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Published: 01/02/2024

Blending Science, Sustainability, and Business Networking to Create a Groundbreaking Tech Startup

Tech Excellence podcast with Aija Pope

In this episode of the Tech Excellence podcast, our communications manager, Monika Dawdowicz, interviews Aiya Pope, whose journey to becoming the CEO of TerraWaste – a sustainability-focused startup, started with a desire to change the world and a business-science mixer event. Explore more episodes and dive into the world of innovation. Click here for more inspiring stories!

Key takeaways

 The power of networking
  • Aija started her journey to entrepreneurship at a Commercialization Reactor event, Roadmap to Your Smart Business, organized in Latvia for matchmaking scientists and new entrepreneurs.
  • What started with curiosity evolved into business masterclasses and, eventually, active participation in the Commercialization Reactor.
  • At the event in 2018, she met her two co-founders of what would become TerraWaste – a pioneering startup that transforms unrecyclable plastic waste into crude oil through hydrothermal liquefaction.
  • The event resulted in the founding of TerraWaste and becoming the elected CEO.
The challenges of modern entrepreneurship
  • Finding a voice in a male-dominated world of science and entrepreneurship was one of the first obstacles to overcome.
  • Navigating the sensitive and highly biased waste management environment has become a challenge.
  • Investing in deep tech is a game of patience – it requires significant time for the investment to pay back. Thus, it is essential to find those investors and VCs who firmly believe in the idea and can wait for the outcome.
Navigating the deep tech startup scene in the Baltic region
  • The various acceleration and business incubation programs allow the Baltic ecosystem to thrive.
  • One of the oldest ones – Commercialization Reactor, is responsible for years of matchmaking new science-business partnerships.
  • Government initiatives such as LIAA help forge partnerships around the globe.
Building lasting connections is the way to go
  • Finding the right people and communities is vital in shaping ideas and businesses. 
  • The importance of the events that help network and find the right people to propel the idea cannot be overestimated.
  • New technologies can impact, so it is essential to encourage funding innovative startups.
Advice and future aspirations:
  • In her closing words, Aija encourages reducing waste, supporting green initiatives, and considering entrepreneurship to contribute to global sustainability efforts.

Watch and listen


Transcript

Monika Dawidowicz: Hello, and welcome everybody to Tech Excellence podcast. My name is Monika Dawidowicz and I’m representing DAC.digital. In our weekly podcast, we interview tech leaders to find out what tech excellence means to them and to prove the point that there’s no one perfect way to succeed in the tech ecosystem. My today’s guest is Aija Pope from TeraWaste. Hello, it’s great to have you here, Aija. We can’t hear you. Could you? 

Aija Pope: Hi, Monika. Hi, everybody. It’s a pleasure to be on this podcast and I’m so excited. I am unmuted. Okay. So maybe a few… Yes. Hello. 

Monika: Yes, we can hear you. We can hear you. As all of you, yeah, as all of our viewers and listeners can see, it’s a live broadcast. So sometimes there are some tiny little errors, but yeah, please be patient with us and hopefully, everything goes well from now on. So maybe we could start with TerraWaste and the whole idea of changing waste into material and the technology behind it. So, could you give us some short introduction of TerraWaste? 

Aija: Absolutely. I hope you guys can hear me now. 

Monika: Yes. 

Aija: So probably a small backlog then in sound. Yeah. So I am the CEO and co-founder of TerraWaste and I’m so excited to be here with you today. And thank you, Monika, for having me. So yeah, TerraWaste’s journey goes back to 2018 when a group of scientists at Cranfield University, in the UK, came up with a solution to liquefy different kinds of waste. Back then, they were just playing around with the technology called HDL, or hydrothermal liquefaction, which is basically pressure cooking waste. So making soup out of waste, if you will. And yeah, then they had an opportunity to come to Latvia to present their discovery at an event organized by Commercialization Reactor. So that’s an organization in Latvia that is organizing matchmaking events between entrepreneurs and scientists in order to form deep tech startups and start the commercialization journey of the technology. 

