Solveiga Pakštaitė is the Founder and Director Mimica. Solveiga is the inventor of Mimica Touch, a biologically accurate food spoilage indicator that reduces food waste and improved food safety. The product has a granted patent and has been awarded prizes - most recently she was named MIT Technology Review's Inventor of the Year.
Highlights of this episode:
[01:45] How did it all start?
[03:30] Making the first prototype
[05:10] Being an entrepreneur
[06:00] Joining an accelerator
[07:00] How big is the problem of food waste?
[08:00] Working with a scientist to develop a solution.
[11:00] Importance of innovating
[11:40] Challenge of making a mass market product
[16:50] Advise for people who are trying to create a business model and solve an engineering problem
[19:00] Mimica in 10 year time
Mimica Lab: https://www.mimicalab.com/
Solveiga Pakštaitė on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/solveigap/
Listen to this episode now:
Read the transcription:
[0:30] Maiko: In today's episode I talked to Solveiga Pakstaite, founder and director of Mimica. Mimica has developed a smart expiry label for food products that can replace the expiry dates on food items such as milk and other dairy products. With the solution, Mimica is tackling the problem of food waste, with 1.9 million tons of food going to waste in the UK alone every year. In many cases, this is due to food being thrown away because the expiry date was reached, however, the food is still perfectly fine. Mimica has received various awards such as the James Dyson Award and is winning awards, almost on a weekly basis, it seems and signed also their first customers to test out the product. So, it's great to have you on the show.
[1:13] Solveiga: Thank you so much for having me, pleasure to be here.
[1:16] Maiko: You started Mimica as a personal passion project, that's at least what I heard in one of your pitches. Can you talk us through how that happened? How did it all start? And what did you have back then in terms of product or idea? How did you start out?
[1:33] Solveiga: Sure, I went to university to study industrial design, because I was interested in how I could use this discipline to improve the everyday life of people. And I came across this area of design called inclusive design, so for anyone who doesn't know what that is, before inclusive design, the thinking was designed for disability. So, most people would use one design and then if you had a certain disability, you'd use design B, C or D. And that has lots of different problems associated with it, which I won't go into now. But inclusive design has a focus on designing products, it's the thinking that if you make something easy enough for someone to, with a certain disability to use, you make it even easier for people without that disability to use it. So, it's just a really good lens through which to create better design with, so I'm explaining this because this is actually how I got inspired to do Mimica. So, I was working for six months between my second and final year for a charity called Guide Dogs for the blind Association, and they were, we were looking at public transportation and the issue is that visually impaired people might have a public transportation. So, during the six months, I kind of was asking them all sorts of questions and it gave me an opportunity to be kind of nosy about like issues that they might have it or the way they might do certain things.
[02:55] Solveiga: So, one of the questions I ended up asking was how do you know when your food spoils? And it turned out that they didn't have a really good way of determining this. So, what that meant was, is that they were actually buying foods that were canned, or like processed or ready meals just because they didn't want to bear that risk and it was actually affecting their health. So, I wanted to go back to my final year at university and study this problem of it further. But what I quickly found is actually that we're all kind of blind to when off-food, it really goes off and that's actually why we're wasting so much. And it's actually a universal problem, not just a problem that people who have visual impairment have. So, that's what got me thinking about this and I was initially inspired by a thought of an old banana. So, an old banana, you know, its skin changes, it turns brown and spotty, and whatever and you just know it's getting older, and I just wondered whether our packaging could do the same thing to let us know about when our food is truly going to spoil.
[03:55] Solveiga: So, I collaborated with a chemist on campus and we made the first prototype for what is now Mimica Touch and it's a label that tells you exactly when foods fail, and it turns texture to tell you that. So, it's smooth, when the food is fresh and bumpy when it's no longer good for consumption. So, I filed for a patent just before graduating, not because I wanted to start a business, but because I had some leftover scholarship money and I just thought it'd be cool to learn about patents, I never thought I'd be using that patent today. And then I mean, after university, I decided to enter the idea into some competitions, because you know, why not? And the James Dyson Award was the first one that I won and the reaction to that, was kind of crazy. So, the first company to reach out to me to see if we can do something together was Coca Cola for their juices, which was completely crazy. They were saying to me, you know, like, oh, you know, how can we work together with you? And I'm like, what are you talking about? This is literally my university project, I'm trying to apply for jobs, leave me alone. So, I just, I mean, I just wanted like, then other retailers started getting in touch with me and other food producers. So, I just wondered what would happen if I keep going to these meetings. And you know, few years later, I'm still going to those meetings, and I've got an actual company.
