Julia Streuli is the co-founder and CEO of FUL, a sustainable food-tech company that has just launched a functional drink from climate positive Spirulina. Prior to co-founding FUL, Julia helped launch and scale a for-profit for-good venture-backed technology startup in Silicon Valley where she built the company’s sales and marketing strategy – partnering with global corporations such as Cisco, Dropbox and VMware, as well as leading strategic product partnerships with NGOs and foundations. Along the way, Julia also co-founded a nonprofit project focusing on an innovative approach to philanthropy, and worked on health education initiatives in the U.S. and Thailand. Julia has a B.A. from Brown University in international development/gender studies and an MBA from INSEAD. It was at INSEAD that Julia met her FUL co-founders while researching innovations in the sustainable food sector.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
I co-founded FUL in early 2020 with Sara Guaglio and Cristina Prat Taranilla after we all met during our MBA at INSEAD business school on the Singapore campus. I am originally from the U.S. and hail from the startup world in Silicon Valley. I’ve always been interested in how each of us can – as individuals with limited resources – make the most difference in areas that matter to us (which was also the focus of the tech startup Iwas at, a charitable giving and volunteerism software). The importance of what we eat and drink kept emerging as a critical area to improve not only our own health and wellbeing, but that of the planetary systems around us – including combating the escalating climate crisis. It was during this time working in Silicon Valley that I became increasingly interested in (the then emerging) topic of food tech and alternative proteins.
Sara and Cristina who came from totally different sectors (family business/manufacturing and the energy sector respectively), but have a shared interest in climate, food and innovation. We decided to join forces first to do an in-depth research project on the future of food and innovative companies in Europe driving a shift to net zero. The more we learned the more convinced we became that there was a massive triple bottom line opportunity (people, planet and profit) in new sustainable sources of nutrition – and specifically microalgae (the larger category to which Spirulina belongs) for its health and sustainability potential.
After our research project, we put together a business plan aiming to unlock the potential of microalgae as a mainstream source of nutrition via a patented, trademarked ingredient and line of consumer products. With our business plan, we entered our school’s venture competition and ended up winning just before we graduated. The prize money allowed us to move to the Netherlands to start the company and hire a food scientist.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
The idea for FUL was centred around our mission of scaling “future proof” sources of nutrition – “future proof” meaning attractive to consumers (Delicious! Convenient! Affordable!), highly scalable, nutrient dense and without a negative impact on our climate. The compelling aspect of microalgae/ Spirulina as a source of nutrition is that it has the potential to actually benefit the climate via the production process
How did you achieve awareness?
We’ve started by building a very targeted awareness within our “early adopter community” – i.e. people who are most likely to consume and promote FUL because the product aligns strongly with their lifestyle and values. We’ve focused on online (digital advertising, SEO, social media) and offline channels through key occasions – after sports (we’ve had key partnerships with fitness studios and influencers who promote FUL), office events, and social events partnering with bartenders to create drinks with FUL as colourful / healthy mixers or alcohol alternatives.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
Hustle, humility and a (very) thick skin
I’m not exaggerating when I say we received about 100 “Nos” before our first “Yes” when we first started our fundraising. Mind you, we were all complete industry outsiders, had no real product or traction, were setting out to do something quite ambitious – all at the very beginning of the pandemic.
We just kept at it, trying to learn from each “NO” we received, quickly reset, and get back out there pounding the proverbial pavement.
I’m also not a naturally extroverted person, so networking and “putting myself out there” was not something that came naturally, but it’s one of these skills I knew I had to break out of my comfort zone to nurture if we were going to be successful breaking into this new industry to gain funding and commercial success.
What are the key successes?
Our key success to-date has been developing the actual product and process for our trademarked FUL® Spirulina ingredient and first product containing the ingredient, our sparkling beverage. Both these developments required a lot of R&D (we spent the first 1.5 years in our lab, scaling up the process to commercial scale and working with partners to grow our Spirulina in such a sustainable way we could achieve a net negative carbon balance).
