Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Julia Streuli Of FUL Foods Is Helping To Change Our World
An Interview With Martita Mestey
Hire smart — with small teams, it is essential that people pull their weight, own their work, act as team players and contribute to the company’s overall culture and morale. For us, this means every new person we bring on must embody our core company values — guts, grit, grace and good — to a tee!
As a part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Streuli.
Prior to co-founding FUL, Julia helped launch and scale a for-profit for-good venture-backed technology startup in Silicon Valley where she built the company’s sales and marketing strategy — partnering with global corporates such as Cisco, Dropbox and VMware, as well as leading strategic product partnerships with NGOs and foundations. Along the way, Julia also co-founded a nonprofit project on effective philanthropy, and worked on health education initiatives in the U.S. and Thailand. Julia has a B.A. from Brown University in international development/gender studies and an MBA from INSEAD where she met her FUL co-founders to launch a blog and research initiative on innovations in the sustainable food sector.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Growing up I was a bit of an usual mix of artist and athlete, and lived in between the two very different worlds — one of absolute creativity, self expression, “outside the box thinking” and the other of teamwork, self discipline and fierce competition. The two always felt a bit at odds (the rules of sport are not meant to be “reimagined”, and a painting is not made better through “hustle”).
It was only through the world of entrepreneurship that I saw how complementary and cohesive the artist and athlete persona can be — with the former setting the vision and strategy, and the latter bringing it all to life.
You are currently leading a social impact organization / company that is making a difference for our planet. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
In the wake of our climate crisis, we have no other choice but to look for solutions that produce better nutrition using fewer resources (including fresh water, arable land, fertilizers, pesticides), resulting in fewer damaging effects (greenhouse gas emissions, desertification, chemical runoff, biodiversity loss, human disease) and proving more resilient in the face of rising temperatures, natural disasters and global supply chain disruptions.
Our team at FUL Foods is focused on developing “future-proof” nutrition solutions from spirulina (a type of microalgae) which is one of the most compelling nutrition solutions known to humanity. It has a superior nutritional profile (rich mix of micronutrients, fatty acids and proteins) and it has the potential to be produced in a hyper resource-efficient manner.
We can even use CO2 waste streams as our main feedstock to produce our nutrition — CO2 emissions become our main input rather than output (as is the case with most forms of mainstream nutrition that collectively contribute significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions).
Despite the immense human and climate potential, microalgae has not become a mainstream source of nutrition because of key taste and shelf life issues. With our team of top food scientists in Europe’s Food Valley (Netherlands), we’ve developed an innovative process to address those key challenges — improving taste and nutrient stability, while integrating into convenient final applications (like our first product, a functional water).
With our FUL nutrition, we have the opportunity to give people what they want (products that taste good, are convenient, and accessible) while developing a new standard for “sustainable” nutrition. This new standard we are developing doesn’t just do less harm but actively benefits the climate through the way it is produced (gobbling up CO2 waste streams from industrial processes).
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I’ve always been interested in how we as individuals can make the most impact in causes that matter to us. This was the focus of my studies, and the last software startup I helped build in Silicon Valley.
The theme of sustainable nutrition as a vehicle to improve human and climate health kept emerging throughout my work in Silicon Valley and I became utterly fascinated with the emerging world of “food tech”– innovation unlocking exciting opportunities to create cheaper, healthier and more sustainable products.
My co founders and I actually started a blog on the future of food while we were completing our MBA (we interviewed over 100 founders, investors and policy makers), and by the end of our research we were absolutely convinced microalgae (spirulina) had immense potential as a scalable, sustainable nutrition solution.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It was October of 2019 and my co founders and I (then students completing our business degrees) had spent months working together — first on our research project on the future of food and then on our business idea to make sustainable microalgae nutrition mainstream. At that point we were working around the clock on our idea but it was still very much a passion project.
We were heading to San Francisco to take a few meetings with food tech startups and investors we had lined up, and I remember this moment getting into the cab leaving campus for the airport. I had this overwhelming sense of absolute clarity — I honestly felt it in my bones — that we HAD to go all in and bring this idea to life.
- The team was right — I had never met two people with whom I was at once more complementary and more aligned. We had the experience to make it happen — from Cristina’s career biorefining microalgae to Sara’s years in finance and managing IP/ trademark strategy to my own work in the world of startups in Silicon Valley.
- The idea was right — we were all sold on the vision and couldn’t stop thinking about and working on the business plan day and night. Not because we had to, but because we didn’t want to focus on anything else.
- The time was right — “foodtech” as a category was just taking shape — Beyond Meat had just gone public, Impossible had launched in Singapore, and other breakthrough innovations like precision fermentation and cell ag were unlocking massive opportunities to shape our food system to become more sustainable, more resilient, and more scalable.
It was now or never. The old adage “If not now, when? If not you, who” had never rang truer for me.
Many people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization / company. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Hands down, the most critical part of any startup is TEAM: having co-founders and founding team members who are absolutely aligned on values and vision. Who also share a deep trust and respect for one another. Without this solid foundation, I think it can become nearly impossible to face the inevitable myriad challenges that come with starting a company.
