In the Founders Spotlight blog series we sit down with the founders of our portfolio companies and get to know their story. This time we talked with Simo Ellilä, the founder and CEO of biotech start-up eniferBio. Their PEKILO® mycoprotein is a high-protein ingredient that offers a sustainable alternative to soy protein concentrate, the environmentally damaging current industry standard.
Let’s start with an easy one; who is Simo Ellilä? Tell us the short story of you up to this date.
I was born and raised in Salo, Finland. However, I have lived abroad several times during my life and don’t feel that rooted anywhere in particular. Being from a Nokia-family growing up in a Nokia-town during the boom years of the late 1990’s definitely impacted me and pushed me toward a career in tech. I have a lot of faith in human ingenuity, and that we can overcome many of our world’s problems with technology.
Growing up, I was a total geek devouring Science Illustrated etc. and always particularly fascinated by articles on biotech (e.g. the completion of the human genome while I was in high school in 2003), so I ended up studying that at the University of Tampere.
Over time, I came to think that Finland should naturally have a particular competence in combining biotech with forestry / biorefining industry, since we rather uniquely have strong know-how in both fields. I pursued that idea by taking up my first job at VTT studying advanced biofuels, a hot topic in ~2010. That became a 10-year spell of mainly biofuels and biochemicals research in Finland and Brazil. Then, last year, we started eniferBio.
Aug 16th, 2020. To celebrate the latest funding round eniferBio's founders and new investors visited the old Pekilo factory that was closed in 1991. In the picture: Mika Kukkurainen (Noridc FoodTech VC), Joosu Kuivanen (co-founder), Simo Ellilä, Pontus Stråhlman (Voima Ventures).
Can you tell us a little about how you came to the decision to start eniferBio?
As with most companies, the story behind what is now known as eniferBio featured many chance events and encounters. I had recently returned to Finland from a 3.5-year stint in Brazil when I came across the history of the PEKILO® process, the world’s first industrial mycoprotein process developed in Finland in the 1970’s.
After getting to work on the PEKILO process for a while at VTT, I could not help but think that it had immense potential in today’s world. For example if applied to the massive side streams coming from Brazilian sugarcane plants that I had just recently witnessed first-hand.
By chance, my Co-founder Heikki Keskitalo from Oulu had independently come to the same thought and further realized that there was a great new market opportunity for the protein in the rapidly growing aquaculture sector. Heikki had contacted VTT to enquire about the process, and his emails were quickly directed to me. That led to a furious email exchange of sharing visions. Again, by chance, VTT’s just appointed CEO Antti Vasara had just started an internal start-up incubator called LaunchPad. We applied to the first cohort with our idea, were selected, and started building the case.
Personally, I had dreamt of becoming an entrepreneur for a while and gathered a team of similarly oriented people (not too common for scientists) from VTT to drive the case forward. It took us about a year to bring in our seed investment from the great people at Nordic FoodTech VC and Voima Ventures.
What has been by far the best moment as eniferBio’s founder and CEO?
I guess it’s the moments where you have worked day-and-night as a team, faced apparently insurmountable obstacles, but managed to pull through in the end. I guess it must be a bit like how mountain climbers feel when they reach a summit!
We have had a few situations like that, when we have technical challenges and time pressures, but manage to make things work. A clear example is our partnership with Skretting and Tereos – by winning the former’s start-up competition we have a partnership in place to validate our PEKILO® protein in aquafeed. That forced us to accelerate things quite a lot from what we had originally planned. The press release makes it sound easy, but believe me, it was not!
Nov 22th, 2021. The co-founders building eniferBio's very own laboratory. In the Picture: Anssi Rantasalo, Joosu Kuivanen, Ville Pihlajaniemi and Simo Ellilä (holding the phone).
And lastly, what’s the best advice or feedback you’ve ever received as a founder?
Know the people you work with. Building a company from nothing is intense, and if you are not in sync, you will end up in big conflicts. In this respect I have to thank Pekka Siivonen-Uotila from Nordic FoodTech VC. As a serial entrepreneur he has seen it all, while we are all first timers. While still negotiating our seed round he asked us founders directly: “Do you know each other? I mean really know each other, as in that you have been shit-faced together and have seen the worst sides of each other?” You don’t necessarily need to binge drink, but I think it is good to have a baptism of fire for a team before rather than after starting a company together.