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“Building a business is actually a lot like scientific research.” - Dr Heather Daniell [Interview]

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Having developed a patented all-natural process for making foodstuffs without sugar or starch binders, Dr Heather Daniell, Founder and CEO of Marvin’s is making a real breakthrough in improving the nutritional value and taste profiles of snack foods. We spoke to her about her approach to building a business and the role perseverance plays in reaching your goals.

Heather, you are the founder and CEO of Marvin’s. Can you tell us a bit about the company and your role within it?

“Marvin’s was founded as the brand to commercialise our patented starch- and sugar-free binding technology.  We wanted to make the most unusual snacks we could with our process so we created Salad and Curry Crisps, both literally made from the same ingredients you would eat as the fresh meal.  For instance, our Tomato and Feta Salad Crisps are made from Tomatoes, red onion, feta cheese, basil and a sprinkle of black pepper.”

“At Marvin’s my role focuses on product development and process scale up where we’ve recently completed the transition from batch style to continuous manufacturing.  We’ve also literally built our own equipment.”

You have a PhD in Organic Chemistry from the University of Oxford as well as experience working in a wide range of sectors from molecular computers to energy finance. Did you always have an interest in the F&B space, and how did your career path lead you to where you are today?

“I’ve always enjoyed good food (who doesn’t!?, but and I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of truly healthy, tasty convivence food. So, with my scientist ‘hat’ on I started to look at how foods where functionally made and why convenience snacks were so loaded with empty calories. This got me thinking about how it could be done different. That’s when I started researching and experimenting to come up with our process.”

You have developed a patented all-natural process for making foodstuffs without sugar or starch binders. Can you give us some examples of the products and ingredients you have created using this process? What is the main benefit of producing products without these binders?

“The problem with sugar and starch is 3-fold: 1) They are the so-called empty calories that are a causative factor in the obesity crisis, as they are calorie dense and nutrient poor. 2) They affect the flavour and nutritional profile of the products you can create because either you have a sweet profile in the case of sugar or with starch it’s actually quite bland, so you have to go adding a lot of flavouring to the product. 3) The methods by which starch-based products are made (baking, popping, frying etc) can lead to the formation of acrylamide, a possible carcinogen that now requires monitoring and mitigation steps.  Actually, there is a 4th problem, which is regulatory as we are seeing in the UK regulations starting to come into place around advertising and promotion of food high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).”

“But sugar and starch are ubiquitous as binders in snack foods in everything from snack bars to crisps, crackers etc. So, if we can remove the sugar and starch, we can have a real breakthrough in the nutritional value and taste profiles of snack foods.”

“We’ve made quite a lot of products with our process so far: crisps, crackers, snack/protein bars, extruded snacks among others. The most popular ones we’ve had on the market so far are our Salad and Curry crisps were we’ve literally turned salads or curries into intensely tasty crisps.  We’ve also made savoury protein bars and no-sugar binder muesli bars.  There are also some other products but unfortunately those are under wraps for now!”

Since 2013 you have founded two companies operating in the F&B space and before that you gained experience working in businesses of varying sizes. Did you find it challenging moving from a corporate to an entrepreneurial environment, and how did you overcome these challenges if so? 

“My original background in science prepared me well for an entrepreneurial environment as there are lots of similarities. In that sense I was already used to it, probably more so than a corporate environment. Building a business is actually a lot like scientific research. For instance, you have a hypothesis about what you want to do (in this case what consumers want to eat but also the price point, branding etc) and you have to test those hypothesises and refine your strategy based on what you learn.”

In business, it is often the case that much of the decision making and bargaining power lies in the hands of men. What are your experiences of being a female founder and CEO?

“I think it depends on what decision making is in the hands of men. My experience of supermarket buys has been largely female? Maybe this varies by country?  I do think the investment community is very much dominated by men and access to capital, as many reports have shown, is largely going to male-run companies.”

“I‘ve spent a lot of time in very male dominated fields in math and science and I think if someone is going to look at me differently because I’m female then they aren’t the right partner/supplier/investor/etc and I’ll just go find someone else or a different way to accomplish what I’m trying to achieve. I don’t spend time reflecting on whether or not my gender plays a role.  But I do think there is a ways to go in providing equal access to capital.”

Do you have any advice for women who are looking to launch their own business in the F&B space or beyond?

“Keep at it! You literally just have to keep going, fix a problem, find a solution and move onto the next thing. You also have to find the balance of parsing out the useful bits of constructive criticism versus where identifying where your approach is valid even if someone else disagrees with it.”

In your opinion, what are the most important elements of building a successful business? Is there anything you wish you would have known before embarking on your career journey?

“Ha! Loads of things, but I tend to operate by setting my sights on and end goal and worrying about how difficult it will be later, because by the time I’m working on it will be too late to quit!  But seriously, I think you just have to keep at it. Don’t be afraid to change your approach when you need to or hold the line. I can’t believe I’m going to do this, but it’s like the Johnny Cash song the Gambler, `You’ve got to know when to hold ‘um and know when to fold ‘um…` but that depends on the different circumstances of each business and each situation. Taking a step back and mapping out what you know, what you don’t know and what your options for solving each problem are can be very helpful.”

Looking to the future, do you have any exciting new projects on the horizon and what are you prioritising in the next 2 years?

“We’re actually just starting the process of looking for a partner to take our snacks to the next level.  As we’ve just completed the scale up of the process, we’ve now got a really strong manufacturing base to take things to the next level.  I’m really excited to see what the next few years holds.”

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