Our next key milestone will be successfully launching our product this spring in more mainstream channels (supermarkets, health chains) in the UK.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
Spirulina – despite its immense nutritional benefits – is a tricky substance to work with because on its own it presents a lot of technical challenges around taste/smell, solubility and color/nutrient stability. Plus, most of the Spirulina available on the market is not as sustainable or high quality as we wanted.
That’s why we spent the first stage of the company in the Netherlands (a.k.a. Europe’s “Food Valley”) working with top food scientists trying to address some of these challenges by developing our own natural and sustainable process to grow and produce Spirulina, in a sustainable and scalable way, that also tastes great!
Ensuring our ingredients and process were in line with our values around health and sustainability definitely meant that in the beginning we went “slower” in terms of having a product on the market, but I believe in the end building this solid foundation will be totally worth it.
What are your plans now/for the future?
We’re gearing up to launch the new version of our product with a focus on the UK market and fundraising to enter the US and APAC.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship Journey?
I love the interview with Linda Rottenberg (founder of ENDEAVOR – a network investing in global entrepreneurship) on Reid Hoffman’s “Master of Scale” podcast where she talks about the fact that the best ideas are the ones that actually die before they are really born into the world –
“To me, the biggest problem is the best ideas don’t die in the marketplace, or in the laboratory, they die in the shower. Because people don’t even give themselves permission to walk out of the shower, and write it on a napkin, and take it into the world, because they’re afraid of what others are going to think about them. And they’re afraid that people are going to say, “Well, this is just a crazy idea.”
Don’t be afraid to take risks and fail. It sounds cliche, but it is this fear of failure that prevents people from taking the first step on their entrepreneurial journey.
Can you share you top tips for entrepreneurial success?
- Embrace your role as the perpetual student.
Being a founder is like undergoing a never-ending crash course in a very varied and constantly evolving mix of subjects.
Being a student comes with a certain level of humility (you have not mastered anything yet!) and hunger (but you desire to improve and learn more!). Reach out to and surround yourself with people who know more than you do. Read as much as you can (books written by smart, successful people are filled with useful teachings).
Get comfortable with managing and doing a lot of things you’ve never done before, which will result in a fair share of screw-ups. Reframe failure as a learning opportunity and learn as fast as you can.
- Don’t change the destination, but be open to new paths to get you there more efficiently.
A lot of people will have a lot of opinions about your company and offer their feedback (solicited or not) on your company’s purpose, strategy and products.
Be open to advice and don’t be afraid to change up certain strategies if more compelling ones are introduced.
At the same time, be absolutely uncompromising on certain parts of your business (most importantly vision) if you truly believe in it – even if your choices are unpopular, go against the grain, even if you may need to sacrifice term opportunities.
- Team is the lifeblood of entrepreneurial success.
Surround yourself with an incredibly supportive team – one that is aligned on the high-level vision, but diverse and complementary in skillsets, experiences and approaches. Going through the entrepreneurial journey is also just a lot more fun when you are working with people you like, people who give you energy and people who lift you up.
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?
- My family – They are my source of daily inspiration on being human – on how to love and support unconditionally, find and sustain happiness, and focus on what matters.
- My cofounders – Sara and Cristina inspire me every day as friends and colleagues through their kindness, hard work, creativity and resilience. They are really the true embodiment of the values we developed for our company “Guts, Grit, Grace and Good”.
- Christiana Figueres – Former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (who led the process Paris Agreement on Climate Change) and current cohost of one of my favorite podcasts “Outrage and Optimism”. I greatly admire her “stubborn optimism” – her ability to believe and enroll others in her belief of accomplishing the audacious mission of bringing together world leaders (from all political backgrounds) to fight the climate crisis.
- Elon Musk – Sure Elon is on many an entrepreneur’s inspiration list and what he’s built to accelerate the transition to net zero is nothing short of awe-inspiring. But beyond his ability to successfully execute on his outrageous ambitious and impactful vision, what I deeply respect (like with Christiana) is his pursuit of that vision for a better future – even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, adversity, or doubt.
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill
“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” – Albert Einstein
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to no one.” – William Shakespeare