So this is where me and my other two co-founders joined the team and we are a team of four. So basically originated out of the UK and Latvia, now headquartered in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Yeah, basically, we have set out to achieve one of the most impossible goals, which is tackling plastic waste and not the one that people know how to separate for a decade now, but actually the unrecyclable one. So we are actually targeting the landfill waste, the waste that is usually incinerated or, God forbid, dumped somewhere in the ocean in some paradise island, right? So basically, yes, we have set out to turn plastics back into crude oil. 


So basically, we are reverse engineering the process, which means that we can make new fossil fuel material, fossil fuel-based materials almost infinite amount of times. That way, we are closing the circularity loop for plastic waste and plastic recycling. And we are super excited to do so. And we do it also in a sustainable way because there are a couple of other technologies out there that can do it in a similar way, but they still have some waste residues left after the process. They are very energy efficient, energy, not efficient, but energy-intensive processes, right? And we actually are tackling these challenges as well, as our technology can actually recycle the whole kind of plastic waste in mixed ways so we don’t need to separate it. And we are turning it into high-quality oil that can be turned into new materials again. And we do it in a sustainable way. We utilize every last millimeter of our output product, which means we don’t produce waste. 


So, we are actually making the piles of waste smaller and we are super excited to do so. I do have to mention, though, even though it sounds like a pipe dream now, we know that it can be done. But the thing is that currently, we are still at lab scale. So we are actually looking for investors to build our first semi-industrial plant to scale up our technology and then prove it to the big industry players so that we could license the technology out there to them afterwards. 

 

Monika: But still, it’s such an inspiring idea and I keep my fingers crossed for scaling and for finding the right people who will believe in that project on a bigger scale. And one of the reasons why I invited you over is because we really see that, you know, it is a pressing problem with that plastic waste. But what I’m curious about is how did you end up in this environment? You mentioned that business mixer kind of a thing with the scientists. But how did you end up in this environment? How did you get involved personally in the startup business and in deep tech? 

Aija: That is a very good question. So basically, my background is in communication science, PR and management, basically. So, I was one of those people who are writing speeches for corporate leaders and managing their online communication, communication with clients, etc. And yeah, COVID was the time that actually made very big changes in my life. And I realized that I actually want to do something different, and I always wanted to have my own business. But I was one of those people who lacked the idea. And, basically, just randomly scrolling through Facebook one day I found out about Commercialization Reactor. I found out that they were organizing master classes for new entrepreneurs with the name Roadmap to Your Smart Business. And I had no idea what kind of a business is that. I was just curious. 


And actually from there, kind of a snowball effect started, you know, from one master class. I ended up being in this event, meeting these wonderful people. And yeah, in the end, founding this business and being elected as a CEO from my team members. So it was kind of, it still is. But yeah, it was a bit of a whirlwind type of a journey for me. So it was very, very exciting. And another thing that was very crucial for me was that I wanted to do a business or be part of a project that could actually change something in the world, in the environment or society, or would have a very significant impact. And I couldn’t have wished for a better project than this. You know, like we are actually tackling one of the biggest challenges on the planet right now. So, and I am very, very honored to be part of something like this. 

Monika: So, are you like a mission-driven person? 

Aija: Yes. I didn’t know that I was, but going through the development of the startup and meeting more and more people who are environmentalists and so passionate about actually cleaning up our planet, I realized that this is the type of an environment that I would like to be part of. And yes, I have become very, very passionate about that myself. 

Monika: But it seems like it’s a very challenging environment at times. And, you know, even finding the right people to trust you and to invest in the company might be an obstacle. So, what were the biggest challenges that you had to overcome on the journey? 

Aija: Well, I would say as cliche as it sounds, but, you know, that is one of the things of 21st century, second-decade business environment. I have been discriminated as a female CEO and a female entrepreneur. So having had the conversations with a couple of, I wouldn’t say, barriers because they haven’t been that many, but still, you know, these conversations are never pleasant. So with a couple of VCs, couple of potential clients even, I have had conversations where I have been talked across, you know, like if it’s me and my male colleague next to me, then, you know, the questions would be directed to him. The conversation would be going over me. So that was very, very unpleasant. So that is the first challenge. The second one is that you know, we are dealing with waste. We are dealing with dirt, trash, oil at the end, right? So these are kind of the things that people are really biased about. 

Monika: And it’s not glamorous. 

