Investor readiness program for science-driven innovations by CGIAR and Rockstart: A startup’s experience and lessons learned

At Rockstart we are driven by purpose-driven founders from all over the world and we do our utmost to identify and empower their ideas and solutions not only through our funds and accelerator programs, but also through innovation initiatives crafted for world leading partners. One of these partners is CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future dedicated to transforming food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis.

Together with the CGIAR’s Accelerate for Impact Platform, the venture-focused Research for Development space designed to bridge science and entrepreneurship, Rockstart delivered a tailored peer-to-peer mentorship program this spring to three early-stage innovations, selected based on their winning pitches at the 2021 Agrobiodiversity Innovation Challenge. The three participating initiatives , Cloud, Seasoilution, and Novfeed, received mentorship in topics  such as value proposition, customer discovery, sales, team development, product development and more to support them in becoming investor-ready. In addition to learning the participating innovations, the program allowed the two partners to learn how best to strengthen the design and delivery of support to early-stage, science-driven innovations.

For a further look into how the kind of science-driven innovations that collaborative scaling support like  the one offered by CGIAR and Rockstart’s Investor Readiness Program will help to make impact, read on about the experience of the Seasoilution team:  from how their innovation fills a crucial need to how the program is strengthening their work.

Tell us more about Seasoilution. What is your story?

SeaSoilution is a passion project, founded to create a sustainable alternative to chemical fertilizers by sourcing materials from the sea, specifically a type of brown algae called sargassum. In our target country, the Dominican Republic, and others, in recent years, there has been a large surplus of said sargassum algae. Its increased occurrence, in part due to the overuse of chemical solutions, has caused harm to biodiversity on land and sea, tourism as well the local economy.
SeaSoilution was created with the vision of taking the problem – sargassum – and transforming it into a solution – our product, an organic biostimulant. So far, we have created a mission, a space for our members to learn, grow, and communicate, and we are working hard on creating a product that will do all justice. The SeaSoilution team members are not only creators, but we are aiming to become transformers.

Our mission is to build a network of motivated students, NGOs, companies, and supporters who see the Sargassum plague in the Caribbean as an opportunity and aim to counteract its consequences by creating jobs and offering farmers an ecological alternative to chemical fertilizer through sustainable fertilizer additive production.

What is Sargassum and how is it impacting the environment?

Massive tides of Sargassum seaweed have become a recurring event on seashores around the Atlantic ocean. Sargassum is a species of brown algae that is usually located in the tropical and subtropical Atlantic. Unlike other types of brown algae, they are not attached to the ocean floor, and instead float on the ocean surface. They grow up to one meter long and in some regions they are the basis for an entire ecosystem. In normal quantities, the algae are therefore said to be beneficial for the environment. 

The growth of the plant is limited by certain nutrients, however in recent years more and more nutrients from human waste and fertilizer runoff end up in the ocean. This results in exponential growth, and in some places thick carpets of sargassum develop. Especially when the algae drifts to shore, the carpet thickens, resulting in entangled fish, dolphins, and invertebrates like turtles that suffocate because they cannot free themselves from the rotting algae.  On the beaches, large amounts of algae start to rot, which results in toxic gasses and foul smells that impact the tourist industries and local fishing communities.

How did you come up with the idea?

When visiting the Dominican Republic a few years back, one could already notice the increased occurrence of sargassum on Dominican shores. The algae are carried ashore in masses by the waves and once on land, start to rot, emitting an unpleasant smell, tarnishing the country’s beautiful beaches.

Not knowing what they had come across when confronted with those sights, our team, in part made up of biology students, started to investigate, read up and learn more about the mysterious sargassum algae. They found that in normal amounts, the algae are highly beneficial to biodiversity at sea and that they are rich in valuable nutrients. Thus, the first spark of an idea was created – using the algae, occurring in a seemingly endless supply, to create a product beneficial to the local community.

What differentiates SeaSoilution from other similar solutions?

Since our human workforce consists of motivated university students, our diverse backgrounds allow us to approach the main problem and the various tasks that come along from different perspectives, thus generating unique joint solutions. Moreover, our project aims to create an impact in the Dominican Republic, which can only be done by involving the local people in the developing process of our biostimulant. 

At the end, SeaSoilution strives to be at the forefront of the collective change happening locally. The work done by our team in Germany, and the input by local and international partners, will create the foundation for the project to move operations to the Dominican Republic to be further developed by the local teams. 

Which type of customers are you targeting with your solution?

For now, we can define four important target customers for SeaSoilution and our product: Small and medium-sized farmers – as they represent almost 75% of all farmers in the Dominican Republic, and a lot of them don’t use any kind of fertilizer due to a lack of affordable plant growth products. Afterwards, organic cooperatives are interested in using only sustainable and plant-based products and sharing the joint mission of finding a substitute for chemical fertilizers. Also more extensive plantations – with enough physical and human resources. In this way, we will significantly reduce the usage of chemical fertilizer and indirectly contribute to solving the sargassum issues. Additionally, we also foresee our solution as a product for private gardens and house plants. This is a long-term plan and we strive to make our product available B2C for all by making it available in traditional retail stores.

What would you say to someone leaving school now, who wants to start their own business? 

Being part of SeaSoilution has taught us a lot of things and has allowed us to understand the things that are important to us and prove as a daily motivation. When equipped with the right mindset or surrounded with the right people, it is never too early to start something of your own. The first step will be the hardest but as they say: jump in the deep end and you’ll learn how to swim.

At SeaSoilution, we have learned to value team play as the most important resource on our path to success. The people you work with will play a vital part in shaping an early stage start-up, so our advice would be to choose your team wisely, respect different perspectives and be open to be challenged. Before any team building though, you need to have an idea. It is important to listen to the people you may be creating for and identify their underlying problem. Only then, you may start developing a solution. In today’s world business and environmentalism go hand in hand – only with the right problem-solution fit will your product or service have real value.

Moreover, it is hard to imagine SeaSoilution without the framework of Enactus. The organization has given us a safe space to develop our idea into a project while simultaneously pursuing our studies, it has offered the guidance and resources needed to advance it as well as the room to make mistakes and learn from them. Students who join our immediate head organization of Enactus Munich, Germany, do so to create a better, more sustainable world and to gain valuable experience to advance their personal and professional lives – a perfect fit for SeaSoilution.

What were your main learnings during the CGIAR and Rockstart peer-to-peer mentorship program?

Participating in the CGIAR and Rockstart peer-to-peer program has helped us greatly. The seminars with mentors have encouraged us to think outside the box and not to be afraid of change, as well as to constantly ask ourselves critical questions, thanks to which we have identified our weak points. In addition, through the interactive exercises, we were able to have a more realistic view of our customer persona. But the most significant help was creating our interview for the needs assessment.

Stay tuned for more stories on the CGIAR and Rockstart collaboration, our startup stories from ideas to market leading solutions. As always check out our blog and follow us on social media.  You can also follow CGIAR’s initiatives on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

More about CGIAR and its initiatives:

CGIAR : The global research partnership for a food-secure future dedicated to transforming food, land, and water systems in a climate crisis. 

The Accelerate for Impact Platform : CGIAR’s venture-focused Research for Development space to co-design and scale science-driven breakthrough solutions for sustainable agriculture and climate action while making sure that innovations are accessible to all.