Origin Story Interview W/ David Henstrom, Unibio

Origin Story Interview W/ David Henstrom, Unibio

Brighter Future


Mar 20, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #SustainableProtein #AlternativeProteins #CircularEconomy #ProteinProduction #BioTech #seekthechange

Brighter Future

We talked with David Henstrom, CEO of Unibio, a company producing protein from a microorganism fed with methane.

Thank you so much for being here, David. Could you please tell me a little bit about your business?

We're on a mission to provide the world with a boundless source of protein that doesn't compromise the planet. Our company uses a product that naturally occurs in lakes: when plant materials break down, they release methane. This, combined with oxygen and nitrogen, creates protein, which fish then consume. We've mirrored this lake process and applied it to fermentation in our plants. Essentially, we're brewing protein for global consumption, which includes aquaculture, starter feeds, pet food, and ultimately for humans.

How did this get started?

The business was started by the founding CEO, whom I succeeded. He and his father set it up in the early 2000s and their understanding of the technology dates back many years. One of the interesting things is how you can start with just a tiny bit of insight and build upon it. They transformed a process known as gas-liquid fermentation by changing its orientation from horizontal to vertical. This alteration improved mass transfer and allowed the microorganisms we use to interact more effectively with the gases, resulting in intimate mixing. Consequently, it became a more efficient process, enabling the company to scale up production and reduce costs.

What are you trying to achieve with Unibio, and why do you think it matters?

We're focused on leading a global transformation in protein production by harnessing nature's alchemy to brew resilient, planet-friendly proteins. We aim to change and improve how protein is delivered, moving beyond traditional sources like fishing and farming on land. We want to provide a source of protein that doesn't use arable land, uses far less water, and preserves the biodiversity our planet needs.

Where does the company name come from?

The company name originates from two elements: "uni," meaning universal or unique, and "bio," meaning biology or biotech. Combining these elements, the name signifies unique biology applied to the production of protein. This protein can be universally adapted and produced worldwide to support feed producers and ultimately supply aquaculture farms and pet food manufacturers with starter feeds. Eventually, we aim for human consumption.

That’s extremely interesting. What are your roots, or the path that you come from?

How far do I go back? (laughs). I was born and raised in the Intermountain West: in Utah, USA. I was educated in chemical engineering, with a bioengineering emphasis, and then joined a rotational research programme with The Dow Chemical Company, my first full-time job out of school. I went back to business school, and then joined a company, Cargill, for almost 27 years before coming to Unibio.

What led you to join Unibio?

I had been working for a significant amount of time, starting up and growing businesses within Cargill, as an “intrapreneur”. When the Unibio opportunity came, it was very intriguing because of the different carbon source it's using for its fermentation. Traditional fermentation, like beer, uses a sugar source, which requires intensive land usage. The Unibio process uses a pristine source of carbon, which is methane or biomethane. When I saw the development efforts they'd gone through— piloting, demonstration, first commercial-scale plant, and the commercialisation and use— I felt like there was a match between my passion and what I could do to help the company and what the company needed to move forward. It was intriguing to take an opportunity, in the last trimester of my career, to try something new.

That’s great. What part of your work is most fulfilling to you?

I think, first and foremost, it’s the people. At Unibio, we have a fantastic team with a lot of different nationalities represented. Though we’re based in Denmark, many people have come here for this opportunity to be part of it. From our activity at Unibio, we have highly engaged partners who see and have the same vision we do on growing the opportunity for protein around the world. So, it starts with the people.

Secondly, it's the impact. We have the chance to profoundly influence how proteins are delivered in a planet-friendly manner, which protects our land, water, and biodiversity. For me, those are the key aspects— the people and the impact we can have.

When was it that you decided to do something differently or take a new direction in your life or career?

There have been a number of different transitions in my life. I was a chemical engineering major with a pre-med emphasis. During my first co-op in Baytown, Texas, with Exxon, I spent evenings at the Houston Medical Centre. Not every night, but periodically. There, I observed surgeries, including those by DeBakey, known for pioneering open-heart surgery. It was a kind of juxtaposition in my mind, do I want to be a chemical engineer or a doctor? I realised diversity and variety in my day-to-day work life were very important for me, leading me away from a specialist role in medicine and towards chemical engineering and ultimately business.