[5:07] Maiko: So almost entrepreneur by accident?
[05:11] Solveiga: Yeah, absolutely.
[05:13] Maiko: Started as a designer, did you take a conscious decision at some point as like, okay, I'm actually ready to, you know, be an entrepreneur, build a company around this, rather than just having invented this thing, right?
[5:24] Solveiga: You know, the first year that I was kind of, after, you know, find, winning this award, and I had some useful mentors getting in touch and wanting to help me. And they helped me like apply for some grants, and we kind of won all the grant funding that we were applying for. And I was like, wow, people really are like interested in solving this problem, it's not just like my personal interest. And that's what kind of convinced me that there could be something bigger here. I think for the first year, I was kind of in denial that I was running a business or starting a business, I kind of just continue to go to meetings, I have to say like, I lacked direction for what I was trying to get done. And then what really helps is joining a structured accelerator program where I had to go to meetings every week and tell my mentor what on earth I had been doing. And I think that's what made me realize that I need to employ people to actually make this happen, because there's no way with the, vision that I was talking to and me just being on my own, it just didn't match up. So, I think before that I was scared of employing people because I didn't want to bring people into my mess but then, you know, my mess isn't even going to happen if like I don't take it anywhere. So, I think that was a big step for me, making my first hire.
[6:33] Maiko: And now it's not just you, obviously, you have a team based here in London, right?
[06:38] Solveiga: Yeah, that's right. So, seven of us in the team, and then we work with some freelancers as well, on the product side. So, yeah, it's a really exciting,
[6:47] Maiko: An amazing journey. And how big is the problem you're actually solving, I mentioned the 1.9 million that I found somewhere. But how big is this problem of people not knowing whether their food expire, is any number, you can quantify as well, I mean, probably most of us know this problem?
[7:02] Solveiga: Intuitively, yeah but I mean, 60% of the food that we throw away in the UK is still perfectly edible. So, that really kind of points to expiry dates and if food waste were a country, it'd be the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world after China and the US. So that just gives you an idea of how damaging this problem is, it's not just like the resources that you're throwing away, it's actually like the methane gases that are produced by food rotting, that are incredibly damaging to our environment. So, and it just seems wrong when there's so many people who are living in food poverty, that we're wasting food that could have been enjoyed otherwise.
[7:39] Maiko: When you first started out, you mentioned you collaborated with chemical engineer or chemist inside the university. So, obviously, you're not just solving an environmental problem, but an engineering and design problem. And from outside, at least it seems like a very tricky one to solve, right, it seems like almost a bit science fiction to me. So, how do you go about this when you first started, like, how much time did you spend on this or was this something that you, kind of, could develop quite quickly and then go to market with?
[8:11] Solveiga: Yeah, so not actually being a scientist myself, I was relying very much on the expertise that I could find around me. So, while I was at university, I was working with this scientist, and actually the way I happened upon, like, maybe solving this problem is because I was actually just describing to him this mad idea of this packaging, changing texture when food spoils. And just through kind of coincidence, he, before joining the university had worked at Kodak for 30 years as a scientist, then, his job was actually to, he was working on gelatin film printing and his job was to make the film stop expiring, because like, obviously, it's a food stuff, gelatin and that's what they were making the prints out of. And so, his whole career was spent trying to keep it stable. And so, when I was asking him, what material can I use that like naturally degrades at the same rate as food? He was like, well, I've got a great one for you, it was like the bane of my career, why don't you try gelatin? And it's actually a really interesting material, because it's a waste byproduct from the meat industry so there's like a huge surplus of it. It has all these unique and amazing properties, it's actually an incredible material from a lack of material science perspective.
