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Transforming Food Waste to Create Sustainable Impact with Nivatha Balendra of Dispersa

“We wanted to look at it from a systemic change point of view. We can create more affordable ingredients if we integrate waste from the start.”

Nivatha Balendra, Dispersa

In this episode

Nivatha Balendra of Coralus Venture Dispersa joins Activator Danielle Cadhit to talk about her journey to founding Dispersa (starting from a science fair project), their work in creating biosurfactants and reducing dependency on natural resources, and their business model as an ingredients company.

They also discuss:

  • How to make ingredients more accessible and affordable to integrate them in consumer products
  • Nivatha’s background and getting started in STEM
  • Finding supporters along the way + reaching out for help
  • Building the Dispersa team and growing the company
  • Becoming a Coralus Venture, and support from folks who encouraged her to apply
  • Dispersa’s Ask for the Coralus community

We invite you to join us as an Activator.

Take action and engage with Dispersa:

Connect with Danielle on LinkedIn.

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Podcast Transcript:

The podcast is being transcribed by Otter.ai. (there may be errors, run-on sentences and misspellings).

Nivatha Balendra 0:00
Food waste came into play because we are a clean tech company and we wanted to create a circular process and we wanted to really look at it from a systemic change point of view. We can create more affordable ingredients if we integrate waste from the start.

Danielle Cadhit 0:18
Welcome to the Ripples of Radical Generosity podcast by Coralus, a global community of women and non binary people making real progress on the world’s to do list. Together, we’re transforming the world to become more equitable, and sustainable. Hello everyone. Welcome to an episode of the newly relaunched ripples of radical generosity podcast by Coralus, formerly SheEO. I’m Danielle Cadhit, an Activator at Coralus. And over the last decade, my experiences have ranged from the areas of technology, finance, operations, grassroots organizing and maker education. As a lifelong learner and someone equally dedicated to unlearning, I enjoyed deep conversations that connect seemingly disparate ideas, and advance social purpose work from a multidisciplinary and experimental lens. I believe everyone has a unique story and experience to tell. I’m really passionate about the work I’m privileged to do with Coralus. As a member of HQ team, working on our systems and strategy, I get to cocreate every day with a global community of women and non binary folks, practicing radical generosity, and supporting impactful ventures like the ones we get to be in conversation with in today’s podcast. I’m excited to introduce and be in conversation with Coralus Venture Dispersa. Dispersa is creating sustainable impact one microbe at a time with clean tech green chemistry, and a line of natural microbe derived soap compounds called biosurfactants, that are optimized for cleaning and personal care. But above and beyond that we have an incredible personal story from the founder and CEO of Dispersa, Nivatha Balendra, over to you Nivatha. So excited to have you here.

Nivatha Balendra 2:09
Thanks for having me, Danielle. And thank you for the warm intro as well.

Danielle Cadhit 2:14
Absolutely. We are so excited to dig in and would love to hear from your perspective, what is Dispersa? What is your Venture? And what does it do?

Nivatha Balendra 2:24
Right. So Dispersa, like you mentioned, we’re a clean tech startup. We’re based in Montreal, slash Laval. And we’re focused on converting food waste into soapy compounds, as you mentioned, called biosurfactants. So what are biosurfactants? These are natural alternatives to a very important ingredient in the chemical industry called surfactants. Surface active agents are otherwise known as surfactants. And these are ingredients that basically reduce the surface tension between two phases making them into one. And it makes them quite versatile in their applications. For example, when we use soap, it’s a very important component of these products. So surfactants are used in pretty much every industry we can think of from cleaning and personal care, which is the market we’re focusing on right now. But also other industries like cosmetics, oil and gas, agriculture, and more. And like most chemicals, these are ingredients that are sourced from palm or petroleum, which obviously rely heavily on natural resources. And so what we’re trying to do at Dispersa is reduce or eliminate that dependency on natural resources, and instead use the abundance of food waste that we have around us to create those very same ingredients, with added sustainable impact and greater affordability.

