Origin Story Interview W/ Maya Ashkenazi, Maolac

Origin Story Interview W/ Maya Ashkenazi, Maolac

Brighter Future

 / 

Feb 8, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #customsupplements #precisionnutrition #precisionprotein #foodtechnology #HealthInnovation #NutritionRevolution #PrecisionSupplements

Brighter Future

We have the pleasure of sharing the story of Maya Ashkenazi, co-founder and CEO of Maolac.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Maya. Could you give us a short introduction to you and your company, Maolac?

My name is Maya Ashkenazi Otmazgin, and I’m the CEO and one of the co-founders of Maolac. I have an engineering background with a degree in pharmaceutical engineering and another one in biomedical engineering. Throughout my career, I have created new products for different industries and worked in a pharmaceutical company where I created products from concept through production and scale-up.

Many supplement companies create general products that do not necessarily meet the real needs of the individuals who consume them. So, what we are doing in Maolac is tailoring this supplement to its end user— be it a human or animal— by using precision protein as an active ingredient. We select the end user’s protein profile and then find proteins with the same biological profile in alternative sources to create new formulations, and new ingredients that are much more precise, effective, and that can be applied to different technologies in food supplements or dermo-cosmetics.

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

Some of you know the story of insulin. Several years ago, we used to take insulin from animals. However, it wasn’t the most efficient product and caused allergic reactions in many patients. From this came a need to create a genetically engineered product that was more biologically compatible with humans— the synthetic, or human, insulin.

So, what we are now doing at Maolac is similar to that process. We have developed a proteomic platform that allows us to create products that are more bio-compatible with our end users. And with this technology, we aim to be a company that will deliver impactful nutrition through food and not just through pharmaceutical solutions.

What was your life like before you helped found Maolac, or even began your career?

Going back to my roots, my family is from Morocco, Spain, and France— so from different places around Europe and North Africa. Myself, I grew up with five sisters in Kiryat Ata, a small city in the north of Israel. My father was in the military, which meant I moved around a lot as a child, and my mother was a teacher of children with special needs.

I was involved in different programs for smart kids throughout my life. Nowadays I see this differently. There is no such thing as smart people— we all have the same brain. It's in the way we use it and the way our surroundings allow us or give us the opportunity to explore our genetics or capability. I think I had a very good starting point in that.

So due to my family and where I was born, I had the opportunity to study different subjects such as maths, chemistry, physics, and biology in the most prestigious academy in Israel, the Technion. At the age of 18, I went into the army— something I believe helped me look at life differently and get a certain perspective on leadership.

When did you decide to take a path different from your earlier plans? Or maybe even a new path entirely?

This realisation came early in my life. I remember when I was a child and was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered the same way: I want to be a scientist, I want to develop something new that would have an impact on someone— that would matter to someone and change someone's life.

There was a time when I tried to be conventional and work a normal job. And trust me, I'm the most conservative person you’ll find. Even though I had a dream and I created a startup, I didn't leave my day job until I was 100% sure it would work. At some point I knew that a normal job was not enough for me, so when I realised that this was my calling, I went all in. I also knew that I didn't want to do this on my own. Dreams are nice, but, in the end, you have to have a base of support, which is why I built a team that is with me on this journey.

What exactly led you to create Maolac?

That's easy. I'm a very curious person. As a child, I used to paint a lot. I wanted to pursue a different path, but my mother said that there was no Nobel Prize to win with painting. As an ambitious person, I decided I had to change my career path. Later on, while I was studying for my first degree, I attended an immunology class that really fascinated me and I realised I had found something I could dedicate myself to. I realised a lot of things in that class, and I had a small notebook where I wrote down some ideas. And there I wrote: “explore breast milk capability.”

I became a mother a few years later, and I saw that sentence again— perhaps on one of my sleepless nights. I thought to myself, if you look at milk differently, and you understand its capability as a living tissue, you realise how it has allowed us to survive throughout our entire evolution. And I'm not talking just about human beings— because we have alternative sources like baby formulas, etc. But if you look at the different mammals, you see that without breast milk, they wouldn’t survive, they would no longer be here. So I believed there was more to it, that it had to contain the answer to everything. From that perspective, I realised that if we found the footprint of protein there, we would have the recipe for life. That was the inspiration behind Maolac.

Who are you doing this for?

Easy: my mother and my children.

And why is that?

Why? They are very important to me. They also somehow represent the past and the future.

My parents gave me and my sisters a lot. I think that this is like a small victory for them. Now that I'm a mother, I understand what they had to do for us to be the way we are today. So, I think I owe it to them.

And I don't know how long I will be here, in this world, and in this life. I can be dust in the wind— or live through my family. Especially my children. I hope that the second alternative would occur in the end.

What do you feel your biggest challenges or mistakes were throughout your journey with Maolac?

The biggest one I had was not believing in myself. And I'm still struggling with that. I can find myself tripping up because of that, even now, without realising it. But in the past, it was much more severe. I think it was my biggest flaw. I believed in others' capabilities instead of my own due to my beliefs and education— that in order to be something, I had to have the right profile for it. I told myself, “Business— me? No, I don't understand business. Finance, no way. Legal— impossible!” And I put other people in charge of that. I told myself, “I'm not enough.” But in the end, it was always just me who didn’t believe I could do it.