My co founders and I worked closely together for 6 months before we discussed actually starting a company together. This trial period to validate how well we as founders worked together was absolutely critical, and I believe was the most important step we took to give FUL a solid foundation and get it off the ground.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
We started the company in mid February 2020 — so COVID hit one month in. We had just hired a food scientist and secured a lab space to begin developing our microalgae prototypes with a modest grant we had won from a pitch competition.
With everything shut down, it looked like time and money would quickly run out. We ended up setting up a makeshift lab in our food scientist’s living room and developing the foundation of our IP and early prototypes of our drink — both of which provided us with enough traction to successfully bring in funding.
It was an important lesson from the outset of our startup journey — if a wrench is thrown into your plans, use the wrench!
It has been said, that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Do you have a story about a humorous mistake that you made when you were first starting and the lesson you learned from that?
The very first version of our drink we produced in a brewery (then we were fermenting spirulina) resembled a thick dark green (sparkling) sludge. We couldn’t have sold a single unit of that version even though it had incredible nutritional values and a compelling sustainability story.
It now feels so obvious, but it’s a reminder for all the impact-driven entrepreneurs out there to design your solutions to meet the actual demands and preferences of your customers.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
We have two advisors / mentors — Sonia Hendriks and Marne Velasquez — who helped build the iconic and category shaping plant-based dairy brand, Califia Farms. Their support, wisdom, expertise and positivity has had significant impact on our business operations (helping build out our US sales strategy and completely update our brand identity and positioning).
Beyond their day-to-day operational advice, I’ve drawn significant inspiration from stories of Califia’s startup journey — especially the stories of their early days as a small, scrappy company developing and introducing innovative products to the market.
Are there three things the community, society, or politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Government must create incentives (through a variety of mechanisms) for businesses to become greener and support sustainable innovations to reach a maturity and scale in which they are commercially competitive
- Businesses must develop more sustainable solutions that effectively meet consumer demands (in the case of food — creating products that deliver on taste, price and convenience)
- Government and civil society must educate consumers so they can make informed decisions about what they buy and what they invest in
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Sustainability at its core is about resource efficiency: creating more value using fewer resources.
Take our process at FUL — we are now working on creating valuable ingredients (protein, fatty acids) from the part of the spirulina we don’t use for our drink (the part that is not soluble in water). Most companies consider this non blue/ non soluble part of the spirulina a wastestream and simply throw it away. However, if we can efficiently create products from these “waste streams” and sell these products on the market with a decent margin, then not only are we avoiding waste, but we are creating much more commercial value from the same starting resource (the spirulina we grow).
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?
- Hire smart — with small teams, it is essential that people pull their weight, own their work, act as team players and contribute to the company’s overall culture and morale. For us, this means every new person we bring on must embody our core company values — guts, grit, grace and good — to a tee!
- Adapt strategy as needed, but stay steadfast in vision and values — if shorter, easier paths emerge or if big roadblocks pop up on your current path, then adjust your course if it means more efficiently getting to your destination!
- Have aggressive goals, but manage cash conservatively — funding environments can change on a dime (and hype cycles can start or end abruptly), unforeseen expenses may arise, timelines can get pushed out. Always have reserves for a rainy day!
- Listening to feedback is important, but filtering feedback is critical — everyone has a different opinion about your business and your products. One of the most critical tasks you have as an entrepreneur is navigating (often conflicting feedback) and determining what feedback to incorporate and what feedback to ignore. While it is incredibly important to collect data and research to inform decisions, it’s equally important to understand the constraints and limitations of those inputs!
- Enjoy the ride — It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day tasks, but it’s important to zoom out and remind yourself that every second of building a company (especially with people you like on a topic you care about) is an immense privilege and the ultimate learning experience!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
If not you, then who? If not now, when?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” — Winston Churchill
There are many ways to “lead”, but I think the most effective is to balance humility and confidence — empowering others’ opinions, but knowing when to dig in your heals.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Sara Blakely. I’ve drawn immense strength from and comfort in stories of her entrepreneurial journey with Spanx — a journey that required a whole lot of courage and conviction: transforming failure into success and doubt into belief to develop something novel as a woman and as an industry outsider.
It sounds cliche, but having strong, relatable role models has made all the difference in my own entrepreneurial journey while navigating the throes of early startup uncertainty..
To be honest, I had never even considered entrepreneurship before coming across stories like Sara’s (and the late Leila Janah’s). They were the first entrepreneurs I learned about who made entrepreneurship feel more accessible –in part because they were the first entrepreneurs in whom I saw a little bit of myself.
Needless to say, I’m particularly grateful that Sara has done such an effective job in sharing her entrepreneurial journey to inspire people like me to start companies.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can actually try the product on our website fulcompany.com and follow us on social media: @ful_Company
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes Helping Our Planet: Why & How Julia Streuli Of FUL Foods Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.