Aija: No, definitely not. It’s not like designing shoes, right? So sorry. But… and people usually want to throw these posters at us. Yeah, you’re greenwashing. You’re not doing anything. You know, like we want to get rid of plastics, not make it again and again and again. You know, we have to deal with it somehow, right? So what you would prefer waiting for a couple of thousands of years while we are actually piling up on top of that? Or would you rather prefer that it has second, third, or fourth life? And then we “decrude” the amount of virgin plastics that we actually produce, right? So these are kind of the societal challenges that we are facing. And, you know, of course, as any deep tech tech startup, the technology development and attracting funds, you know, that’s just a never- never-ending story. But that’s that’s basically for everybody, so…

Monika: Yeah, but usually, the software-based startups have it easier because of a much shorter, you know, cycle of development. 

Aija: You can survive on a couple of boxes of Red Bull and coding for a couple of months, and boom, you have a business, right? So it’s not that easy with the technology-based startups. Yeah. 

Monika: Yeah, back in the day, I was moderating a panel discussion about deep tech investment. And I asked the audience. It was quite a big industry event. And I asked the audience if there are any deep tech startup founders. And a few people raised their hands. And I asked, is it easy? And nobody actually raised their hand. So, yeah, definitely. And even when I was researching some material for the panel discussion, I asked the investors that I know, like, what’s exciting about deep tech? And I said, like, nothing really. So you really need to believe in the idea to actually invest in something that, you know, might take years to actually return the investment, so… 

Aija: Yeah, I mean, with deep tech, it’s slightly, in a way challenging. On the other hand, it’s a game of patience, right? So the technology, once you start raising VCs and slightly bigger amounts of money, you have an understanding of what this technology can actually do. And then it is up to you to prove to the investors that it will work at the large scale and even larger scale. And then what happens with VC investment is that if you are putting like half a million or one and a half million at point zero, let’s say zero. And then it takes about seven to ten years, right? Then, at the end of these ten years, you are going to get a lot bigger return on investment rather than the quick software three-year cycle, right? 


But of course, everybody goes for the quick money because nobody’s patient enough. So that’s why I would say that this is a patience game. And you should really scout out for the investors that are not really in such a hurry to make that much money and that are really passionate about what you are doing. That’s why that’s industry-specific type of investors are really the way to go because they would understand how it works. And I have had also quite unfortunately not-so-pleasant conversations with a couple of VCs that are saying, yes, we are deep tech, we are tech startups, blah, blah, blah. And then once you are scouting the portfolio, yes, it’s software here, AI there. You know, it’s like, please, guys, you know, let’s not fool everybody. And, yeah, so from that perspective, it is very, very important that you find the right people that are willing to invest in your sector and actually understand what it means to be a deep tech investor. 

Monika: Yeah, definitely. And what you’ve mentioned before is that your company is quite international, but you are originated in the Baltics ecosystem. So, could you maybe tell us something more about the startup scene in the region and how is it evolving right there? 

Aija: Oh, I would say it’s booming, honestly. Because with Commercialization Reactor has been in the industry for about 12 years now, I think. And I think they celebrated. 

Monika: Sorry, but I think we… 

Aija: So it’s logging, backlogging, OK. 

Monika: OK, let’s… let’s get back to your answer once again. Can you hear me right now? 

Aija: Yes, yes, I could before as well. 

Monika: So, OK, great. So there was some tiny little lag. I’m not sure if our listeners had it. So just to make sure, could you just repeat what you’ve said about the booming ecosystem in the Baltics? 

Aija: Yes, absolutely. So, I would say that the Baltic startup ecosystem is booming right now. And I would say that it is partly because of various acceleration and business incubation programs are popping up. And, you know, Commercialization Reactor is one of the oldest ones, right? So they have been in the industry for about 12 years now, right? So they’ve been matchmaking different kinds of scientists and entrepreneurs for over a decade now. And just in the past few years, they have actually seen that a lot more scientists are signing up, a lot more entrepreneurs are signing up for this kind of events. 

