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Interview with InnovaFeed Co-Founder Aude Guo

Aude Guo is a co-founder of French start-up InnovaFeed, a leading insect producer, breeder and processor. The company produces insect-based ingredients (protein and oil) for animal nutrition and upcycles its frass (insect droppings) as an organic fertilizer, derived from the Black Soldier Fly (Hermetia illucens).

In late-2020, InnovaFeed made the headlines on several occasions by announcing the opening of its first industrial production site in Nesle in the north of France, and by unveiling plans to build another large production complex in partnership with ADM in Decatur, Illinois. The company also received funding of €140 million for expansion.

Aude co-founded InnovaFeed in 2016 when she was 29, alongside Bastien Oggeri, Clément Ray, and Guillaume Gras (Gras has since left InnovaFeed). Prior to InnovaFeed, Aude worked for four years at McKinsey & Company as a project manager where she developed her expertise in optimisation of production processes. Before that, Aude worked in aeronautics within the Safran group.

With the Women in Food & Agriculture Summit only months away (December 2 – 3 at the Frankfurt Marriott Hotel, in Frankfurt, Germany), we spoke with Aude Guo about being a female entrepreneur in the innovative start-up environment while also responding to the challenge of making animal agriculture more sustainable by the means of insect feed technologies.

[AgriBriefing] Aude, can you give us an overview of the genesis of InnovaFeed and your involvement? What brought you to the world of insect protein and animal feed?

[Aude Guo] My partners and I wanted to do something about climate change and about our food system, which is responsible for 30% of our emissions and we stuck with the question of “how do you feed more people, with better quality food, all the while reducing drastically our use of natural resources?” That required finding new sources of quality nutrients but produced in a much more sustainable way. That’s when we started thinking that insects, and in particulier the black soldier fly, were this new source we are looking for. Indeed, the black soldier fly is full of nutrients and requires few resources to grow. What we needed to do is to develop the technology to produce it in a sustainable way at a large scale, to achieve systemic impact. That’s what we set out to do. Animal feed is the most relevant application to achieve such impact as 50-70% of our agriculture is dedicated to animal nutrition and the black soldier fly is a high performing and natural feed source for most animals.

[AgriBriefing] In some developing countries, insect rearing is seen as a sustainable practice that can be carried out with minimal required inputs and is therefore ideal for women farmers who are often constrained by limited access to agricultural resources. What is your view of the sustainable role insect rearing can play in providing professional growth opportunities for women? Is this something you are invested in?

[Aude Guo] Insect rearing can provide a lot of opportunities for women (and men!) It is an excellent sector where you need to be very precise and observant to guarantee the quality and productivity of the livestock, and women are great at doing that. For example, we have a largely female team in charge of egg production, involving some very delicate and rigorous operations and the team’s thoroughness, attention to minutiae, and proactivity to continuously improve had some amazing impact on the performance of our processes and performances. I am sure that as this sector evolves, we will see more and more women managing and at the forefront of the innovations and improvements.

[AgriBriefing] InnovaFeed has grown dramatically and is now well-established, but what were people telling a young female start-up co-founder about the project before its launch several years ago? Generally-speaking, what has been your experience as a young female entrepreneur in France?

[Aude Guo] A few years ago, the insect industry definitively was very young with everything yet to build. I was lucky to have not been alone in the creation of this project. We still had a few eyebrows raised but I would have imagined even more were I to have founded InnovaFeed alone. Without my co-founding team strongly believing in the potential and impact of what we set out to do, I would probably have doubted much more about my own ideas and my abilities. Through my discussions with other women on this topic, self-doubt and setting barriers in our own minds is probably the first hurdle a woman has to go through when starting an entrepreneurial journey.

[AgriBriefing] In a May 2021 article in French newspaper Les Echos, your InnovaFeed co-associate Clément Ray said that you wish to be recognised as an industry leader and not be singled out because you are a woman. What is your view of gender equality in the French tech start-up sector today? Is it more progressive than in other sectors?

[Aude Guo] I don’t think many people find gender as a relevant qualification in what they are doing. On the contrary, I find it always diminutive. The French tech ecosystem is becoming more and more aware and engaged toward gender equality and a Board of Impact has been created this year, with a clear focus on how to boost gender equality (alongside social inclusiveness in a larger sense and environment) within the ecosystem. Still, the gap is still wide; among the top 120 tech companies in France in 2021 (referred to as the “French Tech 120”), there are currently only 9 female founders/ co-founders. It’s four more than in 2020, but it gives an idea of where the ecosystem stands. If women represent 40-45% of the overall workforce, they represent only 20-30% of the technical teams (e.g., engineering, software development, data science). This goes beyond the tech ecosystem and is a more general educational issue; we need to get more women engaged in these topics and the companies’ contribution to that is to create work environments where women feel comfortable and valorised.

[AgriBriefing] What kind of complementarity and outside of the box thinking do you bring to the trio of Clément Ray, Aude Guo and Bastien Oggeri?

[Aude Guo] It is very valuable to have a co-founding team to share and discuss our vision, as we always challenge each other to make sure we go in the right direction. And three is a nice number as two people would always tend to defend opposite visions in a discussion and the third would bring a balance and make us converge toward the fuller view on key topics, such as business model, operations or InnovaFeed’s culture. Building a culture where women can grow and thrive is probably something I am particularly sensitive to and where I bring views and nuances that an all-male co-founding team would not fully apprehend.

[AgriBriefing] With the Women in Food & Agriculture Summit in December, AgriBriefing continues to showcase female leaders. How crucial do you think it is that women are able to keep discussing the topics which matter to them at industry events and have their voices heard?

[Aude Guo] Very crucial. Women bring insights and have a take on things which are unique and often innovative compared to more conventional views in the business sector. Hearing their voices will encourage others to get involved and speak up, which would bring immense value to their organisations and to every one of us. I believe that showcasing women leaders and role modelling (and the more diversity in role and styles, the better) is an important learning process in the practice and experience of leadership that women collectively lack. It’s by seeing and hearing unique views repeatedly being expressed that we find confidence and in a certain way the boldness necessary to push forward our own ideas however unique they may be seen.

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