People usually like to find out something new about innovations like blockchain, artificial intelligence, or 3D printers. As they often don’t understand too much about new technologies’ appliance, they can forget about newly appeared engineering with time. However, that is a traditional way of fundamental science, when most of the recently opened novations have to find out their useful appliance in practice only with time.
The situation with blockchain technologies is a bit different. It has already found its vast usage in cryptocurrencies, financial transactions, and identification, while it is a somewhat unique approach that can be applied to any information technology. According to Bart Broothaerts, Unova’s founder and CEO, this technology can be effectively used in the supply chains and upgrade services significantly.
What is Unova?
“I would say, Unova is a blockchain-based ecosystem in the food industry,” began Bart Broothaerts in the interview to Orange Sputnik. “We provide everyone in the food industry, including manufacturers, suppliers, retailers, and final customers with more information about the good and its provenance. It gives more credibility and transparency to the whole food chain and helps to avoid unexpected massive recalls if something goes wrong.”
To understand the whole situation in more detail, we asked about the initial idea and how it began to realise. “We started as many companies that were interested in blockchain. At some moment, we realised that there was an opportunity to solve a lot of issues in the supply chain with this technology. However, that is a very weird idea in practice. I think a lot of companies still considering traceability or provenance or something like that as the core elements to offer,” said the interviewee.
Look at the industry in general, not at the particular issue
“Nevertheless, we quickly realised that it was time to look at the industry itself and define what the real problems that can be solved were. We decided to start with the meat industry because it was local and we knew that there were a lot of problems in it. It was also related to the investor I met at some point. Rather rapidly, we found out that the meat industry had problems with recalls or traceability, but it wasn’t much about the provenance or something like that. It was basically about the connection of the systems,” claimed Bart Broothaerts.
“So, the issue in the supply chains was the lack of the firm’s awareness of what is going on outside the company. Everybody who is already a bit more digital, they have everything on their IT systems, databases, and own servers inside companies. However, they don’t know about the things that come from or going further. The biggest issue with it is that if you don’t share your data with others in the chain, a recall of the goods may become huge trouble with sufficient money lose. So, we realised that in the meat industry there was a huge food waste due to poor communication among the links in the chain, and we tried to figure out this problem and develop a solution.”
One issue can transform into the huge problem
As it looks unclear, we asked Unova’s CEO to give an example. “To show the issue, let’s review an instance. Someone founds bacteria in two cows and has to figure out where that meat has gone to, because test always returns a few days after, while meat has already travelled further throughout the supply chain. In such a moment, they panic and try to think about how to make a precise recall, but the lack of needed information leads to the recall of 170 tons of meat just because of two cows. As it is a considerable amount of meat, they try to figure out who will pay for that, and that is the issue. So, that was one of the problems that we realised.”
“[Clients] panic and try to think about how to make a precise recall, but the lack of needed information leads to the recall of 170 tons of meat just because of two cows.”Bart Broothaerts
A flexible solution will always find further appliance
However, that is not the only direction that Unova is ready to resolve for its clients. “Then, we transitioned not to just doing it in the meat industry but resolving issues with the same systems throughout the whole food sector. So, now we are building the system for the whole food industry which solves similar problems like traceability and recalls. We can also allow the consumer to scan the product and to see where it exactly comes from, so our software solves a lot of problems in the supply chains by bringing together every party.”
Why do transparency and traceability matter?
To explain what are the cornerstone principles of the regarded startup, Bart Broothaerts shared their view on the situation in general. “We believe that every company in supply chains should be able to operate fully independently, but on the IT level, they should almost work as if they are one company. We know that a lot of firms want to guarantee a certain level of quality of their products, and many retailers now try to control how the products are produced. Nevertheless, providing direct control isn’t the most efficient way of doing business as every party has its speciality of doing things, and the retailer is not necessarily a food producer. So we believe that everyone has to stick to their core business, but IT systems have to accomplish supporting function and make the cooperation better,” said the interviewee.
“If you have an IT system that covers your internal company, in finances it’s OK that it is closed, but when it comes to managing the whole supply chain, it’s not a very efficient solution. So, we believe that we connect all of these dots and make all the needed data to be shared among the other participant of the process, which increases their involvement. As a retailer, you can type an ID of the product and find where it exactly came from, what companies were involved, what happened to it, what steps were made during its producing, and so on.”
What were the problems with data sharing earlier?
