On Life in the Early Days of a Start-up, Pivoting and, the Mission to Make an Impact in the Food System: A Conversation with Sophie Saget of Goeconut.
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Sophie and Marcela — Goeconut
Sophie Saget had a lot on her plate: she’s finishing her Ph.D. in Food Sustainability and is simultaneously the co-founder of Goeconut- an early-stage venture with a mission to simplify, accelerate, and reduce the costs related to managing food environmental and nutritional sustainability. She and co-worker slash friend Marcela Porto Costa came up with the idea for Goeconut during their Ph.D. research. The duo started working on its business plan six months ago, during their participation in the Global Food Venture Programme’s Stage II: Business Incubation, where their business plan was awarded second prize at its final pitch competition. In this interview, Sophie tells us about her academia to entrepreneurship shift, Goeconut’s origin story and of her recent business pivot.
Tell me about the problem that Goeconut is tackling?
COVID changes our relationship with food: it raises our awareness of the food-health relationship and opens our eye on how food connects us to the wilder side of nature. However, it is not always a piece of cake to find the most healthy food option with the lowest environmental impact. Most environmental food labels only offer a piece of biased environmental information, such as prioritizing carbon emissions and excluding other relevant environmental aspects, such as water scarcity or nutrient pollution, among others. Meanwhile, nutritional labels are often presented confusingly and not connected with environmental information. As a consumer, you end up having to navigate the flood of information by relying on assumptions. People think organic and local equals more environmentally sustainable. Studies have shown it is not necessarily true. Unless you carry an environmental assessment of a product, it’s impossible to know whether it performs comparatively better. Food companies are increasingly aware of these issues and are willing to quantify, improve, and communicate their impact. However it is an expensive, slow, and cumbersome process. Indeed, high amounts of data need to be collected, processed, and presented in an easy to understand way. Goeconut automates these steps so that food sustainability management becomes easy, cheaper, and fast.
Marcela and you started out the business incubation program six months ago with a very different business idea- tell me the story behind the pivot.
We started with a simple food labelling consultancy- Our label would show consumers which food item is simultaneously good for their health and the environment. Then we realized that it was not the best approach. There was a multitude of other labels already- although we found our idea was much better than existing ones (laughs), and it is not easily scalable. The data collection process itself takes a lot of time and resources. Many food producers can’t afford that. So, we thought of a way to accelerate the life cycle assessment process, and that was how the idea for Goeconut came into fruition. The software we are developing automates all these tedious steps and presents results in an easy to understand way, thanks to machine learning features. It also provides suggestions for improvement.
How did you fall in love with academia, and what made you shift your career to be an entrepreneur?
At the end of my undergraduate studies, I was so eager to start working in industry. Once I did, though, I realized that academia was not so bad! My job lacked the intellectual stimulation-maybe it was just not the right role for me. So, upon finding out about my current Ph.D. position- which combines my passion for food sustainability, and past research on chickpeas, I decided to take the leap. The best part of doing a Ph.D. for me is the freedom and intellectual stimulation. I’m very self-disciplined, and I like being my own boss. The Ph.D. also allows me to work wherever and whenever I want, as long as I have my computer.
Through our doctoral research, Marcela and I noticed this gap in the market for Goeconut, and we came up with the concept. Once we did, we just can’t stop thinking of how the idea would make such a significant impact towards a more sustainable world.
Choosing entrepreneurship is not easy- it is a path often taken by the most ambitious in our society. What drives you?
One motivation is to generate a positive impact through our research. There’s this gap between scientific research and the general public. One way to overcome that said gap and make an impact is by founding our own company. We believe in an obesity-free world where empowered food manufacturers and consumers partner to achieve more sustainable food systems.
Founding a company with a close friend can be tricky. How did you and Marcela meet, and what made you decide that she was the right person to build a company together?
We started out as work friends-our Ph.D. belongs to the same Horizon 2020 program (https://www.true-project.eu/). She works with LCA from the agricultural side and I on the company side- this brought us to talk to each other every day for the last three years.
When we met in person for the first time in Dublin at the start of our PhDs, we hit it off. It became the first of many meetings. While we did our research in different universities, our approach is very connected. So, we attended many events and conferences together. These also gave us the opportunity to build many great memories, such as a post-conference one-week vacation camping along the coast between Porto and Lisbon with barely any equipment!
So, yes, we are friends- but ones that are used to working together. We do have different opinions at times, and this is constructive. Marcela has such a sharp, critical mind. She also worked as a life cycle consultant before her Ph.D., so she’s very knowledgeable about her field.
You’re finishing your degree and, at the same time, trying to build a company- all that, amid a pandemic. What does the typical day look like?
Because of the lockdown, I’m currently staying in the French countryside in the middle of nowhere, in a village of around 20 inhabitants. There is no distraction there. Work is all I do, and I take breaks when I need them- horse riding. I don’t set fixed working hours, though; It doesn’t work like that for me. You can’t always stay in ‘the zone’ for long hours. I miss social interactions a lot, and am looking forward to being able to network other than virtually!
What is the next step for Goeconut?
There is a lot going on. We are applying to European and French funds, building the minimal viable product (the software), and talking to companies. We are establishing partnerships with selected companies, so that we can use that funding to develop further the software alongside the companies to ensure product market fit.
Author: Jennifer Sasa Darmali