Thank you, Leah, for taking the time to talk with us today. Could you please introduce yourself and your business?
My name is Leah Bessa, and I'm the CSO and co-founder of De Novo Dairy. De Novo Dairy is using the power of precision fermentation to beat nature at its own game by producing nature-identical nutritious proteins more effectively and animal-free.
That sounds interesting and quite complex. What was your background before starting this business?
I was born and raised in South Africa, lucky enough to have spent most of my life growing up in beautiful Cape Town. I wanted to be a vet from a young age. When I finally went to vet school, within my first year, I faced the harsh reality that I didn't have the stomach for it. So, I moved into Food Science in my second year because I was intrigued by the possibilities. It wasn't until my final year of studying that I finally felt a passion for product development and wanted to investigate underutilised food sources. I pursued my Master’s and PhD in Food Science, exploring the potential of insects to replace meat in Vienna sausages and burger patties.
That's quite a change from veterinary to Food science, but one which has helped pave the way to starting your business. That must have been fascinating, looking at the possibility of insects replacing meat. How did this lead to the conception of De Novo Dairy?
During my PhD, I realised how much I loved researching and finding new ways of creating sustainable foods. I met an old friend, Jean, over coffee one day. After chatting about the impact this could have commercially, we started our first company Gourmet Grubb in 2016. It was in 2021 that we pivoted out of insects into precision fermentation, a technology we thought we would out-compete what we had at Gourmet Grubb. Through a mutual friend, we met Joni and Richard, who were working on something similar in Johannesburg. After one call and an in-person meeting, we started a company together - De Novo Dairy.
Who exactly are you doing this for, and why should they care?
We're doing this for people; our food system has many problems, but the one thing we haven't managed to get right is equitable nutrition. But honestly, we mostly do it for the animals and the planet. As stewards of our earth, we are responsible for creating a better way of farming and consuming our food.
A clear message: we should all play a part in creating a better environment and looking after the Earth. What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your work?
I love creating new things and watching the vision we are pushing for evolve every day. I find it very fulfilling to create my own future and be a part of something that will shape the future of food. I'm excited about our impact on people and the planet.
What was the pivotal moment that made you change direction in your career?
I was working for a corporate company in the product development department. Up until this point, I always saw myself in product development, but it wasn't until I worked at a corporate company, I realised that a corporate company wasn't for me. I wanted to make an impact or a difference in the food space and I had the opportunity to go back and continue my studies in pursuing climate-friendly protein alternatives. At the same time as starting my PhD, I started a company with Jean called Gourmet Grubb, where we developed the world's first dairy alternative from insects. While this was a bold start to entrepreneurship, I learnt a lot, and it paved the way for co-founding De Novo Dairy a few years later.
What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to come up with something different (or better) than what is currently out there?
I think it's a bit more of a personality type. I've always done things slightly differently, and since I was young, I've always asked 'why' (yes, I was a why child), and annoyingly I still am. I question why or how things are done and don't always accept the reason at face value. So, if I think there's a new and potentially better way to do it, I investigate it.
It's a great attribute to have. To question why and keep learning, and constantly look for answers. That's how people achieve great things. As with any start-up business, there must have been challenges. What challenges have you faced or mistakes that you have made?
Hiring the right people is a big challenge. In our previous company, we made the mistake of hiring someone without getting to know them very well. They had great technical skills but did not fit in with the company culture, which caused a lot of harm. The lesson is to take your time when hiring and focus on hard and soft skills. It is just as important to consider how a potential hire will fit in with your existing team and whether they will be comfortable in the company culture. By finding the right person for the job, you can ensure that everyone works well together and create an environment of success.
Having the right team is crucial to achieving the end goal. Have you had any 'Aha' moments that were vital to your journey?
We talked with a dairy company in Spain about a protein we had often encountered. The concentration of this protein is higher in dairy, so you tend to overlook it. They were talking about many of the challenges they have with this protein. Our technology could solve that very easily and at a reduced cost to what they're paying in the market.
So, I think that was our biggest 'Aha' moment. It was a very casual conversation, and when we ended the call, we all agreed that's our protein! We pivoted quite quickly into this new protein, which we're really excited about, and we think our technology is perfect.
What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you made to get to where you are now?
I think in terms of compromises, what I find challenging is the financial aspect. Most people typically go into corporate or into something quite well-established. They start with a good financial foundation because they're working, have set times off, the weekends are theirs, and so on. I studied, and I was working at the same time for the start-up. Therefore, I had to make a lot of financial sacrifices. When starting a company, you need to put the company first, so your earning potential is not the same. But you're doing it because if it succeeds, you'll be in a better financial position. So, when you start, it's always a risk – it might not pan out.
So, financially you take a lot of risks and make a lot of compromises. I think timewise, as well, because you don't have the same amount of freedom. You're so motivated to push it to get it to work, but you end up working on weekends and holidays; you're just always online. Downtime is rare, and this is definitely a compromise. But I think it also depends on the kind of person you are. When you're an entrepreneur, you thrive with that, but it's a sacrifice and compromise at the same time. You have to learn to prioritise, especially when you're building something that needs your constant attention.
You are right. With most start-ups, your heart and soul go into it; all hours of the day, every day of the week, to achieve its full potential. How do you envision the future?
I find this one difficult to answer because I don't think it will be clear-cut. I think it's going to be very different. My hope for the future is that people aren't as siloed as no one thinks there's one solution. But in reality, problems are very complex, and you need a lot of solutions. I think the future is going to be very diverse in that you need a lot of different crops, and you need a lot of protein alternatives. I don't think there's going to be one fix. I also hope the future becomes more collaborative because that's how you will fix everything.
Having talked to many like-minded businesses, collaboration seems to be key to working towards solving these problems. Along your journey, have any books, movies, speeches, or people inspired you?
I like Elon Musk. I wouldn't say he's an idol, but I admire how he doesn't take 'no' for an answer and forges ahead to achieve the things he sets out to do.
If you could give some words of advice, what would you say to a young entrepreneur just starting out?
I've always loved the philosophy of Jeff Bezos, where he says you should be stubborn about your vision but flexible on the details. I think you start a company with a very fixed set of ideas and plans, but to make a success of it, you need to adapt to the evolving set of information that you are faced with. It is important to keep asking questions, learning and adjusting your strategy/approach while focusing on what you want to achieve (your vision).
If you could share one lasting message with the world, what would it be?
We are all consumers, and we should never underestimate our power as consumers. We drive demand, and every purchasing decision will shape the future of what manufacturers make. So, we don't all have to start companies to make a change. We can all make a difference with each purchase we make.
Thank you so much, Leah, for taking the time to talk with us today. We wish you all the best at De Novo Dairy for the exciting future ahead.
If you would like to find out more about Leah and De Novo Dairy, you can find them at: www.denovodairy.com
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