Danielle Cadhit 3:47
Wow, what an innovation. I just wanted to talk a little bit more about what inspired you to go on this journey of starting Dispersa?

Nivatha Balendra 3:59
Yeah, so it started off actually a bit before university. So when I was 17, and that was about in 2013. So a long time ago, there was a train crash in rural town called Lac-Megantic and I think growing up, I was not, I guess, open to these environmental challenges until it happen so close to us, right? I mean, we hear about it but I don’t think it really impacts until at a young age when you realize that happens so close to you as well. And so I think that was my first encounter, if you can call it in terms of just reading it on the newspaper and local news, of course, and that definitely opened my eyes to oil spills and I learned more about oil contamination and and what I found really interesting was, well, how do we clean up these oil spills and so I think that really prompted me to start digging deeper into it and then I coupled that with an internship I did the previous year at a university here called INRS. And during that internship I was it was in my last year of high school at that time, and I learned about how certain microbes have this really cool property to remediate, or in other words, clean up contaminated sites. So I put that and this problem together and thought, you know, what, if for this year’s science fair project, I could develop the research that focus on the sustainable remediation of oil spills using these types of microbes. And so that’s really my entry point into the world of biosurfactants. And I think, as I learned more and more, I just grew more fascinated, I mean, how cool it was that these microbes that you can’t even see with your eyes are producing these compounds naturally, that are functionally the same as chemical ingredients that we use, just without the added environmental negative impact. And so I think three years down the line, I wanted to continue that research, did that during my summers. And then in my second year of uni, you know, I was presented with the opportunity to apply for the National Women in Clean Tech challenge. And that was the really be the catalyst if I can say behind creating Dispersa because obviously, as a student, you need resources to be able to start a company. And that’s really what provided me with a catalyst to be able to do so. But also from a personal side, being a cancer survivor, in my second year of university before I was on a leave of absence during that chemotherapy time. But essentially, that time opened my eyes to the importance of having non-toxic and truly sustainable and non-greenwashed ingredients and the products that we use and get from grocery stores off the shelves. So that really culminated into creating Dispersa, and really, at the heart of what our mission is, is, how can we make these ingredients really more accessible and affordable, so that we can truly integrate them in consumer products that we use day in and day out?

Danielle Cadhit 7:13
I love the trajectory of your personal story, especially hearing that this project really started as a student, and it was a science fair project that you started, can you talk to me a little bit about your interest in science, technologies, stem, as we call it? And how you were able to nurture that as young as a child?

Nivatha Balendra 7:33
Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you for that. I’m just someone who is super curious by nature, I’m sure if you asked my parents, they would 100% agree, just growing up as ever since I was a little kid. And when I went into high school, and I think my first exposure to science fair was in grade eight. And that was more part of our school curriculum, but it was also an extracurricular activity. I just found it really interesting that we can have this opportunity and go and develop our own research project centered around a challenge or, or any problem that needs solving using science. And obviously, that can take many shapes and forms, right? It doesn’t have to be environmental related, my first science fair to do more with health and humanology. And that I think it was an an experience, a time, where I can get my feet wet and stem. And what’s really nice is I love hands on experience. I think there’s something about learning what you learn in school, but I learned a lot of different concepts and principles related to lab techniques outside of school in these types of settings. So that really reinforced what I was learning as well in a school environment. And yeah, starting grade eight just started developing these research proposals, I guess you can say it and reaching out to few labs around Montreal or arounf Quebec and then being matched to a lab that was the science fair process. And then you would go and work in the lab during a few weeks to a few months, develop and collect these results and then present it at the fair. So I was doing that since grade eight. And then this project that is now at the heart of Dispersa was something that I did in my first year of Stasia, which is equivalent to a grade 12 otherwise and being from Quebec, so we have a pre university system.