And, you know, I mean, you can just check regular newsletters from the ecosystem, right? There are new startups popping out, new fundraisers happening still, right? Even though everybody knows it’s a very tough time to fundraise right now, there are still investments being made, and a lot of them are in the Baltic states. And, you know, us having a few unicorns in the industry already, right? So, I mean, it’s becoming better and better every time. So each year, that is. So I would say that it’s going really well for sure. 

Monika: And if there was anything you could advise to the companies that want to enter the Baltic region, are there any differences from the other parts of Europe or anything, you know, important to know? Or maybe some kind of organizations, or soft landing programs in the region that support the founders from the other regions to come and enter the market? 

Aija: I have kind of mixed feelings about this. My first question would be, why Baltics? Aren’t there bigger markets that you can, you know, enter to? But if you say that, no, Baltics is the way to go and we actually want to go there and we have a niche product that would be…

Monika: You know, maybe from the neighboring regions, sometimes that’s the way forward, yeah? To expand slightly to the neighboring region, for example. 

Aija: Exactly. So I would probably, like, we have LIAA, L-I-A-A, the government support program, which actually is scouting for partnerships all over the globe. So we have companies from Japan coming to Baltics to make partnerships with local startups, local companies, and even governments around Latvia. The same thing happens in Estonia and Lithuania as well. So I would say that it is worth scouting out for these kind of companies, not companies, but governmental institutions. Because that’s the first way to actually approach, because they are kind of the connection between outside government and also the local ecosystem, right? So, they would be the way to go from that perspective. 

And second is, I mean, make a visit to the events in Baltics. So we have so many wonderful tech conferences, events, investor events even, right? So go and pitch and make introductions and network, network, network. And, you know, Baltic ecosystem is relatively, well, I wouldn’t say it’s big. Right. So because in the call range, you can reach almost anybody, which is a positive thing, which means that if you can connect, can get connected to the right person, they will introduce to you with a hundred more. And then basically, in a week or two, you have scouted out the whole Baltics and then you know where to land and who to talk to. So I would say that these are the couple of suggestions from my side. 

Monika: And I think that definitely proves the, I would say, hypothesis that you know, networking is the key and getting to know as many people in the industry as possible and maybe creating a circle around you, a circle of connections or maybe even joining a community there. That’s what actually it all comes down to. Yeah. Just talking to as many people as possible and checking how they can support you and how you can, you know, exchange the, you know, skills and connections that you have. And I think that, yeah, the thing that you mentioned about that events connecting business people and scientists, that’s the way forward, especially that, you know, it’s… it’s extremely difficult to connect the scientific approach and the business approach. 


And, you know, at DAC, we have like 16 years of experience in that, but, you know, it is a challenge for a lot of companies to balance out both of those approaches, you know, like having commercial success and also developing your solutions that it’s usually, you know, very costly in terms of time and, you know, financial means. So, yeah, it is a bit of a struggle. So I think it’s a great idea to actually connect the scientists and business people and let them, you know, create some kind of a fusion of their ideas. 


And you are a perfect proof of that, you know. With your background in communication and management, you are now involved in a very scientific-based startup. And yeah, that’s that’s actually great,  such initiatives exist. And maybe getting back to TerraWaste, you know, are there any other long-term goals except for that, you know, finding the right investor and help you scale? Is there anything else that you’re working towards right now that you could share with us? 

Aija: Absolutely. I mean, we have goals like planets around us. You have no idea. I mean, every startup should have such big goals that they actually make you scared. And just a side note on the topic, usually I’m not a fan of these cliche names are traveling around Internet. But, you know, there was one… one circling LinkedIn and also other social media which said that you know, if your goals don’t scare you, they’re not big enough. Then, with TerraWaste, that was the actually first time when I realized like, pardon my French, this could grow into something huge. And that was the first time when I actually was like, oh, I’m getting chills. You know, this is actually so exciting of how big it could grow. So that is one side note. 


But yeah, I mean, we are actually starting engineering on our first pilot plan. So we are very, very excited about that. So I’m dreaming about the day when we will cut the red ribbon and start actually recycling at, OK, it’s going to be semi-industrial scale, but still, you know, it’s bigger than the small one-liter pot in the laboratory, right? So that’s going to be something we are actively scouting out for partners and for customers. So we are offering testing services for clients so that we can basically tailor-make, make the whole technological system for your specific waste. 


