Founders Interviews: Ana Catarina Guedes of Inclita Seaweed Solutions
Our Founders Interview this month is with one of Inclita’s co-founders, Ana Catarina Guedes.
Ínclita Seaweed Solutions (ISS) researches, develops, and produces seaweed based bioactive ingredients. They use sustainably harvested or produced seaweed biomass, working closely with seaweed farmers and harvesters. Their low-carbon, science-based and natural ingredients supply the cosmetic, nutraceutical, and petceutical end markets.
*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 Inclita?
I have a degree in microbiology and a PhD in biotechnology from Católica University. I joined CIIMAR at the University of Porto in 2011, and until very recently I was a researcher there. I’ve been working with microalgae since the beginning of my degree in biotechnology, starting with the production and extraction of high value-added compounds. When I moved to CIIMAR in 2011, I took the microalgae with me, but I also found a world of macroalgae there. So that’s when this synergy between biotechnology and macroalgae began. Basically, I took my knowledge of biotechnology and applied it to macroalgae. I often say that macroalgae are now where microalgae were fifteen years ago. I realised when I joined CIIMAR that much of what is known about macroalgae was still “prehistoric”, hence my interest in doing research in this area. This work with macroalgae evolved and became the basis for what gave rise to ISS (Inclita Seaweed Solutions).
Is there a specific reason why you’ve always worked with algae?
I have been in love with the ocean ever since I can remember, as a matter of fact I used to spend my weekends as a kid watching Jacques Cousteau. It’s always been a passion of mine, including water sports like sailing or skiing. The sea has always meant a lot to me, but things also come up based on opportunity. During the third year of my degree, a professor at the university invited me to start working with him on microalgae. I would have taken part regardless, but the fact that it had to do with microalgae excited me even more. This is to say that it was a natural evolution, just like our passion for the sea was one of the things that connected the founders of Inclita from the get go, hence the name. So why microalgae? It was a matter of opportunity, the switch to macroalgae happened when I went to CIIMAR and fell into a group that only worked with macroalgae. When I saw that macroalgae were lagging far behind microalgae in terms of biotechnology, it was a normal tendency to try to explore macroalgae also from the perspective of valorisation.
So, you’ve told us about your journey up until CIIMAR, but how was Inclita born?
Shortly after I arrived at CIIMAR, I met my current partner and co-founder Isabel Costa, who was also a researcher there, but more on the ecological side of macroalgae. I had this passion for biotechnology and that’s when we both started working on projects to valorise them at a biotechnological level. So the research behind Inclita began in 2011 with my partnership with Isabel. In 2017, I met the other two co-founders who had already heard of me and our research, and were looking for investment opportunities in this area. They are people with a lot of experience abroad, who knew very well what was being sought in terms of production at the European level. The chemistry between the current team was immediate, in terms of our passion and our previous experiences. Also, my teaching at Católica University, where I finished my degree in 2002, embedded the history of entrepreneurship in me, and in fact all the research we did was very applicable research.
When I went to CIIMAR, even though the reality was different, I already had this bug in me, so all the research we did was very much about looking at the market. I always wanted to make that leap, but then with family plans there comes one child, and then the other, and when you specialise a lot it starts to be difficult to make that transition. I had the opportunity to do an MBA when I was younger, but I thought I could always do it later. Things just keep coming up and by the time you realise it, you already have children. When I met my current business partners, I realised that I didn’t have to be the one to know everything, we just had to have a perfect team, or at least one that covered the necessary areas. And that’s exactly what we felt, that together we covered the areas needed to create a company. We were all experienced people, of a certain age, but with that also comes the fear that things will have to go well. We all have families that we feel responsible for, but we already came with our experience, we already came with the knowledge of what the market wants, and during the first few years we gained confidence that this was the right move.
What has been the most crucial moment in the history of Inclita so far?
