MicroTERRA grows lemna with fish farmers to recycle pollution and feed the world. Lemna, also known as duck weed or water lentil, uses the nitrogen and phosphorus in the fish waste as fertilizer, preventing these nutrients from growing to toxic concentrations. It contains up to 40% protein and up to 25% pectin, an ingredient known in the food world for its great binding abilities. Using lemna, microTERRA creates nutritious, functional ingredients for the plant-based foods industry. The first microTERRA customers are the pet food producers, who require minimal processing of lemna meal to use it in pet food. They are also working with chefs to highlight their color- and taste-free ingredient in high-end plant-based foods.
We spoke with MicroTERRA Co-founder & CEO Marissa Cuevas to gain insight into her technology and motivation in building her startup.
What insight inspired you to start your company?
This idea of a circular economy, transforming residues into resources, is the key insight for me.
I still remember one lecture when I heard that the next world crisis is going to be about water. It shocked me so much that I decided this is worth focusing my career on to solve it.
70% of the world’s freshwater goes into agriculture. And it’s easy to create a solution to up-circuit or transform those residues into resources. If we focus on the majority, then we can make a difference.
What is your go-to-market strategy?
I think this is an excellent question because this kind of questions and conversations will define if your business is alive or dead.
For us, it’s about bringing a balance point between our vision and reality. On one hand, the more lemna we can produce and sell, the more water we can clean and save. So, we want markets that have high volumes.
On the other hand, we have to go back to reality. We cannot produce very high volumes right now—so, we need to find a premium market. At the same time, we need to have the quality to sell to these premium markets. Because we are only a small startup, our products had to go through many iterations to reach that quality.
To find where the sweet spot is, we had to do a bunch of empathy interviews to find out who our potential customers are and what they are most excited about. Then we try to create the architecture for those people, and then replicate.
We are also conscious that our go-to-market strategy will change over the lifetime of the startup. For example, we were so sure we wanted to sell first to the premium pet food market. We thought it’s easy and doesn’t require premium quality ingredients (no one minds if there’s a bit of green coloring remaining in the lemna meal). But we have recently seen a lot of excitement from plant-based restaurants, because our new ingredient offers a playground for them to build their amazing creations.
To be a successful startup, you have to have a very flexible mind. And you have to hear your customers; they know better.
What’s the most rewarding part in your entrepreneurial journey?
Transforming an idea into something tangible is so fascinating, magical, and inspiring.
When we look back at our initial plans, it’s exciting to realize how much of those plans we have executed. We are closer to being a real company; we are starting to sell products. It’s really, really exciting! Knowing that these products, this company originated from a thought—that is fascinating.
How do you differentiate from your competitors?
Our differentiating factor is our innovative business model. We grow lemna in existing aquafarms, and this allows us to produce lemna in a sustainable, affordable, and scalable way. We don’t have a lot of capital expenditure, and we can add new farms very quickly. In fact, we have a waiting list of farmers who want to work with us.
What does the future of food and agriculture look like in 5-10 years?
Food and agriculture tech must come together. In terms of food, we need to move toward sustainable solutions, not only for the planet but for our own health. In addition, we also need to make it affordable for everyone.
In terms of agriculture tech, I believe that we are moving towards more regenerative agriculture systems. We need to look at ecosystems and how to enable their health while producing food.