A former innovation manager for a major bank, a scientist with over a decade of research experience and a general manager of multiple restaurants and cafés. These three women may have different career backgrounds, but all identified problems in their respective sectors and are solving them with tech.
As shocking as it is, in Europe only 1% of capital is going to women-led startups, so simply being a female founder already makes you an industry disruptor, working against the odds. These particular founders are making waves not just in Estonia. Their tech models have been exported to Romania, Ireland, Australia the UK and the US.
Changing the face of food with fungi
Sirli Rosenvald is the co-founder and CEO of FUNKI, a food tech startup that uses the latest food technologies to create tasty, high quality, high protein food products from fungi. FUNKI is just over a year old, but it’s aims are clear: to create a product that is both sustainable and delicious.
Rosenvald told The Stack “I’m a meat eater myself and I know all the environmental impacts, but I really like tasty food so my motivation behind this is to give people a chance to eat sustainably while still having tasty food.”
Her mission is not easy. Imagine trying to make a product that is a meat alternative while trying to avoid marketing it as one. “I’m not focusing on imitating meat because I know that a lot of people are already put off if they hear ‘meat alternative’,” she said. “I’d rather try to promote fungi as a new normal natural food.”
Creating a “new normal” way of eating is certainly ambitious. Quorn is so far the only successfully commercialised brand selling fungi-based products on a mass scale. Could FUNKI be next? It’s an ambition the Estonian government is invested in. “Estonia has a very supportive eco system. We received a really huge research grant a few months ago,” Rosenvald revealed.
If the tech translates to taste, Rosenvald believes the business will one day be exportable overseas. It’s too soon to tell though if FUNKI will get to a stage where it can compete with Quorn, especially given other countries are also experimenting with fungal proteins. “The future will show who is more successful in upscaling and bringing the technologies to the market,” Rosenvald said. The race has begun.
Reducing menial tasks for medics
Further along in her startup journey is Liis Narusk, co-founder and CEO of Certific, a digital platform designed to streamline communication between doctors and patients and reduce admin. Founded in 2020, it began by providing a remote testing service to answer the demand created by COVID. Now, its focus is to address inefficiency in healthcare by replacing as much time-wasting paperwork as possible with automated solutions.
“In order for the doctor to do their work better, the patient needs to provide them with more detailed information about their health, which doesn’t necessarily need to be asked by the doctor, but can be asked by technology,” Narusk told The Stack. Certific is using AI to augment the platform’s capabilities so in practice, doctors and nurses can have quicker, more efficient appointments.
“Imagine you call your doctor and describe whatever ailment you have – that’s possible to transcribe by a machine, make a summary by a machine, and enable the doctor to understand really fast what needs to happen next,” Narusk said. It may only reduce a consultation by a few minutes per patient, but this adds up. “Small bits here and there actually count for 70% of the admin burden that a doctor or nurse is spending their time on,” Narusk said.
It may look like a no brainer for clinics to opt for technology that saves time, but you’d be surprised. “One of the biggest barriers is not about tech. It’s about mindset. In Ireland it is especially the case as the healthcare system is very overburdened there. It’s like pushing a cart up the hill that has square wheels, and then you’re offering them round wheels. And they’re like, ‘no, no, no, I don't have time to put the wheels on!’”
Another challenge for Certific if it wants to expand internationally, will be to penetrate the bureaucratic healthcare systems such as the UK’s NHS, where decisions to buy software cannot be made unilaterally by a clinic, nor approved quickly. From a startup perspective, a time-consuming sales process is not an attractive option. That said, Certific has so far captured 10% of the Estonian market and is successfully launching in Romania, Ireland and aiming for South Africa and southeast Asian countries next.
Does Narusk think Certific could become a unicorn? “I’m building a company because of the impact we can make in the medical industry, the good we can bring for doctors and nurses and patients. If as a side effect it becomes a unicorn, it means we can do it on a very large scale, which is the goal,” she said.
Making food safety digital
Equally keen to reduce needless admin is Katrin Liivat, the founder and CEO of FoodDocs, an AI-powered food safety software that digitises food safety processes for quality managers. “I was the head of different restaurants and cafes, so I was responsible for the food quality and I thought ‘oh my god everything is on paper!’” Liivat told The Stack. So, in 2017, Liivat took the initiative to make her life, and many other food managers’ lives, a whole lot easier.
“We made an app for kitchen teams so they can see all the daily tasks and there is a real time dashboard for the quality manager to see an overview of the whole food safety status in the company,” Liivat told The Stack. “It’s real time control over food safety.” Six years on, the company has grown from strength to strength, selling its software to the US, UK, Australia and Canada.
The appeal of FoodDocs is not just about keeping businesses compliant and safe, but about saving them time and money. “If the food production of the company is big enough, the quality manager will have the problem of losing their overview of the team following all the rules,” Liivat explained. “Then there can be a risk of food contamination, there are loads of them and the business reputation can suffer billions of dollars of loss.” No wonder then, that globally, over 35,000 businesses are using FoodDocs.
Liivat’s business is a global success story despite the challenges of making it into that 1% of female founders receiving capital for their startups. Last year, her team raised over 2 million euros to continue their work on streamlining food safety. As a strong believer in the power and ability of women, Liivat recognises there is still a long way to go to close the gap. “When I hire women, I see the same pattern. They have been under this pressure that says ‘you can’t do it,’” she said. But, “once they’ve understood what they can achieve, only the sky’s the limit.”