So, not only plastics, but we have a first client from wood chip industry for forestry industry. They have a lot of wood chip waste. So we are turning that into oil and then making either bioplastics or bio waste, not bio waste, but bio-fertilizers for the ground, for example. So there’s a whole other industry. We are actually looking forward to exploring textiles industry because, as we all know, polyester, polystyrene, and many, many other polys in our clothing, they are all fossil fuel-based materials and clothing, which means that they can also be turned back into oil and then made into maybe new clothing lines again. So, another recycling chain there. 


So a lot of… a lot of interesting projects and plans for the next few years. So, yeah, we are very, very excited. And yeah, potentially going to either United Arab Emirates side of like Middle East part of the world and in the States, that’s also what we want to explore. So there are a lot of interesting potential markets that we could go to. So definitely, we want to be there and we actually want to make an impact for our planet. And the more of us do that, the cleaner air we are going to have in a decade or two. 

 

Monika: Yeah, it sounds like a great mission. And especially with all the waste being produced every day, there are so many kinds. So I believe you can find even more innovative ways to either repurpose it or find some ways to diminish the waste production. So, I will keep my fingers crossed for you. And I feel really inspired by your story as well. As the person with background in communications and marketing, now being involved in such a great enterprise. Yeah, it’s absolutely inspiring. Are there any closing thoughts that you have if it comes to the waste management industry that you would like to share with our audience? I know you’re a pretty busy person right now and traveling. So I don’t want to keep you here for too long, but maybe some, you know,  closing thoughts and final words if it comes to your industry. 

Aija: That is a very good question. And I was actually when coming to this interview, I was actually thinking about it. So what are the usual things that people are, you know, trying to get out there? And I’m not going to be too traditional on this. So in terms of waste management and everything, I would, as much as hipster or Californian that might sound, please stop using single-use plastics. Take your, you know, bag to the shop. You know, don’t take the plastic bags home with you. You know, just be a little bit more mindful about how much waste you are generating yourself because everything starts with this person right here in the mirror, right? So think about how you are dealing with your everyday grocery shopping, for example. That would be one thing.


Another would be if you have an opportunity to be part of an initiative at your local, I don’t know, municipality, city, town, wherever. Yeah, that is definitely a great way how to meet new people, educate yourself slightly more in a different way. If you’re not really involved in this kind of environment, I think that could be a great part-time or spare-time activity. Some green deals, I don’t know, planting new trees somewhere, you know, this kind of green activities. Yeah, I would say something like this. And yeah, maybe if you are bored with whatever you are doing, try entrepreneurship and found new startups, you know, by having a lot more technologies out there, we will actually make an impact. So, yes, just go and do it. 

Monika: That sounds really powerful and it seems like a tiny little thing. And sometimes, you know, we struggle with this thought that as consumers, we don’t really have the impact. But as you’ve mentioned, like every little step matters. And it’s one thing that the companies like yours can deal with plastic waste in one way or another. But the other thing is that, like, we shouldn’t keep producing anymore, especially that, you know, there is this debate that, you know, for some cases, the plastic is actually necessary. For example, like the straws or something like that for people with disabilities or something like that. 


But, you know, if we have to, why don’t we just use the plastic that’s already there? Yeah, but that’s the thing that you mentioned at the beginning that people keep telling you: “Oh, it’s greenwashing, we should stop producing plastic.” Well, in some cases, for example, in health care, we need the single-use things, yeah? So I think it’s a better choice to try and, you know, transform it into the material, back into the material, and put it back in the system than just to wait for thousands of years until it disappears organically. Yeah. So, thank you very much for today’s conversation and all the inspiring thoughts. Fingers crossed for the future transactions with the investors and developing your product. Definitely, I will link to TerraWaste’s website in the description and also reach out to Aija if you have any more questions about TerraWaste or maybe the Baltic startup ecosystem. It was a great pleasure to have you here. Thank you once again. 

 

Aija: Thank you, Monika, for having me. I’m so inspired by ladies like you for having these talks because people have to be informed. So thank you so very much. And thank you guys for listening as well. 

 

Monika: OK, so everybody, have a great day, and I’ll speak to you in another episode of Tech Excellence Talks. Bye!

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