There was a pivot when I left Dow Chemical, from oil and gas chemicals to food nutrition at Cargill. Starting in Cargill, in smaller businesses or skunkworks, if you will, and building the nutraceutical area was one way I helped with Cargill. And then, jumping from a larger company, Cargill, which has approximately 150,000 people, and over a 150 billion dollars of revenue, to a small pre-revenue startup company. I love growth and commercialising new businesses which is a theme throughout my career.

What led you into the food and biotech field after your interest in medicine to start with?

I think I have a passion for making a difference in people's lives. There's a bit of a theme that runs through the opportunities I've pursued in my career and the things I've wanted to do. So, when I came to Cargill I joined a corporate development group that did mergers and acquisitions, business development, strategy, and corporate development. They hired MBAs into that, around eight or so a year, and I did that for three years. After that, you had an opportunity to move into another position within the company.

When I was faced with that transition, I narrowed it to two options. One was going into Cargill’s distressed real estate business, where you buy real estate for cents on the dollar and then develop that real estate and sell it for a higher price. That business was really about arbitrage and making money. And then, on the other side, was something quite different, a skunkworks project, which was Cargill’s nutraceutical department. It was being set up, not even a fully-fledged business yet focused on finding and bringing ingredients for human health from food to the market.

I was the first business development person hired there with four of us in total. That was more intriguing to me because of the impact it could have on nutrition and people's lives. So, that was something that, you know, related to my early interest in medicine. I didn't go through the medical route, but with my journey on this, I really wanted to have an impact on people. And I think the current job I'm in at Unibio is the same, offering some tremendous opportunities to impact human health and positively impact our world.

Could you explain the source of the gas used in your processes, specifically whether it involves venting gas from natural sources?

In our demonstration facility here in Denmark, we use 100% biogas. This is because the grid in Denmark has largely been converted to biogas. So, it's a renewable source we're using. In other places, we'll use natural gas off the grid. It depends on the area of the world we are in, the timing, and the stage of progression of the natural gas and biogas infrastructure.

What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to know that you could really push this company forward in the field of alternative proteins?

I'm not the inventor although I started my career in R&D working with very bright and creative individuals. I'll just tell you one snippet: when I was in R&D in Ziploc bag manufacturing— part of The Dow Chemical Company at that time, which has since been bought by SC Johnson— I had a colleague who came up with a very simplistic industrial method of making the clicking zipper for the zipper-locked bags. I saw what came into the innovation on that and thought, "Wow, you can really enhance a product and a feature through very simplistic methods.”  The method that was used for the plastic zippers was less than a $30 solution at scale. That really left an impression on me.

But for me, I think, having had the opportunity when I was in my former position at Cargill to work and lead teams, from small teams to much larger teams, and to see the benefit— how those businesses progressed, how setting clear objectives, goals, tactics, and measures on the business helped, and then aligning the organisation and leading with a positive, service-oriented manner.  I saw how all of this could really have an impact. And so when it came time to jump out of the larger company into this, I had a ton of confidence that I could come into a foreign area where I lived in Europe a couple of years before in a role. And so that was exciting for my wife and I and one of our sons to come back. I guess my confidence just comes from years of doing it.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced or mistakes that you made when you started out in your journey? And what did they teach you?

The earliest stage, this goes back really, really early when I was in high school. I started on the sophomore basketball team. It was the time to try out for the varsity basketball team. The next year, it was very competitive.

In the summertime, I trained with this philosophy of 6-5-4: 6 days a week, five hours a day, for four months. I thought, “I'm going to practise, practise, practise”. And I did, I went over to a local university basketball court and practised. But then it was time for tryouts, I was the last person cut. I came home and I was just devastated. I fell in a heap with my mom and she said, "Okay, so that didn't work out. What are you gonna do about it? What are you gonna do now? Where are you going to put your passion now?” So she was helped inspire me to take that time and channel my energy into new directions.  

There have been several businesses that I've had the opportunity to participate in starting up inside my former company Cargill. Some of those were successes and some were failures. I think of different ingredients that we did testing, business model development, and partner development on.  We constantly needed to pivot which taught me agility. And I think what I learned from that is that you always have to be a realist and understand and step back and think about, is this a winning business model or not a winning business model? Can we really crack the code and keep focus on what really the unmet need is that you're solving— and is how you're solving it a better method than existing solutions? I think those are some things I have learned from those businesses that have been successful versus those that have not.

When have you experienced your greatest “Aha!" moments? Your greatest epiphanies?