[09:25] Solveiga: And so, I just started playing around with this property and there is actually a little bit of literature available on the ways that you can manipulate it. And I was able to demonstrate something very basic by the end of my final year. But you know, these days, we have a lab up in Chester that we've partnered with and they have expertise in the area of hydrocolloids, which is the fancy word for gels. And, yeah, a team, a science team working on it every week, all day. So, it's an area of science, like using gels to copy the way that food spoils have never been done before, this area of science does not exist. So, we've kind of been creating a new area of science, which is why it's taking so long like I graduated with this idea four and a half years ago. So, it's only just now that we're getting ready to show something to market and actually, like we're moving away from gelatin gels as well, like we're looking at plant-based gels as well, because that's not going to be gelatin's not going to be suitable for everyone. So, really exciting work that we're doing, so yeah, it's certainly taken a long time.
[10:32] Maiko: And now basically, it's a sticker that goes on top of a product and that expires at the same rate as the product inside the packaging, right or like produces signs of expiry where can then feel if the product expire, is that right, roughly?
[10:46] Solveiga: Yeah, I mean, we have two formats. So, the one that most people will notice is just the label that you can stick on to any existing packaging. And more recently, we're working on a cap integration for products like milk, juice, things like that. And actually, with the cap version, the label is activated as the consumer opens the package for the first time, like twist off the cap. So, that's a really, some cool mechanism work that our product team has been doing and just kind of, we've continued that, we haven't just stopped at the idea I first had with, it's actually moved on along like, a really long way from the original idea that I had. And I think it's really important to keep innovating and not just get stuck on that original idea.
[11:30] Maiko: You said you got a lot of positive feedback, even after winning the award, without even kind of having set it up as a company back then. But what were some of the challenges you had to overcome in terms of, you know, companies actually being able to use this at scale? Like what were some of the challenges or that you did overcome, or you're still trying to overcome to make this really a mass product?
[11:53] Solveiga: And there are two main things that I can think of. So, the first is that, it's, I think it's the perception that actually waste is a good thing for the industry and for like, like consumers waste a lot. But actually, what we know is that if you reduce the waste in the production and also in consumers’ homes and production, obviously, that's a good thing for bottom lines, because you need to produce this product to sell the same amount. And also, what happens when you increase shelf life, which is what effectively we're doing, we're kind of showing people how long they can actually use their food, which is much longer than what expiry date say, because the way that those are calculated is that they have an actual built in buffer, assuming that you're going to keep the food out of the fridge for too long. And so, when you are able to extend the shelf life to when food actually lasts, people buy more. So, they they'll buy a larger pack size, because they have the confidence to do that, they'll buy two when they were just going to buy one or they just buy one when they weren't going to buy any at all. And, and that's good for food producers and likewise for consumers is if they waste less, and there's a brand that's helping them do that and save money, they're going to be more loyal to that brand. And that's good for that business in turn.
[13:07] Solveiga: So, that whole narrative around like that, out the wastebasket is our best friend, like it's a really toxic way of thinking. And we're doing our best to kind of end that, but the reality is that we're going into meetings, and we're kind of educating the companies that we're trying to sell into, that this is like a false narrative. So, that's been a huge challenge. And the other one has just been like being able to show that just the costing, the return on investment that's going to work out for them and demonstrating to them that at scale like, this is how much it's going to cost, this is how much you're going to save. And, we've been really lucky that I brought into the company, experts in the smart packaging field who have run and sold successful smart packaging businesses in the past. And we can actually point to that data that they have, so before we had pilot information of our own, we could point to, a kind of really credible market information.
[14:01] Maiko: So, you're not making just environmental impact but obviously, also an economical one on the company's using the label and positive economic impact with actually allowing customers to, while having a longer shelf life and enabling customers to buy buy that milk even?
[14:19] Solveiga: Absolutely, I mean, wastage is always going to be bad business, isn't it?
[14:23] Maiko: Absolutely, perfect. You sent your first few customers and I don't know which ones you can talk about, but can you talk about any of those or any of the experiences that you collected through it, maybe even without mentioning them?