As blockchain approach is almost the synonymous to the words’ reliability’ and ‘protection,’ we’ve asked how the access to data is realised on practice. “Even years ago I talked to the company that was a big retailer, and they said that they wanted to have a system where they could give more information to their customers. However, setting such a database usually bears numerous questions. ‘Who will handle with this database, who’ll get access, is the data trustworthy, can somebody just alter the information that is there if something goes wrong, could somebody just remove the data?’ or things like this.”
Bart Broothaerts continued: “Before the blockchain was announced, those question could stop any initiative. Now it has become more interesting because the regarded technology has this irreversibility aspect. When you send data to the blockchain, afterwards, you cannot go there and change it. So, basically, you are creating a system where everybody gets relevant data without questioning who uploaded or downloaded it. No one owns the data in this case. Everybody keeps ownership over their data, but they can share anything that is relevant.”
“Now it has become more interesting because the regarded technology [blockchain] has this irreversibility aspect. When you send data to the blockchain, afterwards, you cannot go there and change it.”Bart Broothaerts
Who are recent and potential clients of Unova?
After everything became clear with Unova’s product and approach, we asked about the actual clients they have and future directions in terms of more customers. “Our clients are companies that are involved in the supply chain in the food industry, which can be divided into two categories. It can be the companies in the chain, or it can be end customers. The end client can see the full traceability in some kind of consumer app via QR-code and opening page with the needed info. Companies in the chain are doing their own type of ERP system (Enterprise Resource Planning) that covers the entire chain.”
Continuing the explanation of the product, Unova’s CEO made an emphasis on the actual offer they suggest to clients. “We offer supply chain traceability for customers, who know where the product comes from and goes to. Currently, we call that ‘trace model’. We realised now with this corona situation that there are a lot of supply chain disruptions. I wrote even an article about this. We have a lot of information and data about where our system goes, what produces its every facility, what products they need to make and things like that.”
Unova helps to deal with coronavirus disruptions
What is interesting, COVID-19 helps to understand why Unova’s software product can be useful in practice. “You may see in the recent months that a lot of food producers needed to close down. If it happens, a lot of disruptions appear. For instance, you are a farmer and produce milk, but if the company you’ve been selling to had closed, a lot of fresh products would go back and would be destroyed. Actually, it’s rather hard to find another place to sell and send perishable goods. Our product has a unique tool called ‘the facility finder’, which is based on a lot of criteria, and it helps to find the alternatives where to sell your products or find new suppliers if you are some kind of retailer,” explained Bart Broothaerts.
“So, you have two sides of the story. You have a retailer who is looking for certain products or the government that is looking for mouse masks, for instance. Our system allows finding a facility quickly and define which company will be a good party to create a new supply chain in a matter of days instead of weeks if not having such a system.”
“Our system allows finding a facility quickly and define which company will be a good party to create a new supply chain in a matter of days instead of weeks if not having such a system.”Bart Broothaerts
Start thinking about an idea from the right angle
The prehistory of an idea or a startup creation is usually unique and can give the understanding of how the initial stage comes to life. Bart told everything in detail. “I was at a business school as I always knew I wanted to start a company, so being there was a purpose. I wanted to build something that could have an impact and create value. Then, I started to discover the situation with blockchain. Of course, I knew a lot about blockchain before that, but I started reviewing cases about its usage in supply chains and alike,” began the interviewee.
“At some moment, I met a co-founder and CEO of one of the blockchain companies. After the first meeting, he got me more interested in how blockchains could impact supply chains. However, I was still, first of all, a business person, and I wanted to talk with people in the industry what were the problems at first. At that point, most of the people were too much focused on the temporary data as wanted to see the provenance of the product and stuff like that. I quickly realised that there was one of the biggest problems, which was that all the info was kept in different databases, so there was no possibility to make recalls, or they weren’t executed efficiently.”
Try to figure out future problems – it makes the product more valuable
According to the CEO of Unova, the next step was related to discovering this issue in more details. “So, what we did at that point, we went to study at the university, which allowed me to talk to various people like retailers. Then we decided to talk to the industry other representatives, and we were talking to food companies, clothing manufactures and brands, even McDonalds’ representatives were at some point. By the end, we concluded with the answer to the question of what the industry was going to be like.”
Empathy is a good trait, in business too
What is interesting, Bart did not only claim a key answer but also decided to help others to resolve similar issues. “Now, in Leuven, I have done an entrepreneurship program, and everyone can contact coaches and has a special course from the needed industry. However, when I was studying there, I had to come to the last pitch and asked for help. As we were going to the meat industry, I wanted to know anybody from the meat industry and asked to let me know.”
