Just a few years ago, Celine Sandberg probably didn’t imagine that she would be a self-taught expert in seaweed, CEO of an early-stage start-up that already pre-sells products, and living in Copenhagen. We chatted with her to learn more about her fascinating entrepreneurial journey with Agoprene and how the company enrolled in BII’s Venture Lab program.
What is the story behind Agoprene?
The company was founded three years ago during my master’s degree at NTNU School of Entrepreneurship. As a part of the degree, you must start a company, but almost all my classmates started software companies which are very common in Norway. Still, I was determined to work with a physical product. I find seeing a physical product more fascinating than seeing something in code language.
However, at that time, I had no clue which kind of company I should start, so I knocked on all the professors’ doors and asked them what they were doing, and I got introduced to a world that I didn’t know existed. One of the professor’s made haybales out of cellulose from trees, which sparked my interest to investigate what kind of biomass and raw materials we have in Norway that could be used to replace petrochemical-based products. I discovered that seaweed is common, and then I got very nerdy and read everything about seaweed for six months to find out whether it could be used as a biobased material to enable more sustainable production of consumer products.
What drove you to spend so much time on seaweed when you could just have finished your business degree and become a consultant or something similar?
Both my dad and great-grandfather were entrepreneurs, so their achievements inspired me. At the same time, I just had a genuine curiosity about the potential of seaweed. After learning that everything around us is made of petrochemicals damaging the environment, sustainability became my key driver. We tend to focus a lot on transport, energy, clothes, and food, but not many people know that furniture foam is made from petrochemicals. I believe that we can not tackle climate change without working on every big or small area simultaneously.
After I graduated, around 50 percent of my class went into consultancy. Still, even though we had absolutely nothing concrete with Agoprene at this point, I didn’t want to give up before at least trying the business. When we got funding through the Research Council of Norway, it paved the way for me to go full-time with Agoprene even though I was a one-woman army with a strict budget and low salary.
You had a stringent budget to develop the business at this point. How did you operate with such a low budget?
Bootstrapping, haha. We called every supplier we could think of to ask for free samples, and luckily most people allowed us free samples. When you use biomass made as a by-product or something that doesn’t have a lot of applications in the market, people tend to be triggered by the opportunity to be the first ones who can bring something new to the market, so I believe we benefitted from that.
It is a fascinating story! I know you already have people requesting your biobased products. How did you manage to already get in contact with potential customers and partners?
A great mentor told me I needed to do at least 100 phone calls to test whether there was actual interest in my product. When I spoke to him again after making the 100 phone calls, it was a proud moment when I told him I got orders. Of course, he replied, “that’s what I told you, haha.”
My first phone call wasn’t good, and you need to warm yourself up. But when you reach call number 90, you have become good at asking the right questions and know more about what the customers need and what you want to get out of them. I was not going into it as a salesperson but as someone who wanted to hear about their problems, pains, and thoughts. It turned out that quite a few of them had looked for sustainable materials but hadn’t found them.
What is the key motivation for customers that are engaging with Agoprene?
No petrochemicals. I recently spoke to someone who requested 40 pillows that could be used for sound isolation in a hotel building. So, we have orders, but we need to improve the materials before scaling. BII will be crucial in maintaining a strong focus on material development.
What are the key challenges with the material right now, and how do you plan on upscaling production in the long run?
Deformation of the material. We need to build it more potent and robust, and once we succeed, we are going directly into production. I plan to set up a small mini-production, producing 500 pillows before the summer. After that, we must determine whether to upscale the production or rent a production facility. It will depend on what we need to produce. I know we need to make at least 5000 pillows before the end of the year, but the most important is that the material is as good as it can be before we go on the market.
How about regulations related to using seaweed?
Norway has a lot of regulations, and you can’t just go and harvest large amounts yourself. In Norway right now, you can see a significant upscale in seaweed farming, where you don’t harvest seaweed directly from the sea, but you plant it in the sea, so you don’t interfere with nature.
How did you get in touch with BII and the Venture Lab program?
I always say yes to meetings with venture capitalists or people interested in Agoprene to introduce myself and expand my network. I had a meeting with a venture capitalist and knew already before that meeting that we were not an investable case yet. However, one week after Maria (red. Maria Henriques de Jesus) met with the same VC, she asked whether the person knew any exciting start-ups in the biobased materials space, and that’s how Agoprene and BII got introduced to each other.
How do you expect to benefit from BII’s community?
All our methods and the material structure are based on research that has been done in other fields, so I’m looking forward to drawing a lot of inspiration from the other founders. I will live in Copenhagen during the 12-month Venture Lab program, and I’m sure it will be a great experience. Furthermore, BII has a solid infrastructure and network and will be fundamental in helping Agoprene develop in building a solid business and a strong team.
I have already hired the first team member, Eva, who is specialized in biotechnology and biopolymers, and I would also like to employ a chemist.
Where do you see Agoprene in 12 months?
I have a pilot production in Denmark.