And another challenge, which I think is the biggest one for many other entrepreneurs, is being in the public eye. Everyone who's in the public and has a voice is exposed to a lot of attacks. People try to pull you down in order to feel better about themselves. I think that's a big lesson that many entrepreneurs have to learn, to find a way to deal with. Especially when you are young and don't have enough experience to defend yourself effectively.

As a young female entrepreneur, how do you see yourself in this position within your community and surroundings in Israel?

I was born and raised in a female-dominated household, my five sisters and my mother were in charge. But then in real-world life, after turning 18 and going into the military, I realised that there is another world out there, and it is nothing like unicorns, rainbows, and all of that. It was the first time that I encountered real situations, real people, and a male-dominated world.

For example, when I come to a meeting and start to speak, someone might say, “Okay, so who is the CEO of the company? Who's in charge?” and I'll reply, “Me.” But then they'll say “No, really– who is in charge?” and again I’ll repeat my answer. And I hear, “Girl, where is your father? Where's your mother?”

This happens all around the world, and I believe that women worldwide should be more there for each other, and support each other.

It's up to us to open our eyes to the unjust situation where women are not being respected and acknowledged, and then it's our duty to educate our own children differently. This is how it works. Not by only doing protests or hoping for nice actions in Hollywood movies— no. Start under your own roof. The revolution will start when we, as mothers, educate our boys better.

In your journey with Maolac, or earlier in your life, did you have any big “Aha!” moments that were important to you or the development of your career and company?

Yes, I’ve had those moments in life that defined me. Most of them come from people telling me “No” in different scenarios. I even had one today, a few hours ago. I have a lot of those different situations at different times. People tell me they don't believe I will be able to achieve something, but when people tell me that, I wish to prove them wrong. I think: “It's only a matter of time.” I had quite a few moments when people said to me, “You think you’re right? Then do it." And I did it. And this was not only strangers but also my family members. My mother, my father, my sisters; everyone. Except for my husband, he’s always got my back.

What gave you the confidence that you could create something successful?

Is stupidity a good answer? (laughs) I think the less you think about the consequences of your actions, the less you hesitate. Now that I am older, I ponder things much more. And while I'm still creating and doing things, I do them with a lot of thoughts and sometimes a heavy heart. I get a lot of white hair because now the price is higher.

But there was an experience, that shaped me into who I am today. When I was seven or eight, I engaged in many activities and was really good at them. It's weird to say this, but I knew what I wanted to do from a young age. The children in my class, however, chose to be mean to me because of the idea that one kid could do it all and be the best.

I had this bad experience where somebody— to this day I don’t know who— took my bag and all my notebooks and wrote different things in them like “We will kill you, we will make your life miserable”. No one was actually violent, as they knew they would suffer consequences. I remember opening my private drawer in class, and seeing that my bag was upside down, and everything was on the floor. Everyone was looking at me, and all I could think was, “Why? What did I do wrong?”

From that moment on, I realised I'm on my own in life and that I have to be careful, as many people come to me not because they like me, but because they want something from me. On a positive note, it definitely took me to where I am today. In a way, I can say I developed a very thick skin. I am not as naïve and that is important in business.

To get where you are today, what were your personal biggest compromises or sacrifices?

It's an easy question because the answer is simple for me. Motherhood and my marriage.

I'm out very early in the morning and I come back quite late. On the weekends, I'm 100% with my family, but still, it has a price— especially for me. I don't have time to rest, and it affects my health. My immune system is usually very weak. And I always feel like I have to make up for something— it's a disturbing thought to have all the time.

You also mentioned success, which is a word used for PR. But if my family doesn’t see me as a success, it doesn’t matter. You don't have to be a successful entrepreneur, you just need to be there for the family when they need you. And then you are their success. I don't know how many years I have left, but I want them to be meaningful for my family so that my sacrifice is worth it.

What would you like your family and friends to take from your personal journey?

First of all, I'd love my siblings to realise that I'm not just a screaming younger sister anymore. ;-) And I hope that they will have the inspiration to do good for themselves and for others with their lives.

What future are you trying to help create with Maolac? How do you envision the future?

With Maolac, we are trying to create a more advanced future. The food and supplement industry has become a playground for big companies, where they can do whatever they want as long as they have good PR and make convincing claims. Some food companies don't have unique technology or anything of the sort.

We are trying to convince big companies to bring innovation to simple products. To put innovation and thought capability into the products that we consume daily. To bring added value. Trust me, not all of the companies are willing to do it, even though they will fund a lot of other things. But the companies that actually work with us also wish to make preventive nutrition accessible for everyone.

And this is very important because we can see, especially during the pandemic, that it makes a big difference in people's lives. What we eat is what we are. If our nutrition is horrible, we don't have what we need to be healthier and live longer. And then people spend their money on insurance companies and hospitals. It all begins and ends with our nutrition. Health value is a must. If we want to fight future pandemics better, we need to focus on this.

Do you have any advice for young startups and upcoming entrepreneurs?

Be smart. Don't jump to conclusions. Like in combat, you need to know the endgame before you start so you know what you're trying to achieve. You will have obstacles in the way that you can't control, and you may not win them all. So be smart, or else someone else will be.

If you had one message that you could share with the whole world, what would that be?

Give opportunities to people who surround you. Because that's how you pay it forward.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share some of your story with us. We hope Maolac will continue to encourage healthier living through food, not pharmaceutical solutions, and that your company can inspire positive change across the entire supplement industry.

If you would like to find out more about Maya and Maolac, you can find them at: www.maolac.com

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