How to scale & thrive as a biotech business

Olympia Yarger founded Australia’s first fully automated & decentralised biotech waste management service, Goterra

Who would’ve thought that feeding maggots would be the spark for a leading-edge greentech business?

When Olympia Yarger, Founder of Goterra, first started farming insects, she was just looking for a way to feed her poultry: “Why is it hard to do? How can we reduce the cost of animal feed? You realise that farming insects is a job on its own.”

In seeking answers, she stumbled into an unconventional biotech solution that would kickstart her greentechpreneur journey. Goterra launched in 2016 as a decentralised biotech waste management service in which maggots and robots in fully automated capsules turn food waste into animal feed and fertiliser.

And she discovered she could tackle a major environmental polluter that often falls under the radar. Globally, one-third of food produced for human consumption, 1.3 billion tonnes, goes to waste. It releases an estimated 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent as it decomposes in landfill.

But with Goterra’s maggot method, the process of inter consumption is so rapid that it prevents those gases being released, reducing CO2 emissions for each tonne of food waste by 98%. One capsule at a time, Goterra is solving the food waste problem, reducing CO2 emissions, and producing valuable low cost-cost animal feed and fertiliser to keep farm’s fed.

The biotech startup is on track to dramatically upscale from managing 10 tonnes to 45,000 tonnes of food waste per week by 2021 - and it’s gearing up to go global.

As the sole-founder of a thriving startup, Olympia may have a packed agenda, but she’s a greentechpreneur who knows how to let her hair down.

On a night out, you’ll find her out dancing, cutting loose at Canberra’s 80s bar or heading to Sydney: “I like to go out and the louder and harder the techno or rap the better. I view dancing as a workout. We eat, and then we dance.”

How does your biotech work?

Fully self-contained, automated capsules are filled with black soldier fly larvae which can eat their way through food waste. As a by-product a rich soil fertiliser, frass, is produced, and the maggots themselves become protein-rich animal feed.

You pour in your waste, shut the lid, and forget about the rest. Then, on the production side, the machine conveys the waste from that hopper, processes it, heat treats it, and moves it into the robotic system where the insects are moved from their place on the shelf to the feeding station and back again. And that process of them feeding every day is where we get the production of the products.

These automated waste management capsules are installed directly at sites with high levels of food waste including farms, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, supermarkets, SMEs, and we service city councils.

What kind of support network do you need as a greentechpreneur?

People who allow you an authentic decompress

You’ve got to find really good people who you can just call, send really inappropriate gifs to, and where you can swear and just have an authentic decompress. Because, for a lot of your engagements, you’ve really got to keep it together. So you need people who you can be your authentic self with, and who will just make simple grunting noises and listen.

People who hold you up to a high standard

You need really good advisors who are prepared to demand that you don't fall down and have fits and who will hold you to a standard that is in keeping with the vision that you've created for yourself.

Anyone that's decided they’re going to be participatory in the saving of the world, which greentech companies are, is burdened not only with the success of their business, but with seeing their company succeed so it can leverage its benefit for a greater cause. If that's who you are, you need to make sure that your advisors are not letting you sit happy in comfort land.

Be really comfortable when people tell you contrary opinions. Actually spend time enjoying having somebody kick your idea a little bit. That for me has often been a road to some kind of successful turnaround, something that’s been unexpected, or really useful.

People who will advocate for you

When people become participatory in this journey with you they become your ambassador and your biggest cheerleader. They move in different circles than you, so they're actively thinking about, ‘who does Olympia need to know?’ I met our lead investor for our seed round through my advisors. It's still my job to push interest across the line, but it was through connections.

I've been so fortunate with the investors I have: they’ve made me cry, made me laugh. I can send them inappropriate gifs in investor updates, and all because they understand those things are necessary for founders who are going through difficult things.

Describe your startup journey in three words

Fucking-hard but fun

What are keys to growing your client base?

Know your product really well

Growing your client base is about knowing your product really well. You’ve got to know what it is, what it does, what it can’t do, and what it could do – the potential. We understand what we can deliver and we know what that needs to cost.

Get a deep understanding of your market

Getting deep market penetration is what it really comes down to. You can't just understand it in the sense that; they’re 40, they’re women, and they like sucreries. You've got to understand them in so far as; they’re 40, they're women, and they never get out but they wish they did. Understanding what causes your client pain will enable you to attract them, drive sales, and push your pipeline. If you don't understand them in a dynamic way, you will create products that you think they want, but they actually don’t really need.

Go early, go hard, and go fast

Instead of assuming that the world wants our idea, we ask, ‘how do we get to you guys, what do you need us to do?’

When possible, try to do a little extra so that we can show that we proactively want to be part of their status quo. We're different, but we want to go along, and sometimes when you show how you can fit in with what they’re already doing, that can diminish some of the challenges.

How do you judge the viability of potential new clients?

When we do the modelling with a potential client, we’re really looking to see where and how we fit in their waste supply chain. And sometimes we don't because they're utilising other services, or they're not prepared to do different things, and that's okay, they're not the client for us.

On the financial side, potentially they'll say, ‘well, where we are the landfill’s not that expensive.’ We can mitigate this conversation all day long, but you've told me that you're literally looking at a linear item. I could try and convince you of the social, the environmental, and the long-term impact, but if we’re completely unaligned on money, that’s probably not going to be of much benefit.

What’s the most dramatic obstacle you’ve faced as a founder?

This year we had bushfires surrounding Canberra, we had ongoing droughts, then flooding and hail, and now we have Corona. That’s all in the last four months. In January we had temperatures of 40 plus degrees. To try to alleviate the grid, which is necessary, there were rolling blackouts on the weekends and that makes keeping maggots cool at night quite difficult.

One of the bushfires was pretty close to Canberra. That smoke was horrific. Living in that level of pollution for more than two months was emotionally draining on the team. We were trying to keep staff healthy and make sure that people weren't having to work for longer than they needed to, while still getting enough done. And then the rain came and the hail destroyed both roofs at our warehouse and all the staff cars. It didn't stop.

Through it all, we just found a way to keep laughing. Laughter is a huge thing, making sure we have fun is in our cultural constitution at GoTerra. Soft-ball sized hail is coming from the sky, I don’t know what else we can do here, except laugh.

We're all in the boat together as a team, none of us are going through this alone, we can get through.

How has COVID affected your business?

With the coronavirus our clients have evolved. Our clients were restaurants and hotels, but now it’s shifted more to supermarkets and hospitals which are busier. But for us, growth is steady, it’s ongoing - we’re going from zero to hero. Our state government has been focused on innovating across industries, we’ve been overwhelmingly supported in that way.

………..If Olympia could teleport herself into the future, she’d see a world that’s taken dramatic action to change its global trajectory, and as part of that, “I’d hope to see Greta Thunberg less angry.” She envisions a global Goterra, with automated waste management capsules dotted across the far-flung corners of the globe: “More maggots, more money, save the world, that kind of stuff!”

Her dream house would be located in Australia’s Snowy Mountains and it’s made of mud: “It’s a one room house, it has a kitchenette in the corner and a massive bed, the walls are filled with books. It has a banya outside, which is an Alaskan steam house and bathroom.”


Olympia’s book recommendations:

Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Anything by the author Marian Keyes - sometimes I just need something well-written and funny.

A networking event you should go to:

Go to events about industries you're not involved with. For example, I went to a meet up about fixing old cars and ended up learning a lot about different types of pumps which was incredibly valuable in our prototyping.


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The Green Techpreneur is written by Marianne Lehnis, follow my Forbes column for more greentech insights.

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