An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

“If you take everyone’s opinion into account, you’ll end up with the most mediocre of ideas.”

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chaeyoung Shin.

NAMUH co-founder and CEO, Chaeyoung Shin, is on a mission to close the gap between human breast milk and infant formula, recreating the bioactive molecules produced in breast milk that have a vital role in infant health and development. She earned her PhD in chemical engineering from UC Berkeley, transforming her proprietary yeast-based technology into a company as part of the Energy Biosciences Institute accelerator and Berkeley Skydeck Hot Desk programs.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My story starts as a “fragile” child. When I began eating solid foods, I didn’t have a strong appetite. I struggled with a constant stomach ache and watery stool, I noticed that I had lower levels of energy compared to my friends. I just thought I was born fragile, but didn’t recognize something was wrong because often as a child, what you experience is the only thing you know, and that is the “norm”. My digestive problems lasted until my early twenties, and I was diagnosed with multiple immune-related diseases, such as lupus — which in hindsight, might have been related to my gut problems. It was during my early days at graduate school when the importance of the gut-brain axis started to become a big thing. Also by this time, I knew that constant stomach aches were not normal. So, I launched a side project of meticulous research and experimentation with my nutrition. After years of scouring the internet and trial-and-error, I pieced together the best nutritional strategy to feed my body and gut microbiome. And I achieved the result that I was longing for — I don’t have constant stomach aches anymore (woohoo!). There were also unexpected, additional benefits — my energy level skyrocketed, my weight remained the same but my waist size decreased 2 in, and a fog over my thoughts (that I didn’t even know existed) lifted. Also during this time, I started questioning why I had struggled with all of these health issues and awful symptoms, especially as these immune conditions are often not considered to be hereditary. Simultaneously, I started working in the field of infant nutrition. That’s when it clicked; perhaps all of my health problems started from day one. I wasn’t breastfed as a baby and instead was exclusively formula-fed, which I later found out my body didn’t respond well to.

This realization fueled me to dive deeper into the murky world of baby formula, and what I discovered was shocking. Did you know there are no standards for infant formula to compare with breast milk? Did you know that formula feeding is associated with 40+ diseases and conditions? Baby formula is so necessary to a modern mom’s way of life, but it shouldn’t mean that a formula-fed baby is receiving inferior nutrition. NAMUH is working on closing the gap between human breast milk and infant formula. Our proprietary technology aims to create a baby formula that is molecularly identical to that of human breast milk.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

The baby formula industry is stagnant and has been for the past 40 years. The large players have no need to innovate — their sales are increasing YoY anyway driven by the growing number of working women — and so they don’t! I’m not here to disrupt something that works well, but unfortunately, the ingredients and recipes in standard baby formula aren’t cutting it. Other brands are entering the baby formula market with organic and vegan options, but the basis of ingredients are still the same. NAMUH (human spelled backwards) has the technology to recreate human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs), the fiber-equivalents of breast milk, which are only found naturally in breast milk. In addition, we have partnerships with leading lipid and protein players to work together on creating human milk-like lipids and proteins. We want to provide formula feeding moms with a superior choice to what is on the market today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was at a pitch event in Japan a few years back… when it was my turn to present, I noticed that they had a very futuristic-looking standing microphone at the podium. But the microphone didn’t seem to be working, so I leaned further and further into the microphone and also asked if the audience was able to hear me. I was about to tap it when a person finally ran upstage and handed me a typical looking microphone that was on top of the podium all this time. It turns out, I was speaking into the lamp, not a microphone. I was extremely embarrassed, but I ended up winning a prize at the event, so it was a happy outcome! The lesson that I learned from this experience is to make sure to take into consideration all the information rather than just only focusing on the first thing that I spot. Of course, I also learned that if a microphone seems to be emitting light, it’s likely not a microphone.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Ryan Bethencourt has been an awesome mentor for me. Ryan is the CEO of Wild Earth, a vegan pet food company. I met him at Indiebio, an incubator program that we were part of. Coming from the academic world, it was quite shocking for me to run into someone like Ryan. He is always at level “hyper” in energy, and encourages first-time entrepreneurs to embrace both the hardships and the enjoyment of founding a startup. I learned how to hustle and make things work from Ryan. He helped keep me sane throughout the hard parts and is still my go-to person whenever I run into massive walls.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

I believe that disrupting a stagnant system, market or product offering should be done when legacy brands are making no effort to improve upon the status quo simply because they don’t have to. Take breast pumps for example. In 2014, the New York Times wrote an article entitled, “Shouldn’t the Breast Pump Be as Elegant as an iPhone and as Quiet as a Prius by Now?” And the answer was a resounding “yes” from pumping women! Today, Willow, Elvie and Babyation (to name a few) have responded to that need and created wearable breast pumps that women can use discreetly while continuing about their daily lives. Without that innovation, women were tethered to an outlet and had to undress halfway in order to pump milk every 2–3 hours. This innovation changed the way women accomplish a very necessary yet challenging task — especially in the workplace!

