Please introduce yourself and your business.
Maija Itkonen, CEO & Cofounder
I’ve always felt that it’s my responsibility to dedicate my work and life to making the world a bit better place. The food system is badly broken, and if there’s anything I can do, why wouldn’t I? I’m not afraid of challenges and hard work. We only live once, so what’s there to lose?
I just got a genetic analysis showing that my ancestors have been in Finland for thousands of years. I feel strongly rooted in Finnish nature, and I like to switch roles. I’m at home both in business meetings wearing a black suit and collecting mushrooms in rubber boots.
I don’t think people would be surprised by anything about me, as I’m known to be a person who has done everything possible and doesn’t have particular limitations. After school, I first went to study music. Then I expanded to industrial design but kept earning income by playing music, and then came urban design. I continued to business school to study management. My first full-time job was as a design manager in a company doing touch screens. I still continued playing at night in a theatre band, even when I became a CEO in my first company, because I liked it so much. One advisor said once; I think this is what they call "theatre therapy for top management"!
For me, technologies are tools for experiences. I’m very creative and always feel confident trying things I know I need to do. I’m an artist at heart and a business person in soul. I’m also a designer, musician, mother of four, wanna-be-farmer, and what else. Perhaps it was a surprise for my artist networks that I became a businesswoman, but I guess nobody today would be surprised that I’m also an artist!
What do your operations look like today?
We are a food-biotech company who develops egg protein from precision fermentation. We will be an industrial ingredient company who produces egg protein in mass scale and sells it to food manufacturers, who need it for making their delicious food products.
My spin-off cofounder, Chris Landowski, is a great scientist who shares the same mentality as I do. We found each other from two different directions. I had gotten involved with the spinoff and was hoping to find the appropriate technical cofounder. Chris had been dreaming of becoming an entrepreneur but was unwilling to become a CEO. Someone mentioned to him that he should talk with me!
We have divided the work clearly into technical and non-technical. It’s extremely important to be able to 100% rely on the other founder’s dedication and sense of responsibility. I also want to be worth the trust of the whole technical team.
We are a team of 27 with diverse backgrounds from top research institutes, food & biotech companies, enzyme & alternative protein startups. We have only picked people who we know already. We also nurture the team spirit by, for example, singing karaoke, preparing egg foam drinks, hiking in nature, organizing parties for our fellow startups, and doing sports together. Our excellent team spirit is the fuel for these specialists: everyone shares a common goal, and as a team, we are like a diamond that is stronger with its various different angles.
How did you discover the problem you are solving?
As a lifelong vegetarian, I have always been intrigued by the new protein opportunities. The plant-based industry has been developing really fast lately. But the ability to produce real animal proteins without animals brings it to the next level. Plant proteins are great in some applications, but in others, the "real deal" is still required. The world needs great quality protein, and the world needs to cut ties with factory farming. Isn’t it obvious what we need to do?
Walk us through the specific steps you took to get started with your business.
My first steps with Onego included market research and business model calculations. We had to convince the institute that we were the right people for the spinoff!
Onego is a special kind of company from the perspective that we had 10M€ funding from two VCs already on the first day. That time, we only had signatures on paper. We immediately started building it into a real company, and 6 months later, we decided to stop calling it “early stage.” All in all, our research had already started in 1980’s and this particular project already in 2016.
Onego has been extremely fortunate to get going so fast and smoothly.
How did you acquire your first customers?
Our company works with a product that is currently a real pain for food manufacturers. The public commitments towards cage-free eggs and avian flu are causing lots of challenges to the supply chain; prices are fluctuating, and availability is low. We are still in the pre-market phase but have extraordinary customers in the pipeline, the biggest food companies in the world: bakery products, formed products, protein supplements, and snack products. When you have the right product, selling it is not the challenge, but getting it fast to market!
We need to set up production for a completely new way of producing eggs. The food market is very tightly controlled (rightly so), and we need to go through all kinds of regulatory and approval steps while scaling up our production simultaneously.
What are your three most impressive accomplishments so far?
