Origin Story Interview W/ Ruben Smit, Sunrise

Origin Story Interview W/ Ruben Smit, Sunrise

Brighter Future

 / 

Jan 24, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #HealthyEating #FoodRevolution #organicfood #MindfulEating

Brighter Future

We talked with Ruben Smit, founder of Sunrise. Sunrise seamlessly manages people's nutrition from beginning to end through a completely novel, intuitive, and deeply personalised experience.

Thank you so much for joining us, Ruben. Do you think you could tell us a little about yourself and your company?

My name is Ruben Smit. Currently, I'm working on a solution called Sunrise, which aims to assist people in leading healthier daily lives through an app and associated service. We source high-quality products, we intelligently manage our users’ daily groceries, and we also manage their nutrition real-time based on health and lifestyle data. We eliminate the need to think about health while effortlessly guiding people through any diet and lifestyle— like gluten-free living, losing weight, training for a marathon, going through menopause— in the most optimal way. All of this is done with a healthy planet in mind.

What exactly are you trying to achieve with Sunrise, and why?

Our goal is to transform the position our food has in our society. We need to go back to making the food system an integrated part of our existence, and give it the position it deserves at the core of our lives.

So we started with the idea that food actually sustains life: it’s this beautiful and natural entity that lives, grows, regenerates, and fuels our bodies, our minds and anything else on our planet. And when you bring together multiple ingredients even more magical things happen. Food, and nature, are the kinds of things people can get tears in their eyes over. It gives a deeper sense of being. Unfortunately, the current system has dramatically deviated from this vision, becoming a highly unsustainable and unhealthy “take, make, and waste” model with a single focus on exploitation and manipulation. It’s really like this on all levels. It’s not about nutrition and growth, but addiction and profit. It’s insane, when you think about it.

The issues within the food system are interconnected, affecting health, sustainability, supply chains, environment, climate, and social inequality on the deepest levels imaginable. It’s causing a total breakdown of our planet. Marketing lies, deception, and lobbying exacerbates these problems. The realisation of these interconnected problems led us to start Sunrise.

The next problem is our habits. People want to live healthy and sustainably, but it’s hard to do. In the end, sustainability is not really something intrinsically valuable for most humans. You can’t buy it to improve your life. But health is intrinsically valuable. So we centred this in our solution. We’re building a technology that can help people consume exactly the right products in the right quantity, given their personal health and lifestyle data, and we do this in real-time. It’s the first time living healthy is actually achievable for the masses, while saving users hours a week on groceries and meal planning. Through this mechanism, we make a highly sustainable system the standard. It actually even reinforces the system, as a healthy planet and healthy people are deeply intertwined. This represents what we believe to be the third generation of supermarkets. Or even better, it supersedes the supermarket.

So you’re essentially working on creating an alternative system for goods and foods. Do you think you could tell us a little about how your concept works, and how you plan to integrate it into an app?

There are two sides to this story. On one side, there's the consumer app, which will be highly personal and intuitive and powered by our own artificial intelligence model. It will function more like a digital concierge, providing users with the right information at the right time for their specific situation and goals. And it proposes the products needed to achieve these goals. Our app is connected to wearable technology to be able to measure and advise in real time.

Conversely, we are developing a new supply chain and logistics model tailored to urban environments. The focus here will be on cities, and the model will involve picking up and delivering goods twice a week. This approach creates an automated, circular, closed-loop logistics model, enabling sustainability and waste reduction principles.

The partnership between the app and the logistics model is essential. Through the interactive experience of the app, we can predict the demand for products within the supply chain and nudge towards oversupply, dramatically enabling waste reduction efforts and even eliminating the use of plastic packaging. The logistics model complements this by employing a circular packaging system, collecting food waste, and processing it efficiently in the warehouse.

The result is an highly intuitive system for customers with a user experience that seamlessly helps users manage and optimise lifestyle, health, and product needs. Meanwhile, the logistics model ensures that the right products are delivered as needed, aided by future automation advancements.

Is it intended for each city, within a country, or on a global scale, encompassing different cities?