I would say it's in collective teamwork where you're pressure-testing each other. I had a former mentor who used to use the phrase "pressure makes diamonds". (And diamond-making technology was actually invented by a professor at the university I went to for undergrad). So that’s something that, to me, when I've had “Aha!” moments and breakthroughs, it’s when people have brought their best game to problem solving. They've brought their best challenges and testing and they've left egos at the door. And collectively, something has sparked. It hasn't been a simple “Aha!” moment for me in a quiet place, working on stuff. It's been really a collective experience.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get where you are now?

I think there are many smart and capable people in the world. What distinguishes those who can achieve breakthroughs is the time, focus, tenacity, and effort they dedicate to a given opportunity. Some of the sacrifices I've had to make include travelling and being away from my family for extended periods. This has been a significant sacrifice, allowing me to gain business experience in different cultures around the world, such as in China, Japan, Europe, and South America. But those are some sacrifices that have been required.

What future are you hoping or envisioning to help create?

For me, I am really trying to lift the people I engage with, to elevate their sights on what they can accomplish. I believe there's a spark in everyone, and everyone is different and has something unique they can do in this world. Sometimes, people, whether on my team or not, just need to have that reinvigorated in them. To know that there's something they do really well. I think that at the stage I am in my career, on a personal level, I am trying to hopefully elevate people's ideas of what they can do and accomplish.

How do you want close friends and family to look back on you and your journey? What would you like other people to take from your journey?

I think I would like my family and close friends to say, "he impacted my life for good. He was there when I needed him. He sacrificed what was convenient for him to help me. He had high integrity and spoke the truth."

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur just starting out?

I'd say, number one, enjoy the ride, find mentors, and stay humble. That would be where I'd start out. I’m also reminded of a time when a boss came to me, a particularly tough time in our business that he was leading. I was one of his right-hand people. He told me that we're all under pressure, and he simply said, "Hey, David, we're hired guns. If the company doesn't appreciate what we're delivering, what's the worst thing they can do to us?" Well, the worst thing they can do is fire us. And it kind of helps you go to the conclusion of what might be the ultimate thing. You get fired but it is not the end of the world. So then it is, “Oh, if that happens, then what?” You take your skills and capabilities and move to the next thing. His perspective helped at that stage of my career.

That’s a great thing to keep in mind. What books, movies, speeches, and people have inspired you most in your journey?

I think when you say journey, that opens up my business journey of being an entrepreneur, but also my life journey as well. And so I would broaden that out and say, look, if I think about people, the earliest stage, I had a grandfather who, when I was speaking inappropriately to my mom, he took me out in the garage and gave me a talking to saying, "Don't ever speak to your mother that way." That taught me respect at an early age.

I think my mother, growing up, convinced me I was the greatest person ever to be born in the world, and I could do anything. And so I owe her a lot for the confidence she endowed me with.

Thinking of movies, I think of Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. That movie, and the second chance he got to live his life and what he chose to do with that. That helped me be more intentional with how I live.

From a foundational standpoint, I appreciate the Bible, and an additional book from my faith, the Book of Mormon— they're very important to me.  Reading the history of these people who lived anciently and what they've done and how they've found happiness and joy through overcoming challenges rooted in a belief in God has blessed my life.

In literature, I've read many business books which have provided me with experienced perspectives from those who have ‘been there and done that.’  I think one book called 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey has been particularly impactful early on.  I knew his family a bit growing up, and I saw how he and his family manifested the contents of his book in real-time in how they lived their lives.  It was impactful to me to see the authors’ authenticity in how he lived his life according to what he taught and that integrity matters.

And then lastly, from a personal side, there's a brother-in-law of mine, who's a very successful retired CEO.  As I observed him over the years I noticed one of his super powers is he's all about people, seemingly setting high standards and expectations while simultaneously showing genuine care and interest in helping people. So I think on the business side, he's had probably the most profound impact on who I aspire to be in the workforce.

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

If I were to focus on one message, it would be to love people. I mean, truly appreciate and work with people, find the best in them, and assist those around you to pursue their full potential. That would be my principal message.

Additionally, I might add, especially in today's world, where we're bombarded with an overwhelming amount of information and potential distractions, it's crucial to try your best to eliminate these distractions. Focus on listening to productive voices, understanding and taking action.

That’s great advice. David, I want to thank you very sincerely, on behalf of both myself and the Brighter Future Team, for sitting with us and sharing a little of your story. It was extremely interesting, and from all of us, we wish you nothing but the greatest possible success with your company’s work in bringing a new, sustainable protein to the masses.

If you’d like to learn more about Unibio, please visit www.unibio.dk.

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