Onego is still pre-market, so it’s hard to give exact figures related to our growth. But we are certainly competing for the title “the fastest precision fermentation company out there to get products to the market.”
Our company is now 1.5 years old, and we are at full speed to reach novel food regulatory approval next year. For us, the excitement from our customers is a great sign; if the product weren’t so much wanted, they wouldn’t be lining up at our door.
Onego has been very fortunate in the sense that all of our customers have found us, not the other way around. When we started from scratch, we decided to attend as many events and competitions as needed so the right people learn we exist. After the first year, we looked at our records and noticed we had met the target.
How do you measure your social/environmental impact & keep it at the core of your business?
We are an impact-driven company, and sustainability is at the very core of what we do and why we exist. We already had an anticipatory Life Cycle Assesment of our technology published even before the company was officially founded.
This peer-reviewed article is written by top scientists and published in Nature Food. The results show that Bioalbumen(R) has the potential to reduce most agriculture-associated impacts, such as global warming and land use, by up to 90%.
We are currently building the foundation for our impact and ESG strategy and integrating it into our operations from the very beginning as we are building the company, designing our production, and developing the supply chains. We aim to have all the reporting, measuring, and data collection in place when we enter the market.
If any, what impact have you had so far?
Eggs are one of the world’s most used animal proteins. For a good reason: they are considered the perfect protein, and because eggs have a very unique functionality, they’re invaluable in all types of food formulations.
Due to the status of eggs as a nutrition and functionality powerhouse, global egg production has almost doubled in volume during the past 20 years and is forecasted to reach 138 million tons yearly by 2030 as the desire for high-quality proteins continues to rise. Food companies have been looking for viable egg replacements for years, but the performance of alternative ingredients has stood in the way until now. With our bioidentical egg protein, we can directly replace the whole egg in food applications.
Bioalbumen® can reduce environmental impacts across a range of impact categories, such as land use, greenhouse gas emissions, or water scarcity. Compared to the traditional way of producing egg protein, our fungus can produce a protein with a 10 times higher resource efficiency. Only one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of Bioalbumen® can replace 277 eggs, so in the future, just one of our factories could save over 2 million chickens a year.
We are currently working together with R&D teams of the world's largest food companies to launch joint products with. We have a very lucrative market opportunity—the total egg market is worth 300 billion dollars, and the processed eggs market is worth 93 billion dollars. The precision fermentation market is estimated to grow 20-fold during this decade. Our innovation will provide the world with the same egg protein it knows and loves but without the harmful impact of animal agriculture.
What has been the hardest lesson you had to learn in your journey as a founder?
I have been an entrepreneur for 15 years, and it has certainly taught me all kinds of things about life. Most important is there’s always a new day coming. Sometimes, things are difficult, but there’s always a way out. Try to focus on doing the right things rather than doing things right. Don’t be credulous, don’t be cynical, question everything, but also believe in yourself and your hard work; it always pays off! I think everybody should consider their lives as entrepreneurially as possible, even if you are working in someone else’s company.
How did the experience of building a startup change you?
I’m extremely fortunate to have been able to build all these companies in my life. My husband once said: “For you, I think the startup life is a 100% fit. You have found what you love and what you’re good at.”
I’m capable of focusing in many directions and looking at things from many sides. I have a "cool" analytical approach to things, i.e., I don’t stress or get emotional. I am good at motivating people and seeing the big picture. I love numbers, I’m an extremely practical problem-solver, I am very energetic, and I get easily excited. I don't mind spending a lot of time at work; I have a global perspective, and I like challenges!
What are your long-term goals for Onego Bio?
Our biggest target for the coming year is to bring our marvelous product to market. Onego is part of this incredible journey of changing our food system to be healthier for the people and the planet. We will change the way the world’s most popular protein, egg protein, is produced. What could be more exciting?!
The product itself has such great variability that only the sky is the limit for it.
The good thing is that there’s always more to learn when you’re a CEO. I’m willing to serve the company as long as I’m needed, and what comes next - nobody knows.
Join the movement to combine massive impact with profit-driven business models. Receive insights, updates and exclusive invites & opportunities straight to your inbox. No spam, ever.