The concept is that every city will have its own hubs, and each neighbourhood will have smaller hubs for delivery and pick-up. This approach means that London, Amsterdam (where we do a pilot right now), Berlin, and San Francisco (where we plan to launch) will offer their own unique products depending on local availability and seasonality. We can do this because our AI can work with any product in any system at any given time.  

How did you decide on the name "Sunrise" for this startup?

I'm not entirely sure how we settled on it, or if we actually settled on it. Initially, it served as a working title, but the name "Sunrise" holds a twofold significance at its core. Firstly, it symbolises a new day, a new dawn, and our commitment to doing things differently in the industry. Secondly, it conveys the concept of our product being a companion from the moment you wake up, using our app to help you manage your day and its challenges until you're done, and then you can leave it behind until the next day. It tells something about our user experience.

Let's zoom out from the startup and focus on your personal journey. Can you take us back to your roots? Specifically, where did your early entrepreneurship begin?

I believe it was right after I graduated from university. At university, I pursued two fields of study: economic psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I've always been deeply intrigued by human behaviour, a curiosity that dates back as far as I can remember. I remember constantly questioning my parents and spending so much time on the subject to understand why people do what they do. I always found the large majority of human decision making insanely irrational and harmful. It’s crazy how we manage to mess ourselves up time and time again.

I graduated with a degree in economic psychology in the late 2000s, and afterward, I ventured into the field of advertising with grand ideas on how to apply my knowledge creatively. I joined an advertising agency, but within six months, I felt that working for a boss wasn't the right fit. My ideas and theirs didn't align at all. Consequently, I decided to stop working for them and start my own business.

How long did you lead your creative agency?

My first agency lasted about five to six years. It was a fun experience, highly focused on bold creative ideas and concept development. Back then, it operated purely as a creative business, making it an enjoyable venture above all else. We developed some very special concepts and had the opportunity to work with some great, prominent brands.

However, at one point, I realised I had grown tired of this line of work. I decided to stop overnight because I felt dissatisfied with creating concepts for big brands. There was no emotional connection, no ownership. Nobody really cared. It was just about the bottom line, or on an individual level: getting to the next step of your career. I always wanted something more meaningful and to have a positive effect on consumers, so I started helping startups. Countless promising new initiatives required significant strategic and creative thinking, and that's when I founded Phenomenons, a new business of mine. Since then, I have focused on assisting startups, marking the second part of my entrepreneurial journey.

How did you develop the idea for Sunrise? How did it all come about?

It all started when I began assisting startups and eventually developed a new strategic model to do this in a much more integrated manner. One of my first clients was a plant-based business, which led me deeper into food systems. Around the same time, I adopted a mostly vegan lifestyle and began to try to understand what the heck was going on in the livestock industry and the broader food system. The initial seed for Sunrise was planted during this period where I started connecting various ideas.

I realised that for real change to happen, we needed to address the issues in a systemic way. As much as I enjoyed consulting and had developed a keen understanding of how these businesses grow, I knew that merely helping individual startups wasn't enough. We needed a new approach to transform the entire system. And my expertise in human behaviour, culture and foresight strategies further reinforced this idea, as I noticed that many of my predictions tended to come true.

About two years ago, these thoughts started merging into the concept of Sunrise. I saw a significant opportunity to align my passion for food and nature with the world's direction. I recognised the time was ripe to take action and make a substantial impact.

Initially, I wanted to apply this thinking to my consulting business, but around this point, my partner suggested that instead of investing all my time and energy into helping other businesses, I should create my own venture— a perfect embodiment of how I envisioned future businesses should operate. That suggestion resonated with me, and about two years ago, I took the leap and started working on Sunrise full-time.

Since then, I have loved every moment of working on this business.

What is the most fulfilling part of your work, both in general and at Sunrise?

The most fulfilling part of my work is undoubtedly just building Sunrise. With everything happening in the world, what we're doing can profoundly impact culture. The fact that we're actively working on something potentially game-changing and positive is extremely fulfilling. I find it amazing to dedicate my time and effort to it day and night.

