This Entrepreneur is Using Mushrooms to Disrupt the Food and Beverage Industry
Natasha Dhayagude, CEO of Chinova Bioworks and 2022 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Innovation Award recipient, shares her story
By Khera Alexander
As the world continues to evolve and change rapidly, we as consumers are becoming increasingly educated and discerning about what we put into our bodies. Gone are the days of mindlessly consuming products without a second thought, taking brand promises at face value.
Today, we have more questions than before; many of us have taken a keen interest in the ingredients that make up the food and beverages we consume — down to the very preservatives used to prolong their shelf life — and we’re looking for answers.
In this space, Natasha Dhayagude, CEO and co-founder of Chinova Bioworks, is a major player disrupting the food and beverage industry. With natural, clean-label preservatives extracted from white button mushrooms, she and the Chinova team are giving customers what they’re asking for.
Based in New Brunswick, Natasha has always been a lover of science, chemistry, and the creativity involved in solving problems, and she wanted to use these interests in a meaningful and impactful way.
“I knew I always wanted to use my textbook knowledge [and] be creative, but I just didn’t know how,” she says.
Never planning on becoming an entrepreneur, Natasha figured she’d use her Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of New Brunswick to follow a conventional career map.
“I thought my path would be healthcare or research — that’s typically what a lot of people who took my degree did,” she says. “I really didn’t know what existed outside the scope of that path.”
After graduating, Natasha was trying to figure out the direction she wanted to go in and got a job at an entrepreneurship centre.
Working as an advisor at Planet Hatch, an entrepreneurial resource centre for businesses of all stages, Natasha was exposed to what elements and strategies businesses needed to incorporate to be successful.
In her role, Natasha analyzed an entrepreneur’s business, factored in their unique set of needs and circumstances, and made objective recommendations for the next steps they’d need to take to build their business. As she developed a keen understanding of what’s required for a business to thrive and be competitive, Natasha started thinking about what she could do if she became an entrepreneur.
“[Planet Hatch] was really insightful and gave me my first look into the world of entrepreneurship. I said, ‘How can I use my knowledge now to help solve a commercial, real-world problem?’”
While thinking about how she could make an impact, Natasha threw an event at Planet Hatch. Serendipitously, she ended up meeting David Brown, a like-minded peer and researcher.
Identifying an interesting property in mushrooms — particularly white button mushrooms — David suggested that he and Natasha conduct more research together. Soon after in 2016, their business Chinova Bioworks was born.
While doing research, Natasha also began to assess whether or not this work could be a potential business.
“I started looking at the market. I found [that] consumers today really want transparency when it comes to the ingredients in their food and beverage products. They want ingredients that are sustainable, [and] they want to know where the ingredients are sourced from.”
Natasha also noticed massive whitespace in the ingredient and preservative industry: the majority of ingredients in the category hadn’t changed.
“Consumers have evolved, brands want to evolve, but the ingredient space is so traditional. They’ve just been using the same artificial preservatives for years and years,” she says.
With a gap in the industry identified and promising research, Natasha knew she and David had a viable business; so, she put her skills gained from Planet Hatch to use.
“I started asking, ‘What would I need now? What would I need six months from now?’” she says. “It was my science brain rationalizing, analyzing, [and] anticipating needs before they needed to be met, and coming up with a vision two years down, five years down, 10 years down.”
Natasha and David’s strategic planning helped put Chinova in a position to successfully secure two rounds of financing from food tech VC funds, totalling $10.5 million. Since the company’s ingredient extends the shelf life of a product, funding from the seed round helped them execute years of important research, development, and testing.
“The first four years were building our product and testing our product with various early adopters and partners within the industry and [validating] that product,” she says. “[The] seed round really was pivotal in giving us access to lab facilities that we needed to build product [and] giving us access to regulatory consultants who could help us navigate pathways to be able to launch the product.”
When Chinova secured Series A funding, the business was in a different stage of growth. “We launched six products in 2019, had customers generating revenue, broke even, and just started hiring people to manage different departments building up the company,” Natasha says.
The success Chinova Bioworks has seen since launching products in 2019 has been monumental. Having grown from a team of two to a team of 40, Natasha has received numerous awards — both locally and nationally — for her transformative work, including the Innovation Award at the 2022 RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards.
When completing her application for the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Awards, Natasha explains that it was about more than applying solely for herself.
“I wanted to demonstrate to others that innovation can happen no matter [the] age, gender, [or] person,” she says. “We have a team of 90 per cent of women in STEM. I wanted to showcase our team and the amazing work that they’re doing every day to build out our company.”
Though winning was unexpected, she was proud to share the acknowledgement with her team.
“I feel like I took [the win] on behalf of everybody; they were really happy to have also received it and gotten that honour. It was a really exciting moment for us.”
After operating Chinova Bioworks for seven years, Natasha has learned that exercising patience as a leader and entrepreneur has been critical.
“Patience is key — nothing of value really comes easily,” she says. “I’m running a food manufacturing company that has pretty long timelines; [it] has long sales cycles, long regulatory timelines, [and] extensive R&D needs to be done in order to even launch products in the market. There [were] many times where I was [thinking], ‘Is anything [going to] come out of this? What are we doing? It’s taking so long.’ Patience and having the right people around was really key to me.”
When imparting advice to fellow ambitious women entrepreneurs and women in STEM, Natasha says working to consistently eliminate ego and being humble enough to learn continuously is invaluable.
“Don’t be the smartest person in the room. If you are, walk out of that room,” she says.
“You want to surround yourself with people who are really knowledgeable, who have a lot of industry experience. You shouldn’t be fearful of that. You should be a sponge. Take that advice and use that knowledge to your advantage to build your company even stronger.”