Probably, the desire to help others was born after the interviewee received valuable assistance. “After the pitch, one of the mentors came to me and said that he knew the guy from Leuven who owned a considerable portion of the meat industry. I talked to this business owner for the first time, but I thought he did not understand much what we were talking about. However, he assumed that we could solve some problems he had. We had to work on startup and related things for about three months, and only then I was able to prove to him that I understood the meat industry very quickly. After he saw that I understood ins, outs and how everything works, he decided to invest in the idea.”
First funding, client, and partner at the same time
The issue of first clients is always a tricky process, but when it relates to one of the leading companies, the pressure can be too big to deal with it. So, we asked about the expectations that the interviewee felt before the ‘life-deciding’ meeting. “Actually, I didn’t expect too much,” said Unova’s CEO. “I didn’t know the investor before meeting while I knew who he was and respected him. It happened at the event dedicated to blockchain technology, which was organised inside the European commission building here in Brussels,” began Bart Broothaerts.
The further story amazed us as it showed an incredible level of passion. “It was a closed event with a lot of people representing our parliament, European commission and all of those people. They were going to talk and had a panel discussion about supply traceability blockchains in general. I knew I needed to be there to meet the investor that could help me. I had no invitation and barely knew where I was, but I wanted to go there.”
Passion can make everything possible
After a small pause to recall that case in more details, the interviewee continued. “I got up early in the morning, about 4 o’clock, got a tram or bus and arrived at the needed place. I thought that it would be like in the airport with a lot of security around, and it was precisely suchlike. I came to one of the security members and told that I came for a panel discussion, but ‘suddenly’ [smiling], my name wasn’t in the list. I showed that I was weird as I was going to meet the influential investor. In my head, that meeting should happen, so I had an appropriate official look. So, one the guardians said to write down my name and to come in.”
The continuation of the ‘adventure’ wasn’t so exciting but showed that a little luck never hurts. “When I entered, almost everybody where above 40 years and I definitely did not belong to that room. The person I was looking for also wasn’t too excited to talk to other people, and I guess he pointed me because we both were young. At the end of the day, I was on my way to talk to him and began the dialogue near the exit. I explained to him my passion and what I was doing. At some point, he suggested using his developers for my purposes if I needed. Then, I got in touch with him again, and we were discussing some aspects, while some of his developers were helping me to implement the idea. Basically, that was a moment when we were able to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).”
The conversation can bear new ideas
Even though programming assistance was an incredible achievement, Bart Broothaerts received even more – the first investments that saved the overall idea. “When I first met this guy, I wasn’t expecting to get some money. We needed a meeting with a coach from the industry for a three-months course while working on the startup. However, during those meetings, he told that he was an angel investor as well. It led to another meeting with his CTO and CCO, so we started discussing more and more. What is interesting, I did not have a backup plan as I was going to graduate from the program, while all my money basically has gone. At the end of the year, I wasn’t going to apply to any job as needed to launch the project, and it luckily happened. Afterwards, when I graduated, the funding appeared, and we were on the way to the realisation of the idea.”
Working under the idea improves it automatically
Nevertheless, the first steps of Unova’s team “changed since that time. In the beginning, we still thought that a mobile app was the only solution where farmers could digitally register things. It should be something that could help farmers to make things via portative gadgets, and that was not a big problem for us to solve. However, we quickly realised that a lot of firms couldn’t work only with an app, because they also required to add to the system manual scanning and stuff like that. It forced to think that industry was a bit different, so we decided to pivot towards more internal systems and connect to them. As of now, we are also building internal systems ourselves, which means label printers and scanners that help to follow the product throughout the manufacturing and delivering process.”
Bart Broothaerts also shared how the platform should look like. “Even though the product is developing and we are onboarding our initial partners, we try to create a straightforward, intuitive, and user-friendly platform. Instead of creating complicated things as many other blockchain companies are doing, we try to make things rather simple, even in terms of onboarding a new company. So, our tools help to build an ‘own chain’ and determine the necessary steps that should be made. In essence, we are developing a full platform and going to make it public in two-three months [the interview took place in June 2020], which will accelerate an onboarding process.”
“Instead of creating complicated things as many other blockchain companies are doing, we try to make things rather simple, even in terms of onboarding a new company.”Bart Broothaerts
Company’s scaling should be well-planned
However, the way to the precise market offer was long and required several strategic decisions. “The recent benefits are the outcome of diverse steps that were made. Before building all these things, I went to the market, spoke to every single person, talked to a lot of companies, and understood their set of problems very well. Moreover, when we are launching in bigger scales now, I already have most of the contacts.”
