose. I imagine the bees simply existing, visiting flowers, and enjoying their lives. One of our slogans is "Give bees a break," and that's exactly what we want to do—give them a break. Honey possesses many magical and medicinal qualities, and we hope to create other products based on those medicinal values potentially. We might also develop different types of honey, a wide variety that serves as a platform for producing any desired honey variation.

Additionally, we aim to create honey-inspired products rich in medicinal value, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and similar beneficial elements. However, our primary focus is to launch our first product and assess our future direction.

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur or anyone considering starting a business in the climate space?

Believe in what you're doing. Believe in yourself, your company's mission, or the technology you're developing. Of course, you must understand why it's important and how it fits into the bigger picture. You should also understand why others should believe in you.

Ultimately, you must stay determined and develop grit, especially because you're venturing into something new. Many people may not understand or support your idea. They may tell you it won't work or it's a terrible idea. However, you must keep going and believe in yourself. Keep putting yourself out there; eventually, doors will open, and you'll find people who support you.

Also, don't dwell on feeling like you're not the most qualified person to start this company or pursue this idea. Imposter syndrome is natural, and it's easy to doubt yourself. Remember that you are the one taking action and have the vision and the idea. If you don't do it, who else will? Recognise that plenty of resources are available to help you along the way, and it's up to you to seize the opportunity.

If there were one lasting message that you could share with the whole world, what would it be?

Choosing just one message is tough, but the world faces numerous challenges with many variables and uncertainties. However, we can overcome these challenges, specifically within my field of expertise, including my career and companies similar to ours. We can strive to continue living on this planet and collaborate to shape the future we genuinely desire. To achieve this, we should remain open to possibilities through innovation and ensure that our innovative efforts are directed towards positive transformation, aiming to create a more sustainable and equitable world for all species currently inhabiting it.

Thank you so much for giving us a little of your time. We sincerely hope your efforts to produce honey without bees, and everything which may follow, succeed beyond your greatest dreams.

If you’d like to see more about MeliBio, please visit www.melibio.com.

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