We officially started in 2018, already with the idea of beginning to mature, with the plan outlined, but still working outside the company in our full-time jobs. Of course, one of the problems that slowed us down a little was COVID, which shut down the world in 2020 and therefore slowed down the speed we were already achieving. But I think the most remarkable moment was when we went to the market to raise capital and were able to simultaneously get the PRR [Plano de Recuperação e Resiliência português] and be invested in by Indico. That was the big moment, when three of the founders decided to jump 100% into the company. That was the defining moment for me, deciding that we were going to go ahead with Inclita. With the responsibility of a family, there was no turning back, it was now or never. That was the most significant moment for me, because it was an abandonment of a career that you’ve had for the last 20 years, knowing that you can’t go back.
Do you have any tips or advice for someone who wants to start a company, specifically for someone moving from research to business?
Firstly, I think you should do it out of passion, not fashion. I feel like nowadays there is a social pressure to be an entrepreneur, and I think you have to really feel that passion as well as have a vocation for it. Because if I think the world of research is a dog-eat-dog world, excuse the expression, but a complex world, the world of entrepreneurship is much worse. The word resilience has a new meaning to me. You have to be passionate and willing to dedicate yourself, because this is, first of all, a total change of mentality. The academic world and the world of entrepreneurship are almost inverse. These last few years, even though I think I have a perfect team or close to it, it’s forced me to do a lot of training. Since I have partners who know the business world very well and I no longer need to be an expert in finance, for example, but I do need to know what’s going on. It’s been training, training, training. So, three main pieces of advice. Do it out of passion, not out of pressure or bad motivations, out of passion. Look for the right team to start with, because I think this is likely to succeed when you have a good team. This is almost a marriage between partners, it’s almost a third child. And finally, look outside for a lot of support. I think I’ve learnt a lot from other entrepreneurs. I did a programme, “BORA Mulheres”, last year — I was one of the winners — and I remember that when I got there they were completely different people, from whom I learned a lot about the business world. The people who understand us best are those who are going through the same thing. I think it’s great to have that support from people who are dealing with similar things, you learn a lot from each other, so I think it would be great to get involved in the world of entrepreneurs. It’s a very competitive world, but at the same time it’s a world where you make a very interesting network. Sometimes when you’re about to give up they say “no way”! And then family, it’s good to have family support because this doesn’t just interfere with us, it’s not a nine-to-six job, it’s a passion.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
To say that I wouldn’t change anything would be unrealistic, wouldn’t it? If I’d known what I know today, it’s logical that at the age of twenty-two, twenty-three, when I’d been proposed an MBA, I’d have done it. It would have been the ideal time to have done it. That’s one of the things I regret most, it wouldn’t have been easy to accumulate everything, but it’s even more difficult going forward. Now the rest, of course with experience you look back and think that you could have done this or that differently. But if I would change anything? I don’t know if I would, because it was those mistakes that taught me. It’s one thing to learn from books, it’s another thing to go through those hardships. So apart from my development in the world of bussiness, I don’t think so. I did everything I could with the tools I had at my disposal.
What has been the role of Indico on Inclita’s journey?
Indico has been a great support. And on the other hand, they came to rattle us and we came to rattle them. Basically, the whole process we went through with them was very long, we may not be that typical start-up, we were Indico’s first biotech start-up, so they also entered a new world. So Indico rattled the structure a bit here, and accelerated our process. It was a long process, but ultimately it was a growing opportunity and that helped us. It was that step that we knew and that was defined, that when the investment came we would be 100 per cent, so it was life-changing. Their questions and their criticisms, also helped us to unite and stabilise, and to better structure the team. We had the opportunity to discuss a lot with them, and I remember that at the end one of the partners told me that they had learnt as much from us as we had from them.
Whats next for Inclita?
I don’t know what’s coming, I know what I want to come! What we are trying for it to make it a very bright future, we continue to visualise in the medium term being the European reference for natural ingredients of marine origin in cosmetics and nutraceuticals. This is what we want and what we’re working towards. We’re setting up a pilot plant at the moment, but we’re already thinking in the medium term so that in a few years we’ll be the reference for sustainable marine ingredients in Europe.