[14:36] Solveiga: So, we started doing some pilot projects last year in the dairy industry. So, the first thing that our customers, potential customers wanted to know is what the consumer reaction would be. So, we did some really interesting work run by a market research company to test, we did run some focus groups kind of introduced them to the label and got their reaction and then went on to take those key insights and kind of quantify them with like, large surveys. And what we found is that, indeed, that if shelf life, longer shelf life can be demonstrated scientifically that people would be confident to buy more, so, that was good that we were able to demonstrate that. And the really interesting piece for us was that people, the majority of people said that if the brand that they use, already would choose to start using the Mimica Touch label on it, they would remain loyal to that brand. And then even more interestingly, and even though a bit surprising to us, if a brand that they don't normally buy will start using Mimica Touch, they will actually switch to that brand because the kind of assurance of and food safety and the worries around that are much more prominent than other factors. So, being able to show this data to our new potential customers has been incredibly powerful. So, that's the kind of piloting we were focusing on last year. And then this year, we're going to be focusing more on install pilots and we've kind of expanded into the kind of juice and meat industries as well. So, unfortunately, I can't name anyone today, but you guys, are going to be finding out pretty soon.
[16:16] Maiko: Watch the space. Perfect. For entrepreneurs listening to this or people that are just at the place you've been back when you were in university that might see a big environmental or social problem but there's a lot of technology to develop to solve it and has also like the question of the business model, like what advice can you give those people from your own experience having solved this engineering problem, this chemical problem, as well as working out a business model, making sense of it for everybody that's involved and actually creating incentives for people to care about this?
[16:55] Solveiga: So, I think the thing that I wish I'd spent more time on before I kind of, jumped into just going to all these meetings and not even pausing to think how this would work as a business, I wish I'd looked into why this hadn't been done successfully in the past. And I would have very quickly found out that it was because of cost. So, color changing labels have been kind of knocking around for a while now, actually, and but they were costing between 5 and 50 pounds per label. And I think that's just such a difficult price point to scale. Which is why we, knew that we needed to like make ours make sense on a scalable, on a mass scale. So, what I wish I'd done at the start, is ask kind of producers, like how much would you be willing to pay for this and rather than just kind of going ahead with like, developing what I thought needed to be developed and actually working back from a price point that the market can bears are really important learning that I found. In other industries there could be another reason that you know, a technology has not been accepted, or why is this problem not been solved before? So, really taking the time to investigate that, go to right conferences, speak to the key people in the industry, I think that's probably the best advice that I'd give. But also, I would say, a pinch of naivety doesn't go amiss, because just the sheer enthusiasm you can have for something when you're not kind of being shut down by, you know, people saying no, I think that can get you far as well.
[18:18] Maiko: So, basically, if you look at, you know, companies selling a box of milk, they'll probably make a few cents of profit, if at all right? So, you're asking them to give up some of that, and trying to convince them that that will benefit them, right? So, that's kind of the challenge that you had to solve, right?
[18:33] Solveiga: Yeah, I mean, milk is an interesting one, like one in six pints get wasted globally. So actually, if you minimize that waste, you can actually claw back quite a lot of that value and we're helping companies and customers, you know, regular people unlock that value as well. And what we hope is that when people are wasting less at home, and we're helping them do that, they have the courage to buy better quality foods and food poverty is something that we talk about a lot at Mimica and it's a really important factor for us.
[19:02] Maiko: So, your journey's been a few years already but if you look at the next 10 years, what kind of world are you trying to create with Mimica? What would you like to contribute to over the next 10 years? How do you envision Mimica then?
[19:14] Solveiga: So, I think if Mimica succeeds, that everyone will know us as the global mark of freshness, it's going to be something reliable that you can trust. And what that means is that people would have a tool that would allow them to manage one of the most precious resources we have on this planet, which is our food, and that everyone would have better information about when food decides peak freshness in the palm of their hands and I think that's a powerful thing to be heading to.
[19:39] Maiko: It's an amazing journey. Thank you very much for your work, and I can't wait to see this on all my fresh products and in my fridge. So, thank you very much.
[19:47] Solveiga: Thank you so much.