Danielle Cadhit 9:43
It sounds like all throughout you were just following your curiosities, following the breadcrumbs and as you were saying, as a student, you were looking for resources to continue to advance this work. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the challenges you were facing in finding those resources and how you were able to really get those supporters all along the way.

Nivatha Balendra 10:05
Yeah, so you’re absolutely right. I think it’s just like curiosity, right. And, and wanting to learn more and wanting to gain more experience, because I think, especially at a, at a younger age, and even later on, you’re, you’re figuring out what, what you like, and what it is that you don’t like, right. And so I think and I do encourage a lot of youth to not wait until later to get the hands on experience, and to try to find those opportunities earlier on. Because it definitely helped me understand that my my passion was definitely in that cross section of science and entrepreneurship. But to your point, in terms of challenges, obviously, as a student and being youth, we don’t have the resources normally readily accessible to us. And so there was a lot of personal development in terms of building a network building these resources and not being afraid to reach out and ask for help. That was very abnormal. And it’s not something that you know, you’re taught in school, necessarily, but I think it was something that science fair, encouraged students to do is because as part of that, we had to reach out to professors who, you know, so I guess if I can explain a bit of that process, typically, you would like in my case, and I developed at that time, a project centered around using microbes for contamination, and how to remediate those bills. There’s so much research in this field. And so I basically found the researchers that were more prominent in Montreal and Quebec around where I was living. And I reached out to them, I developed a little proposal saying, you know, Hi, my name is Nivatha, this is the project I’m working on, I would need a lab to conduct any of these tests, would you be willing to welcome me for X amount of time? And so I just sent that email to about 60 professors. And, of course, not all professors or labs would be open to welcoming minors. So in this case, basically out of the 60, I would say most said no. If not one said yes. And that was really all that for me, I needed in order to advance with the science fair project. And they said no, for multiple reasons, right. Either they didn’t have the right equipment that I was looking for, they were unable to take on minors or underage kids are security purposes. And so this mentor, specifically, you know, had things aligned and and was able to make it work. So, you know, it worked out and he’s actually still on our advisory group right now for Dispersa as well and continues to be involved in our journey.

Danielle Cadhit 13:03
I love that. And sometimes no just means next opportunity.

Nivatha Balendra 13:08
Exactly.

Danielle Cadhit 13:09
And keep looking for who is going to be able to support whatever it is that you’re advancing.

Nivatha Balendra 13:14
Yeah, that is absolutely true. Because I think even at a young age, being able to reach out and be okay with rejections is also important, because it’s like you said, it’s, it’s part of the process, right? And each no, is just a step closer to that, yes, in which case it was and all I needed was, was one lab, and I ended up getting that.

Danielle Cadhit 13:37
So talk to me a little bit about your trajectory from this becoming a research project to then becoming a business, what were some of the things that were bringing you to feel like this was something that you would bring to market.

Nivatha Balendra 13:55
So I continued the science fair project beyond science fair, as well. So basically, with this project, I was really excited to have the opportunity at that time to present it at the Intel International Engineering Fair, a science and engineering fair. And so this was the main pre-university competition globally, where students around the world come and share their science fair projects, which was really amazing. And there had the opportunity to then go to other conferences and connect with industry experts. And I think in doing so, is really where I started developing this sense of this is more than a science fair project, and it can really be commercialized and to a solution that is useful for society. And I think that that transition like you mentioned, Danielle is something that really happened, thanks to the experts that I was speaking to. So these are people who are providing me with advice as mentors, they were really guiding me and encouraging me to not let this go and to say you know this is as great as a science fair project. But do you know how great it would be if you were to bring this to market. And so I think that started turning the wheels, so to speak, in terms of switching gears from academia to now entrepreneurship. And then the more and more I thought about it, I just really fell in love with that idea, because I think I’m definitely someone who’s passionate about research and science. But I really want research to be applicable and to be used by society. So I feel like entrepreneurship is the perfect balance of both. And that’s really where I felt I found my calling. But it wasn’t until like I mentioned that second year of undergrad where I really felt that it was the right moment to do so because of the alignment and resources. And being part of that women in clean tech challenge really provided me the resources to do that.