We’ve launched our pilot in Amsterdam and are building the final product on top of this. Seeing everything come together is truly fulfilling. I recently started developing the second generation of our product, the one we’re going to launch at the end of '24 in San Francisco. Witnessing the accumulation of all ideas come to life in a single concept is a remarkable experience. Not only is it like nurturing my own "baby" (in addition to my three-year-old son), but it's also about potentially improving people's lives significantly. I can just see it’s going to work, and that’s really fulfilling after two years of really hard work. When running through the product, it’s easy to see how Sunrise can have a massive impact on people’s daily lives and their health.

You said you were only employed for about six months in your earlier career. What experiences or personal characteristics gave you the confidence to become an entrepreneur?

At its core, it's about taking initiative and being stubborn. Looking back, I've always had a strong sense of stubbornness, which is quite typical during those younger years, around age twenty-eight or so. You tend to think you know everything at that age. That overconfidence also made me determined to say, "I'll do it myself, no matter what." I had the self-assurance, stubbornness, tendency for deep thinking and the drive to vigorously pursue my goals. So, it was a moment of realisation where I thought, "I'll just take matters into my own hands and do it myself," which has always been something I truly loved.

What your biggest challenges were throughout entrepreneurship, not just with Sunrise?

I've realised that entrepreneurship can be a lonely job. Even though you work with many people, which was the case in my previous business and now with Sunrise, the ultimate decisions rest on your shoulders. There's really no safety net to fall back on like your friends and family, who may only be able to support you to a certain extent. Every decision you make carries significant weight and potential consequences, and a lot of them don’t go as planned, also there is just so much you can control.  

Do you have any favourite mistakes or valuable lessons from your past years of entrepreneurship?

You really need to learn to have patience in your urgency. Entrepreneurship is kind of an ongoing mistake, a continuous learning experience. So it’s okay to make quick decisions, as long as you can correct them along the way, once knowledge starts to accumulate. Sometimes you think you've made it to a point that you've reached a certain level of expertise. But after two years, you realise you knew so little back then.

That initial drive or confidence led me to become an entrepreneur, thinking I knew it all. However, upon reflection, I recognise I had much to learn. While self-belief in your ideas is essential for success, especially in entrepreneurship, it's equally important to remain humble and acknowledge that you probably barely scratch the surface with your answers.

Even though you may gain more knowledge, you can only see things from the perspective of the present moment. Only in hindsight can you discern what truly makes sense and what doesn't. It's crucial to approach things thoughtfully and consider different angles. Admittedly, this can be challenging, especially when you're faced with numerous decisions. Nevertheless, practising humility and building upon your experiences will lead to growth.

You seem very reflective. What are your strategies for staying grounded when things get rough in business?

It might sound like an entrepreneurial cliche, but I've been doing a few things to maintain my balance lately. First and foremost, I always block out 1 hour around noon for myself. I go to the gym one day, and the other day, I visit the yoga studio for a yoga session. It’s great to do this in the middle of the day as it really energises you. Additionally, I make it a point to meditate for at least 20 minutes daily. This helps clear my mind and brings me back into the moment, and helps me appreciate so much more what I’m doing, also in the hard times. Eight months ago, I pretty much stopped drinking alcohol. I can now attest that my brain functions much better, and stress is dramatically lower, just by not drinking.

These combined practices are vital for managing the reality of running a business in multiple time zones, making well-informed decisions, and having confidence in them. Being genuinely reflective leads to deeper insights, and these methods have proven effective if you approach them with sincerity and commitment.

I find it very interesting that many entrepreneurs actually use drugs or alcohol because they believe it helps them numb or concentrate, but you do the opposite.

I've been there, especially in the creative industry. However, it's not true. First of all, numbing things is always a bad strategy. I've been reading up on a lot of science about health, the brain, and alcohol. It's amazing how clear the science is about this. Once you stop, you realise its impact on your mental state and health. It’s not only a hangover, it influences your entire being. Now, I can work, starting at 5 am and still having calls at 11 pm with California, where my co-founder is. You can't do that when you drink, or don’t take care of yourself. It's just impossible. I don’t experience stress, can control my temper, stay positive, relate much better to other people’s decisions, all that stuff I thought was just part of it. It isn’t.

