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‘If another female [is] doing something cool, you want to cheer it on. It's not competition’ - Katelijne Bekers [Interview]

Article-‘If another female [is] doing something cool, you want to cheer it on. It's not competition’ - Katelijne Bekers [Interview]

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CEO of MicroHarvest, Katelijne Bekers brings a unique blend of expertise to the table, with a background in biotechnology and business development. Her experience in both science and sales has taught her a lot about how to be successful as a woman entrepreneur in business.

According to Bekers, business development and sales have always been male-dominated, which can pose challenges for female entrepreneurs. As a woman, to succeed in this competitive space, learning how to navigate its complexities is key.

Bekers is the co-founder, and CEO of MicroHarvest, a biotech developer of sustainable alternative protein ingredients. She is passionate about using fermentation to feed the growing population sustainably. Bekers believes that MicroHarvest’s fermentation technology can reshape food sustainability practices, contributing to an eco-friendlier future, while transforming the protein production landscape.

Based in Hamburg, MicroHarvest uses microorganisms to create biomass in just 24 hours.

How exactly does this fermentation process work and what potential does it hold for transforming global food sustainability?

“To start, what do we mean by biomass fermentation? I think everybody knows the production of wine or beer – where you use yeast to produce alcohol. We use the same sort of technology, but instead of using yeast, we're using bacteria. The bacteria contain a lot of protein, and this protein – if you pick the right bacteria – is very high quality, digestible, and a good source of nutrients. We take the bacteria from the bioreactor, then we harvest the microbes, and this is where the name MicroHarvest comes from. Then we inactivate the bacteria, or we kill them, and then we dry them, so what you’re left with is protein ingredients that can be used in foods.

“The key here is, it’s sustainable. In the end, you have a high-quality protein that does not use a lot of land, energy, or water. It’s a very efficient way of creating proteins, which can then be used directly in foods.

“It can also transform how we use our protein. We all know the population is growing and we are eating more protein. With the protein production methods we are using today, we cannot produce the amount of protein we need. Aquaculture is one part of the solution and one where MicroHarvest’s protein can help. If you catch fish to feed fish, it’s not right, but if you can feed fish with sustainably produced protein, then you have a very sustainable source of fish as well. It’s not just food, you’re touching all sections of the food chain supply.”

As a female leader in the biotech industry, what personal experiences have most shaped your approach to leadership and innovation at MicroHarvest?

“For my leadership, I think what's important is role models, whether they are male or female. I have had some very strong female leaders in my career. It showed me how, as a female, you can have a great and strong position. It is always great to have those examples.

“In biotechnology, there are a lot of female leaders. Then I moved into business development and sales, and then you see the difference. Men have such a different approach to negotiations and sales than women. I was discussing this with a friend of mine who did studies about women in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and maths]. She said this happens in kindergarten, because in kindergarten if two boys are fighting, they are told “Boys will be boys”, but if two girls are fighting, then it's “You need to play nice”. So, from a very early age, we as females are sort of trained to be nice and not push for things we want.”

Do you have any advice you’ve received in your career that has helped shape your leadership style?

“I had a great male manager who helped me see things differently. He taught me about the fun of negotiating and pushing the boundaries. That was very important for me. I think every woman should go into sales because at first, I thought this was not my thing, but it has helped me a lot.

“Now as a co-founder and CEO, I am selling our company potential and our story. Another thing I was made aware of by other female founders, was that male CEOs, in general, often make very confident and aggressive projections on sales. Why? Because they know that in order to cut through the clutter with investors they need to showcase a high level of boldness and confidence. Investors, on their end, are used to thoroughly evaluating the projections they are presented with, knowing that they are very likely to be optimistic.

“Female CEOs are often much more conservative and realistic, but investors still apply the same lenses and look at the numbers they are presented, with the same assumptions, which could put us at a disadvantage. We need to learn from our male counterparts to be bolder – this was a very interesting learning for me.”

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders, particularly women, who are looking to make a significant impact in the biotech and sustainable food industries?

“Network. Connect with other female founders because these founders know what you go through, and they can give you great advice. Also, connect with different female founders, and discuss the issues that you run into – they may be able to help you see things differently, whether you're aware of the issue or not.”

How do we get more females into the biotech and sustainable food industries?

“I think the way that we get more females into the industries is by networking. Females supporting females and cheering each other on. If there's another female doing something cool, you want to cheer it on and highlight it right? It's not competition. So, connect, and then you can just do a monthly meet or something like that. That's really helpful I think, because then you can really tailor it to your situation and you can address the things that you run into.”

MicroHarvest recently established a pilot plant in Lisbon. What were some key lessons you learned during its development?

“I think what I mainly learned is how amazing my team is. In the beginning, they told me that we were going to build the plant in six months. Nothing was there, there were supply chain issues, and it was difficult to order equipment. But using our network and looking at second-hand, but good equipment, we leveraged what was already there.

“Normally I'm the one, as a CEO, that needs to be bold, and I didn’t think we could pull it off. But my team was resourceful and adaptable, and together we managed to pull it off, so within six months, my team had set up the plant. We ran the fermentation, and everything worked!”