Danielle Cadhit 15:52
Amazing. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were able to test some hypotheses? Because this is really interesting scientific innovation here, especially having used food waste. Can you tell me a little bit about how you were following the breadcrumbs to find out how you could use food waste in your product?

Nivatha Balendra 16:14
Yeah, so initially, the science fair project started off with oil spills, right? So it was very different. And it was preliminary research, it was not meant to be the basis of a company that was really focused on seeing if it had potential to be used in the bioremediation, which, in other words, is the sustainable cleanup of oil spills. And so, as it eventually formed into Dispersa, I think that was really the you know, we’re talking about a clean slate here, it was an idea on a piece of paper, right? Because having preliminary research for a science project is not the same as having a fully finished and commercialized solution that you can scale up. It really was from scratch. And so the reason why I stress that is the research was really my entry point into understanding the world of biosurfactants, not necessarily the basis of research that was now commercialized into the solution. So the first thing after creating Dispersa that I knew I had to do was recruit a teammate, who was an expert in this field, right, I was only starting to learn about biosurfactants. But we needed someone who lived and breathed in this industry. And so that person came in the shape of our announced CTO, Sarah, and she was my first teammate, who join on this adventure. And she’s incredible, she has a wealth of knowledge in this industry has worked with biosurfactants and scaling up other products, like bio plastics as well. And her expertise was really deeply rooted in the sustainable products through fermentation. So, you know, we started building up the team together, getting the lab spaces, getting the equipment, talking to clients, making sure we understood the market needs, because research is one thing, but we need to create a solution that the market actually needs. And so I think that in speaking with customers early on, what I realized was oil and gas is a great industry. But it would, if I can say, create a very narrow opportunity for what could otherwise be such a big platform technology have where we just focus on being an ingredients company rather than an end user solution based company. And what I mean by that is, initially we want to focus on oil and gas and using these biosurfactants and microbes for remediation. But if we were to just focus on that silo, we wouldn’t be able to then explore those other industries. So then what we decided is, and especially the customer discovery phase helped us is understanding the regulatory pathways, how the timeline to market adoption would be, and an understanding that I realized, okay, well, we need a beachhead market, right, a market that we can go to first in a reasonable reasonably short amount of time, and to whom we can start selling our most readily available form of the ingredient. And that came in the shape of the cleaning and personal care market, especially with the pandemic which helped amplify that demand. Everyone even now, everyone’s using cleaning products, and everyone is using personal care products. And so it naturally made sense for us to deliver this ingredient first and foremost for that purpose. And then that kind of switched gears from being an industry specific company to an ingredients company. And I think that shift really helped us grow because now we’re a much more generalistic company. But we’re also focused in just being specialized in creating surfactants from food waste. So how the food waste component came into it was really, through our development. Like I mentioned, we started off with a clean slate with an idea on a piece of paper that stemmed from the science fair project. But as we develop the process to create our soapy compounds, we wanted to differentiate ourselves from what was already on the market, right? We don’t want to recreate what’s out there, we want to solve problems, we want to solve challenges and to make this more readily adoptable. Well, we saw in the market, especially in the consumer space, where that these ingredients on the market, these biosurfactants that already exist, are often very costly for this margin sensitive consumer base industry, or they lacked versatility and options. So that became our resolve. If you can say, you know, we wanted to see if we can develop something to solve those two main issues. And so food waste came into play, because we are a clean tech company. And we wanted to create a circular process and which we wanted to really look at it from a systemic change point of view, right, we can create more affordable ingredients if we integrate waste from the start. And it also increases affordability, which end users in the consumer space would very much appreciate being able to show that their ingredient was made from food waste, right. And so I think, for all of those reasons, said, it is what really prompted us to integrate food waste at a commercial level. And I mean, that meant we had to now develop a process based on converting food waste into this. And that was something we had to do from scratch.