Do you have a favourite book that currently inspires you and is on your bedside table?

At the moment, I find myself reading multiple books simultaneously. I switch between them quite often. I'm engrossed in Merchants of Doubt, which exposes how the influence of big money often rigs the odds against us and gets into the strategies of how creating doubt in people's minds will postpone collective action against these industries. This started with the tobacco industry, where doubt was sown about the health risks of smoking just to delay public awareness. This tactic was later applied to other industries like fossil fuel and now, meat and livestock. The book uncovers the disturbing role of PR strategies in this process. Learning about the immense power and money involved in perpetuating harm for profit is insane and alarming.

On a different note, Capital and Ideology by the French economist Thomas Piketty also caught my attention. The book is substantial and well-researched, and offers hope by highlighting how ideologies can rapidly shift. It suggests that our current capitalistic approach might evolve into a new, more interdependent system. It's a thought-provoking read.

The cliché but influential book that has always inspired me is Steve Jobs' biography. Witnessing his journey and achievements has been captivating, and I really admire how he shaped the world.

In the past year, I came across another captivating book, The Web of Meaning: Integrating Science and Traditional Wisdom to Find Our Place in the Universe by Jeremy Lent. It's a thought-provoking read that connects ancient philosophies, particularly Buddhism, with modern neuroscience. The book intriguingly demonstrates that many concepts they knew 3000 years ago align with what we can now prove through brain scans and scientific advancements. The first part of the book is especially enlightening and I recommend it highly.

Have you ever experienced significant epiphanies that have remained with you until today?

Yes: there’s very little free will in our current consumer system. This idea all started with a book that gave me a profound understanding of how human behaviour works and how our brains constantly deceive us. This book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Kahneman & Tversky, is a true classic that turned my perspective upside down on rational and irrational thinking. Their groundbreaking study earned them a Nobel Prize, and reading it was an “Aha!” moment. I learned that blindly trusting our brains is unwise; we must learn and integrate strategies to come to a more rigorous and deeper sense of truth.

Countless fascinating studies in psychology and neuroscience demonstrate how easily our brains can be tricked, and our judgement influenced. For instance, there's an experiment where people must identify the longest stick among several options. Due to group pressure, individuals might select the wrong stick just because others before them did. It's astonishing to see how doubts can arise in people's minds even when the answer is evident. Similarly, studies have shown that individuals can miss very obvious things, like someone in a gorilla suit slowly crossing a screen, when they are asked to count something else. This selective attention phenomenon can have serious consequences, as many accidents happen because people fail to notice crucial objects.

Unfortunately, many aspects of the world, including the food industry, manipulate these vulnerabilities. So there is no such thing as free will in most of our food decisions. That’s a fascinating one if you think about it. To go back to Merchants of Doubt, there is this highly influential initiative mentioned called the Center for Consumer Freedom that advocates the right for people to make their own decisions. But it’s a very powerful organisation funded by tobacco firms, fast food chains, and the meat industry. Ironic, isn’t it?

What would you say has been your biggest compromise or sacrifice to reach where you are today?

It might be my social life. I'm not sure if that's a sacrifice, though. It could also be a natural progression of things. As you get more focused and dedicated to your goals, you might want to spend your weekends differently. That aspect of my life changed when I started pursuing my dreams. I've given up a carefree life for my current path.

I particularly admire my partner because she has to put up with this lifestyle every day. I believe it's mainly her sacrifice, not mine.

What future do you hope to create with Sunrise?

Strangely, while design and its quality are evident in cars, beautiful buildings, and fashion, the same recognition only sometimes applies to food. The best design in the food industry should be the healthiest, best-tasting, and most efficient for everyone. Studies have shown that consuming healthy food can extend life by 10 to 15 years. In the food system, the worst design often prevails over what is truly beneficial.

