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‘I’m passionate about developing science-based innovations for impact’ - Aline de Santa Izabel [Interview]

Article-‘I’m passionate about developing science-based innovations for impact’ - Aline de Santa Izabel [Interview]

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Aline de Santa Izabel is a Brazilian microbiologist who has lived in the Nordic region for over 10 years. Working at two nutrition companies gave her the experience and confidence to set up her own personalised nutrition company, Yogut Me. Since then, she has expanded her reach and works as an entrepreneurial expert, collaborating with the European Commission and Djassi Africa to support female founders in the startup ecosystem. We caught up with her to find out more about her journey and the challenges women business leaders still face.

Can you tell us about your background? How did you start your journey in entrepreneurship and innovation?

“I’m a microbiologist and bioengineer who turned into an entrepreneur. I have always been very passionate about science and innovation, and throughout my career, I have been able to develop different science-based innovations for impact. I started my entrepreneurial journey in nutraceuticals back in 2013/2014 when I joined a Swedish startup, the Synbiotic Lifestyle, to lead the development of an innovative symbiotic supplement for gut health.

“Back then, I was fascinated by the process of going from ideation to the commercialisation of innovation. After leading the product development, I was responsible for the launch and commercialisation. It was an excellent experience to move from the lab to business and get in touch with the emerging microbiome science and microbiome-focused innovations before the boom that we have been experiencing in recent years.

“After that, I joined Lifesum, a Nordic scale-up in digital health and nutrition. I then led personalised nutrition initiatives, helping them improve and tailor their nutritional advice based on the user’s data. Both these experiences were crucial for later developing my venture (Yogut Me) as they provided relevant technical knowledge and a network in the Nordic entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“As an entrepreneur, I wanted to take action and drive change by creating impactful innovations that would contribute positively to our food system and society. And at that time, I saw a great challenge and opportunity in the dairy industry, which is still urgently [in need of] a transformation, and the emerging trends supporting the development of novel plant-based innovations and personalised functional foods.

“Today, I focus on creating impact at scale by supporting innovative startups in the health and food space building bridges between the Nordics and the European innovation ecosystems, and connecting startups with international technology development and commercial partners.”

You are Brazilian but have lived and worked in Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, and Finland) for many years. How do these regions compare for women entrepreneurs and scientists in your experience?

“I’ve been living permanently in the Nordics since 2009, mainly in Sweden, which has a more progressive society in terms of gender equality compared with other European countries. However, to start up a business here is still a challenge, especially for female founders.

“There is a good basis [with] new incentives and initiatives but our ecosystem still lacks diversity, especially in the deeptech and science-based companies. To achieve a more gender-balanced ecosystem, we need to increase female representation at different levels, including entrepreneurs and business leaders, investors, on boards, etc.”

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges female entrepreneurs face today?

“The biggest challenges are still related to access to capital and resources. Different studies have shown that female founders have less access to capital than their male counterparts. In Sweden, for example, companies with only female founders received only 0.5% of the Swedish investment capital in 2021. And this situation needs to change.

“Today, I’m happy to contribute with my founder perspective supporting different initiatives and providing resources, skills, and funds to female entrepreneurs and innovators.”

You have collaborated with initiatives supporting female entrepreneurship in Europe and Africa with the European Commission and Djassi Africa. Is it important that there are specific funding programmes for women?

“As an advocate for female entrepreneurship, I’m happy to contribute to different initiatives supporting inclusive and gender-balanced ecosystems in Europe and abroad. For instance, the European Commission recently launched the WomenTech Eu supporting female-led science-based deeptech startups with funding and advisory support.

“Voima Ventures, a Finnish venture capital focused on deeptech startups, is leading an initiative for increasing female representation on startup boards. Unconventional Ventures in Sweden created a fund to support female entrepreneurs with a non-Nordic background and Djassi Africa in Cape Verde is doing great work supporting female founders in Lusophone countries. The EIT Food is creating a network of women leaders to drive change, innovation, and sustainability within the food sector with the We Lead Food program. And I’m happy that some of these initiatives are already making results.

“This year I led a startup acceleration programme with EIT Food [at VTT in Finland] in which half of the companies in the cohort were female-led, which was a good ratio. It’s important to highlight and support those initiatives, but in the long run, once we achieve a more gender-balance and diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem, those initiatives are not as needed.”

What advice would you give budding female business leaders in the food industry?

“Take action, make the leap, and be open to being supported and to support others. Together we can bring significant contributions to the innovation ecosystems within and outside Europe and co-create a better future.”