Danielle Cadhit 21:53
I love hearing about all of the different pivots in your strategy and how you were really following these breadcrumbs. And now I want to talk a little bit more about how you learned about Coralus, formerly SheEO. And what drew you to apply to become a Venture?

Nivatha Balendra 22:10
Absolutely. So I’ve known about Coralus, or formerly known as SheEO, from before, and I think as we were growing the company, just keeping an eye out for the newsletters as follows. But what really encouraged us to even sign up for the newsletters and look into the community were two figures in in our in our community, actually, they really encouraged me to look into Coralus. And to see whether that aligned in terms of the the the criteria or eligibility requirements and to apply. So it’s really thanks to them. One of them was a previous SheEO Venture, Coralus Venture. And, you know, I think just being able to hear about her experience was super exciting. And then from the other lens, the other mentor was more in our community here startup community within Quebec, and she’s heard great things about Coralus as well. And so I think just reinforced the wish to apply. And, you know, just, I really took a chance and we applied for that. And I think it’s been incredible, just even before we got accepted as a Venture, which we’re incredibly thankful for. Thanks to supporters like yourself, and then all the other Activators, Danielle, that even before we were accepted, was really incredible as we started getting so much inbound of support. And that was just, I think indicative of how supportive the network was, you know, regardless of whether you’re a Venture or not, the community is there to help.

Danielle Cadhit 23:54
Absolutely. That’s one of my favorite things about what we do here. And we really encourage Ventures to apply. And I’m really glad to hear that you were encouraged by another fellow Venture who was selected and went through this process, you really are immersed in community from the very beginning. And everyone here is just really excited to offer help and support in whatever way it is that you need. And so tell me a little bit more now about your onboarding as a Venture and the support that you’ve received so far in the community since being selected.

Nivatha Balendra 24:28
I think for us the first point so we submitted our application, and it was a very straightforward application. I think we had to make a video as well, which is nice. And the platform was made in a way where we can also we’ll have part where we can have an ask, which I found very interesting. And then we got replies or feedback and responses from the ask even before we knew that we were selected as a semi finalists and then a finalist. So I think it really speaks volumes in terms of just how supportive they Activators in the network are. So after that we had the semi finalists phase. And then after the semi finalists, we had the final selection. And throughout that entire phase, you know, for example, our ask at that time was to be connected with an advisor in the chemical or specialty chemicals industry or anyone who has sales or operational management experience and not necessarily currently working, but an ex employee or ex management employee. And you know, there’s so much influx of responses of, you know, either someone who knows someone else or someone who they themselves both, they can offer some resources. And what’s really neat is I think the platform also collates all of those responses and sends it to the Venture so we can really continue to keep in touch. And that was all done even before we were a Venture, which I think is is incredible. And we continue to stay in touch, even after being selected as a venture with those Activators that generously offered support. And after being selected, in terms of onboarding, the things that stood out for me, in particular, were just the regular check ins, for example, we work with the amazing MJ with whom I have regular check ins. And it’s really nice, you know, we just are able to catch up and see how things are going or being able to connect, and I booked calls or speak with other members of the SheEO team as well. And they really tried to involve us in a lot of different events or opportunities that they feel might align with us, for example, recently we had the Venture showcase because right now, shameless plug, we are raising money, we’re raising our first pre-seed private funding round. And so as part of that, what was really great is that this Venture showcase provided exposure to potential investors in the SheEO Coralus network. And so I think it’s just one of many examples that goes to show the continuous giving nature of the community and what what’s also nice is the Slack channel, right, I think the Slack channel is just an area where everyone can message each other, we simply put a message and ask there and you know, within a day, you’re getting responses from Activators, all over who are willing to help. And we’re truly humbled and appreciate it to be part of this community.

Danielle Cadhit 27:35
Well we’re so excited to have you as a Venture and can’t wait to see what is next. You are no stranger to an ask, you’ve already plugged that you are raising. Can you say a little bit more about that ask and what that might entail if people want to reach out and learn more about what that what that could do for you.

