Anne-Cathrine Hutz is co-founder and vice-president of product at Infinite Roots (formerly Mushlabs), a German startup that uses fermentation and fungi to make mycelium-based food.
Fi Global Insights caught up with Hutz when she attended Fi Europe in Frankfurt – along with her 10-month-old baby – to take part in a panel discussion on the potential of fungi to provide a sustainable source of nutrition.
What led you to founding your own startup that makes mycelium?
“My background is initially in business psychology and then I moved into food innovation where I dived into the world of fermentation. And once you fall in love with fermentation and the solutions it brings to this world, you can't really get out of it anymore!
I focused in the beginning on a more culinary path because I was interested in seeing how the most creative minds work with the best ingredients you can find on this planet; I worked at Noma for the fermentation team.
“Then I went back to the scientific field where I met my co-founders and fell in love with mycelium and what mycelium can do. That's how I ended up founding Mushlabs. It's very rare in the food industry to have something completely new you can work with, and I think for me that is the main driver: we are really innovating each day. You need to establish new procedures and you have the chance to make processes very different and new.”
What did the experience at Noma, a three-star Michelin restaurant that has been voted the world’s best restaurant several times, give you?
“The main learning part for me was working day to day with food. You learn so much about the varieties of basic raw materials and how that has an implication on the final menu or final product you are presenting.
“But, of course, also how important the emotional part is in food: the storytelling and how much you need to make sure people are connected to what they are eating, always rooting people back into nature. I think this was the main learning from the culinary world for me.
“[I also learnt that] working with very new, unfamiliar ingredients is normal and you don’t [have to] be afraid of handling new procedures.”
What has been your experience as a woman working in these different fields from food service to food entrepreneurship?
“There is similarity in all of them because they are all very male-dominated. Nevertheless, I always see that whenever you come with a different perspective, people are also open and willing to change their perspective.
“Most people still [say] 'this is how we've done it, this is the process that works best', but at the end of the day, the final consumer is both male and female so it is important to bring the female part into the whole chain and production. […] So, I think it's good that we start having more women everywhere from final packaging up to the scientific part of how we produce ingredients.”
How challenging is it balancing motherhood and the pressures that come with running a startup?
“I definitely see there are still a lot of challenges. Just by the simple fact of being here [at Fi Europe]. To be honest, I was challenged just to get in here! The security guards said, 'Hold on, babies are not allowed at a trade show!' I said, 'Ok but I am a speaker on a panel, what do you want me to do?'
“In the end, they let me come in but you can see how this professional world is really trying to [separate itself] from family somehow. Hopefully I can be a role model and show other women that family exists and you cannot just cut it off, especially at the very early stage when kids are not in daycare. This is part of the process and I am very happy that in our company at Infinite Roots we are able to balance that out and people are very open to it.”
Do you think it is easier to find that balance in a startup where everyone knows each other or in a corporate with more formal procedures in place?
“I would say there are pros and cons in both worlds. Probably in a corporate, […] you are used to standard parental leave procedures which, of course, is a bit different in a startup – especially as a founder where it's really hard to let the company just run. It's hard to separate yourself from what's happening day-to-day, but everyone knows my daughter now. They are very happy when they see her so this is of course a huge benefit.”
Are there enough conversations happening on the topic of gender parity in the workplace?
“Not at all. I think there will never be enough conversations about that topic and, until the day it is very normal and standard that men as much as women go on parental leave, we have a lot to talk about.
“I think people are surprised when they see kids around [in a business context] maybe I am also ignorant to people who do not accept it, that could be the case. I just push for this to be the new normal.”