Founders Interviews: Alessandro Romano of Ittinsect
This month we bring you an interview with Alessandro Romano, founder and CEO of Ittinsect.
Ittinsect makes aquaculture sustainable thanks to the production of a specialized feed from agri-food by-products. The need for nutrients from the ocean is fully replaced by ingredients such as yeasts, microbes, and insect-based powders. They develop an aquaculture feed with a high nutritional efficiency which improves the health of farmed fish and of the environment at the same time.
*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.
First, can you tell us about your professional background and the path that led you to Ittinsect?
My professional and academic choices were always led by my passion for the ocean. I studied naval architecture in university, at the University of Southampton. Then after I graduated, I moved into the shipping industry, where I did a little bit of shipbroking for super yachts and then a little bit of sales and purchasing of commercial cargo ships. That was in a ship working firm in Switzerland. While I was there, I realized that even though I was working in close connection to the ocean, I wasn’t doing any real good for the oceans. That realization is what led me to want to go down this path of starting Ittinsect. So, I acquired some engineering skills, finance skills, and negotiation skills, all of which I would later apply to doing something good for the ocean.
How was Ittinsect born, exactly?
The idea of Ittinsect was actually born in the middle of the sea. After I left my job in Switzerland, I wanted to reconnect with the ocean, so I did a 1,000-mile-long sailing journey with a friend of mine. It lasted 40 days and it was in a very small catamaran. No cabin, no engine, just pure sailing. We slept on the beach and ate only the fish that we caught with a spear, underwater. There I realized, with my own eyes and due to my own experience, how overfished the ocean has become and how its biodiversity has been harmed by the actions of humans. So, I decided to do something about it. I realized that more than 20% of all the fish that is caught in the ocean is used in the feed industry and not in the food industry. I decided to make a real change and create some alternative proteins for fish feeds.
What has been the most crucial moment in the history of Ittinsect so far?
The most crucial moment was the time that we got the results back from our first client relating to fish growth. It happened just last month. We had university studies that we carried out that showed that our product was performing 15% better in terms of fish growth compared to standard feed. Usually, when you scale up a product, the upside is less compared to what it is at a smaller scale with everything under control. However, in our case, the results from our client on a very large scale showed an improved performance of 18%, meaning we gained three percentage points over what we expected. That was very crucial because after we got that result, we became much more confident to push the gas on production and we scaled up our production by three times each month since that result was received.
How is your product different from others on the market?
We are competing in the arena of sustainable aquaculture feeds, so our competitors are producers making feeds that are sold to the fish farmer with the inclusion of insects, or the inclusion of single cell proteins, or the inclusion of any alternative proteins for that matter, to make fish feed more sustainable. Most of these produce less CO2 emissions, and we’ve actually seen feeds that are sold with accompanying carbon credits, making them kind of more sustainable, on paper that is. Our competitive advantage compared to all these sustainable feeds is that we have the best digestibility to price ratio. So, even though the unit costs of our feed are not lower than others, the growth of the fish per euro spent is definitely higher. This makes it so that the cost to grow one kilogram of fish is lower with our feed than with any other fish feed on the market.
How do you plan on making a sizeable impact?
The replacement of fish meal is the biggest impact that we are making, both in terms of impact on the marine environment, because we are reducing the need to catch fish from the oceans, and consequently also preserving biodiversity, and we are also reducing the CO2 emissions of fish feed production by almost 20%. The way that we are going to bring our product to scale is by expanding abroad, thanks to partnerships with existing feed producers. They will be able to adopt our ingredient without changes to their production systems, making this easily replicable worldwide.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
Yes, there is. I would have taken more time off. We’ve been really, really squeezing ourselves in these past two years. I felt that at times creativity went down. Motivation never left us, we were always very motivated, but in this kind of job, in an entrepreneurial journey, we need to be creative and we need to be energetic, in order to convince potential clients and investors. At times we forgot about this and instead of taking some time off, we tried to push on. This only had a negative effect on us and on the opportunities that we were seeking. So now we are more careful with that, making sure that we enjoy our journey in a balanced way.
What can we expect from Ittinsect now that you have raised a €750k seed round?
I expect to be able to go for a swim in a truck full of insects! We are going to hugely capitalize this money. We’re dedicating most of the money towards research and development, so we expect that in one year’s time we will have some valuable scientific intellectual property based on the increased efficiency of insect proteins, as well as proteins from agricultural byproducts. We’re also very excited to be able to afford some new team members that are bringing some fresh skill sets to the team. When we raised money, the core of the team was a marine biologist, a biotechnologist, and me, an engineer. Now we have already hired a business development and finance manager, who helps us be more conscious of how we spend the money and how we maximize its utility. We have also had the chance to expand our client base thanks to more client visits and events.
To conclude, what were the best and worst parts, or the most difficult part, of launching your startup?
The most difficult part was being able to deliver a product in the same shape and form that we promised it would be. When you sell something to a client that is used to your competitors’ products, the best you can do for them is to give them something that is almost exactly the same, just better. For us, our product was clearly better, for the reasons we’ve already discussed, but there were some key differences both in the shape of the product and also in its delivery and the type of contract used. So, there were many things that our clients didn’t know, or didn’t expect, and our biggest difficulty was being able to modify our offer to almost match our competitors’ offers. For anything that they weren’t used to, we had to convince them that it was worth trying. So that was the biggest difficulty we faced, but it only applied to the first two clients. From the third client on, it was easy to show the other clients that had already tried it and snowballed from there. Nowadays most fish farmers have tried or will be trying our product this year.
And the best part?
The best part is, for me as a founder, is seeing a team at work full of motivation, and expecting that every day we’re building more and we’re being more successful. So, building a team that is not constantly relying on you as a founder to deliver the product, but a team that has gained ownership of the project and that every day is more conscious that they’re being successful. This is proved by the fact that our CTO is invited to speak at national conferences on agriculture, our head of business development constantly gets calls from fish farmers that are curious to try our product, that kind of stuff. Seeing how the team is feeling good about the company going in the right direction, that’s really what makes me the happiest.
*Interview by Álvaro Furtado