Nivatha Balendra 27:54
Yeah, thanks, Danielle. So we are currently in our first private funding round. So up until now, we’ve been financed by generous supporters, such as Coralus, and also government funders. So going forward, we’re in a very important phase in our growth as a startup, we’re scaling up our technology, we need to increase production so that we can increase revenues, and expand our growth as a startup. And that also goes in line with being able to be competitive in the biosurfactant market. And we have a solid list of clients who are super interested in what we do and can’t wait to purchase our ingredients. So being able to fulfill those orders and the current ones we have is very critical. And for that reason, we’ve launched our pre-seed round of 2 million. That comes with 1 million of public funding to complement 1 million of private funding. We’ve already secured the 1 million of public. And so right now we’re really working away at the 1 million of private, and it really is supported by credible supporters on the public funding side. We have generous supporters within the bio product space, as well as natural products space who are really focused on non toxic ingredients. And so or even from a fermentation lens. So any investors or activators, who feel that they might know someone who’s interested in this space, please do reach out. We are still under going our round. So we’re happy to have any conversations with those that are interested.

Danielle Cadhit 29:43
Thank you Nivatha and for customers, consumers, people who want to interact with what Dispersa is doing, do you have any pathways for them to get more information about your product, what it is that you’re working on, and how they can learn more?

Nivatha Balendra 29:58
Absolutely, we always love it when clients reach out or potential clients or even people who own brands or products, and they’re not sure whether biosurfactants are the good fit for them, most likely, we will find a way for it to work. Even as we’re looking at biosurfactants, they have so many different properties. And even within the SheEO or Coralus network, we’ve been connected to already a few potential clients, not only within cleaning and personal care, but other industries, which is really exciting. And we get to learn about all these exciting new brands who are really focused on sustainabilit. Feel free to reach out to me directly, or our contact page at dispersa.ca. And that’s definitely another way to reach out to us. And we’re happy to jump on a call, get to know the potential potential clients. And also add them to our waiting list. And you know, those who are signed up to receive these materials and, and test them out once we seal up. Another important thing for us, though, is our food waste. And I think that’s another interesting way for partners to be involved is if there’s anyone who owns a restaurant chain, or a fast food chain, for example, like McDonald’s, Burger King etcetra, or even waste management companies that work directly with these restaurant chains that collect presently, we really, really excited to explore the collaboration potential, I think it’s really by working together that we can accelerate. And I think the beauty of our process is that we can transform these food waste into very useful ingredients. And pretty much every industry you can think of. So there’s anyone from either the client side, or the food waste side that is interested in getting in touch, definitely reach out to me or through the contact page.

Danielle Cadhit 32:01
Thank you so much. We’re definitely going to link the details in this podcast episode. So you can learn a little bit more. Before we wrap up. Do you have any final thoughts in terms of what it is you’re looking forward to as a Coralus Venture? Or what it is that your company is up to next?

Nivatha Balendra 32:20
So we’re I just want to say like, thank you again, Danielle, for this chance to be on the podcast today. I think for us, it’s really just the beginning. We’re excited, thrilled to be part of this community. And for what’s lying ahead of us. Right now, we’re really focused on scaling up our production. We’re at an interesting cusp journey where we’re working with clients, we see that our materials are performing really well. We have potential clients who are really excited about it. And we just need to deliver it obviously easier said than done. It’s a long journey ahead. But you know, we’re we’re in good hands, I think with being surrounded with a community like Coralus and future partners that we look forward to onboarding as well.

Danielle Cadhit 33:14
All right, thank you so much for your time today, and we look forward to supporting you further as adventure. This was the Nivatha Balendra from Dispersa. And I hope you have a good rest of your day. Thank you for listening to the Ripples of Radical Generosity podcast. Let us know what you thought of the episode and share this podcast with your friends. We invite you to join a global community of radically generous women and non binary folks at www.coralus.world.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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