I aim to change this dynamic, like Tesla did with electric vehicles. I want people to appreciate and value food the way they do a beautiful car or fashion piece. Imagine cherishing the arrival of cherries in June or being amazed by the qualities of a zucchini or a perfect bowl of pasta.

To achieve this, technology can play a crucial role. We need to raise awareness and knowledge about the benefits of healthy and well-designed food, and subsequently make it available for the masses. Food is deeply connected to culture, sharing, and daily life and should hold a more significant role in our society.

We must shift away from a culture driven by fast-food chains like McDonald's and embrace an appreciation for nutrition and nature. By combining knowledge, understanding, and implementation, we can cultivate a new culture that values and celebrates the beauty and benefits of the food we consume.

You're essentially using technology to reconnect people with their roots and appreciate raw, natural food once again.

Yes, that's correct. We like to connect people holistically to a deeper understanding of health and all things natural, and we use technology to get there. We're at a point where artificial intelligence, smart hardware, interactive technology, packaging, and various other advancements can profoundly enhance people's connection and understanding with products like food, which is quite complex. This, in turn, will make it easier for people to comprehend and choose better options.

The challenge lies in the design, which may be a bit intricate. As I mentioned earlier, when you ask people if they want to live a healthy lifestyle, undoubtedly, everyone would answer positively. However, they often struggle to break free from deeply rooted habits due to the fast-paced nature of modern living and these systemic influences on their decision making. This is where I believe technology can play a pivotal role— guiding people toward a healthier way of living.

I hope it goes well. How did you meet your co-founder?

Well, he applied for a role. I had been exploring opportunities in a community called On Deck, based in Silicon Valley, but hadn't found the right match. Then, I started talking to Ryan Janecek, who applied for the role of Head of Operations, but eventually became co-founder.

It all started with a project. My approach was very deliberate; I was actively seeking someone who could complement my skills and strengths. Ryan built on my strengths and shared the same vision. We realised our collaboration was going exceptionally well as we worked together. That's when we started discussing the possibility of him getting a percentage stake in Sunrise, which he was enthusiastic about.

You're lucky that you found someone who works well, as finding the right people is usually very difficult.

There's way too much pressure on this matter. When I started, it was all about finding co-founders, talking to different people. Gradually, I realised I just needed to build. Then, during an on-deck session, we discussed the biggest qualities of a co-founder, and many of us realised that we didn't need one. It’s much more important to push things forward, enable a natural progression of things.

I decided to relax about finding a co-founder, especially considering that I had such a strong vision. If I were to give advice, I'd suggest focusing on and developing your idea. The clearer your vision, the more likely talented people will come on board. And if some of these people are willing to invest more than just their working life, you can consider discussing co-foundership.

Do you have any other advice you would like to give young entrepreneurs just starting out?

My most significant advice is: don't give up. If you genuinely desire success, go for it. However, it might not be the right path for you if you don't have that strong passion and determination.

They say nine out of ten founders won't make it, but remember, that's just a generalisation. It says nothing about your personal situation. What matters most is your determination and dedication to push it forward, and willingness to learn and adapt along the way. Very important, because you want to prevent going in circles obviously. Those nine out of ten who fail might not have wanted it badly enough. Sure, there will be challenging obstacles along the way, but you can overcome them with perseverance and a willingness to embrace discomfort.

Reflect on your actions and decisions regularly, and I'm confident you'll find success. Maybe not a massive, unicorn-sized success, but you can build your desired business.

Remember, you must be certain you're willing to never give up, or it probably won't happen.

If there was one message, and it could be anything unrelated to your business or anything, but just one message that could reach everyone on this planet, what would that one be?

Yeah, I think that the biggest thing is to embrace the moment. Be grateful for what you have, not what you desire. Once you do that, everything else will fall into place. Even more as a founder, when you’re almost non-stop busy chasing the next key result. There’s a lot of beauty in all these small moments, learn to embrace these, good and bad, and all negativity disappears.

Thank you very much for spending some time with us, Ruben. Your project is extremely interesting and highly original, and from all of us at Brighter Future, we sincerely wish you nothing but the greatest possible success.

To learn more about Sunrise, please see www.heysunrise.ai.

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