Trying to replace breastfeeding entirely would be a “not so positive” disruption. Yes, in many cases breastfeeding is difficult and not possible, but it is a perfectly viable option for some. There is an emotional bonding aspect to breastfeeding, which would be almost impossible to replace. There are also immune-related functions of breastfeeding, which would be astronomically expensive to replace. So rather than “replacing” breastfeeding, I believe in supporting breastfeeding mothers and providing better for baby alternatives that will make a significant difference to moms who cannot or choose not to breastfeed.

Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Trust yourself.” I got this piece of advice from Ryan Bethencourt. I guess people say it all the time, and I used to think that I was good at trusting myself. However, when the day came when I had a handful of older, more experienced and successful people in front of me telling me I was wrong, I made the mistake of trusting them instead of myself. Now I make sure I don’t forsake my instincts or beliefs just because other, seemingly smarter people disagree.

“Grow thicker skin.” Paula Hicks, our CTO and my good friend & mentor, told me this after I had a particularly stressful week with investors. I was emotionally responding to every negative comment that was given to me so hearing her advice jolted me awake — my emotional responses were not helping me focus on the areas that needed actual improvement. Over time, I learned to grow thicker skin around my emotions at work. Reminding myself that the feedback is not personal (or should not be personal) and refocusing my energy on tangible actions really helped.

“You don’t have to be good at everything yourself; you just need to find and hire people who are better than you.” Laura Smoliar, one of our earliest investors, told me this. As a first time CEO, it was quite overwhelming to build a company, but her advice helped me change my perspective. Rather than learning how to do everything myself, which would be my first go-to solution, I learned how to learn just enough to be able to understand the needs and/or spot people who could help me or help me hire for a certain need. This mindset helped me recruit our amazing team.

“Be yourself.” This one I got recently from my marketing team. I think most founders are trained and advised to follow in the footsteps of some other great founders or their personas. In the past, I tried many things to diminish my feminine side (since most great founders are male), such as getting my hair cut short and wearing only pants. I also tried my best to bring out my inner Elon Musk during my pitches but would still get feedback that I should be more crazy like Travis Kalanick or more confident like a male founder of mutual acquaintances. But my marketing team had a crazy idea — to let me be more like myself. It’s too early to tell if this works or not, but at the very least it’s been the most liberating option 🙂

“If you take everyone’s opinion into account, you’ll end up with the most mediocre of ideas.” I don’t know where I read this, but it really helped me when I was getting a ton of feedback from all directions. I enjoy bouncing ideas off of people, but once we got to a certain size, it became really hard to take everyone’s thoughts into consideration. Reading this piece of advice gave me the confidence to weigh people’s opinions differently.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Project Breast Milk is a call to action for moms who want to help create a healthier future for the next generation of formula fed babies. In August, NAMUH is launching Project Breast Milk. This effort will recruit 2,000 breastfeeding moms to donate their milk to create a future where every baby can benefit from nutrients that are found only in breast milk today. We have the technology to create a baby formula that is based on breast milk — now we need to create the recipe with help from breastfeeding moms who are passionate about creating a better future for all babies. Our formula is slated to launch in 2024.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

It would be a book called “The Wise Heart” by Jack Kornfield. It’s about Buddhist psychology and shares many wisdoms and examples of how to observe and train your mind to be more “at peace.” I read this book for the first time last year, and it has helped me immensely with being more compassionate to myself and others. When you are running a startup, it often feels like what you or your team is doing is not enough. The amount of workload is limitless and it almost always feels like you are not doing a good job. While this is not unusual for startup founders, it was unsustainable for me so I needed to learn a way of thinking that could alleviate some of the pressure. After reading the book, I learned how to observe my own feelings and actions, then redirect them towards a better outcome for me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is in Korean and there is no exact translation. Roughly translated, it’s akin to “Que sera, sera” or “whatever will be, will be” or “just go for it”. I sometimes hesitate to start new and unfamiliar things so I often have to give myself an extra nudge to take that leap.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think the larger movement is about providing all people with better nutrition options. And transparency! People should know exactly what is in their food from day one and into adulthood. NAMUH is a nutrition company at its core, and our goal is to provide nutrition that is beneficial to your body, not something that simply meets a low existing bar. I’m passionate about this and want to create standards for the baby formula industry that make it easy for parents and caregivers to understand what babies are receiving nutritionally when they select a particular infant formula as compared to breast milk.

How can our readers follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Meet The Disruptors: Chaeyoung Shin Of NAMUH On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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