Andressa Lacerda is cofounder and chief development officer of Noblegen, a Canadian biotech startup. She met her Nobelgen cofounder and CEO Adam Noble when he was a teenager and she was in her twenties, just seven years ago. Today the company uses microorganisms to produce proteins and oils for the food industry with technology based on cofounder Adam Noble’s high school science project. Lacerda, a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology saw the potential in the technology Noble was working on and offered him lab space to collaborate on his project.
The two started Noblegen in 2013. The company grows microorganisms, specifically euglena, from which the company is able to extract proteins that could be used in protein shakes, meat analogs, and egg replacements as well as oils, with the mission of changing the way environmentally unsustainable ingredients, are sourced.
Noblegen’s early products are palmitic oil, MCT oil, protein flours, and common fibers. The final product of Noblegen’s process, says Lacerda, is not a substitute for the original ingredient, it is effectively the same substance.
“For the final consumer, it will be no change to the product they’re consuming. The change will be the source of the ingredients that are used in the products that are being consumed,” Lacerda explained.
The company raised a $9.5 million Series A round in 2016 and is currently raising a Series B round.
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Lacerda and Noble have grown their team from two to 45 and built their own fermentation production facility. With such a young cofounder in Noble, Lacerda has faced a unique set of challenges in telling the Noblegen story the way she and Noble feel it should be told.
We caught up with Lacerda to find out what steps the co-founders have taken to make sure that credit is given where credit is due in a field that loves a wunderkind.
What was it like to be the senior member on a two-person team when you were still in your early twenties and your co-founder was in his teens?
Yeah, it was interesting. I was the older one, but whenever I spoke to someone outside of the company, it didn’t hold the same value as when Adam spoke because I’m a female. It was very challenging at the beginning, especially because it was just the two of us and people would assume I was his assistant or his secretary — anything other than his equal business partner.
But I am lucky that I’m originally from Brazil. The way that I was raised, and in Brazilian culture as well, you stand up for yourself. So I have actually rejected meetings with potential investors because they wanted to wait six months for a time when Adam was back from school to have a meeting that I was more than capable of leading. If you cannot talk with me and see me as an equal part of the business, then you are not the type of person I would want to be involved in our business, to begin with.
So I think I got lucky that very early on, Adam noticed this as well and he started feeling my pain, per se. Today we have a company where we value equality. Our values are to make sure that background doesn’t matter — gender doesn’t matter. We see everyone as an equal. And having a company that’s in the biotech sector that, from the get-go, has had that mentality is not necessarily common and could make things a little bit harder sometimes. But we believe that it makes us stronger.
Did you feel like Adam was being given the young male genius role?
Oh yeah, right away. People used to call him the whiz kid. He’s very smart. Don’t get me wrong. But he’s not the only smart person in the company, right? Today our executive team is actually gender-balanced. But people look for that token person for the company and it defaulted right away to Adam.
How do you deal with that?
Right from the beginning, Adam was aware that because ultimately the name of Noblegen comes from Adam’s name, he emphasized that there are two sides to the Noblegen story. It’s Adam and Andressa, it’s not just Adam’s company. We emphasize the team a lot. So every time that there is a press release we make sure that we’re both talking or giving quotes.
Every time that there is an article on us here in Peterborough, if there’s something that’s said, and it says, “Adam’s company,” right away we correct it. And when it comes to public events or public speaking —that’s one of my passions and that’s one of my strengths — putting me a little bit more in the spotlight and having the platform to talk about the history of the company is helping us as well. So then people can see that there are females in this field and we are just as capable to be role models in this industry, to be the leaders, and be the image of disruption that people are looking for.
Do you find your physical appearance to a help or a hindrance in your professional life?
I was 25 when I finished my Ph.D. and today I’m 28. Before, when I would tell someone that I have my Ph.D. they would say, “What? You’re a scientist? Normally scientists don’t look like you.” And I would say “Oh, yeah? Tell me more about how scientists look.”
I kind of try to gently call people on it, you know? I think that sometimes it’s necessary to help them have a little bit more perspective.
I’ve heard people say “Who did she sleep with to get that position?'” Or things ruder than that. And I just say, “Well, I got where I am because of my efforts. No one put me here. I got here on my own.” I know the value I brought to the team and so does Adam, so it’s up to us to make that very clear to external stakeholders.