Such a detailed approach not only facilitated sales but also gave an understanding of how the marketing strategy should look like. “Nowadays selling looks like the building of an equal system in the food industry, which means that we are not just horizontally onboarding one chain. You can sale like equipping a farm, a single storehouse, one packaging company or a retailer, which is like a horizontal way of working. But we are actually doing both horizontal and vertical developing, which means onboarding multiple storehouses, multiple farmers, and alike, so we are developing faster and in a more reliable way. We have a lot of key players involved in the process, including the government. It becomes actual when companies understand what the main issue and available instruments are.”
Blockchain as the necessary step ahead of new marketing
To explain the final customer interest in such technology’s implementation, the interviewee gave an example. “Every company in this chain has different reasons or value for joining. So, let’s say we have avocado company, and their problem is not so much in the recalls or stuff like that, but they understand that their product is not very sustainable as producing avocados requires a lot of water. However, they are proud of the investments and working with a partner from South Africa, which has a new technology for gathering these avocados in a more sustainable way. They want the end consumer to know how the process is holding as the client can’t see the difference between the sustainable avocado and unsustainable one.”
Bart Broothaerts continued. “So, this avocado producing now can be visible to the end customer. Our system helps them to communicate from another marketing perspective. To show that avocados have come from the right environment and has been produced in a more sustainable way now can be realised with a QR-code technology. However, the overall idea is broader, and it is aimed at giving the ability for the end client to scan a code and know the exact origin and producing conditions of the product. In this case, it can become a part of a specific marketing campaign. We want to make it happen throughout the whole chain as everybody can have their own occasions to join the ecosystem, but there is always a reason to do so.”
Unstoppable technical evolution
Interestingly, Unova’s CEO sees the general technological development as a core reason for their success. “This trend just happened. We had everything paper-based, then it transformed into more digitalised systems like excel or similar programs, then it came to cloud computers and ERP systems that were becoming better. However, the information was stored mostly inside the companies throughout those stages. The further evolution happened because of the watching and traceability need as firms require additional information outside their own chains and facilities,” said the interviewee.
“The further evolution happened because of the watching and traceability need as firms require additional information outside their own chains and facilities.”Bart Broothaerts
“Now, all the companies are also able to share info with their clients and partners, linking and sharing the needed data. So, right now, this transitioning had happened as blockchain technology became good enough to handle with all this amount of data rapidly and safely. The companies like ours can actually build a model which is not only the proof of concept but actually a scalable software solution which takes advantage of all that stuff and can combine every step in the chain. Actually, we just help to make the next step in this technological evolution.”
Influential investor helps much more than only with funding
As Bart Broothaerts told a lot about the investor at the beginning, we decided to clarify the roles while launching the Unova firm. “Actually, I’m the only founder. When we launched, I did find my angel investor, so technically, we launched together. However, he was only the investor, and I did all the primary work. I own 75% of equity, and he owns 25%, so I’m the only co-founder and CEO. Nevertheless, as it often happens with startups, a CEO combines several narrower roles. To be honest, I’m still doing most of the sales and recruiting a lot of people personally.”
Even though the role of the investor may seem too passive in this case, the interviewee is happy to cooperate with him. “As the sales usually happen during meetings, I feel all the benefits that my investor owns 50% of the meat industry and cows in Belgium. Although the market of potential clients is already big, my partner knows many other food producers and helps to make a warm contact with them. If you are already in the industry, then sales are more about personal connection and less of traditional online, so the investor helps a lot in fact.”
“If you are already in the industry, then sales are more about personal connection and less of traditional online.”Bart Broothaerts
Another benefit that appeared with the investor’s cooperation was a new kind of services that Unova started to offer. “Some of the revenue now just comes from consulting as well, which hasn’t been our initial plan. This Belgian meat producer realised that we were quite good at doing all this chain-related stuff, while they didn’t have enough internal traceability. So, they just asked if they could hire Unova as consultants to help them figure out all the related processes before onboarding to the system. That is more an hourly-based service, but we want to go towards the SaaS model and allow companies to join our system themselves.”
The right team matters
Amid our typical questions is the one about the staff and how the startuppers usually seek and hire the needed engineers. The interviewee gladly shared the situation in Unova. “Right now there are five members here in Belgium because we’ve been working with remote people for a long time. Also, we have 12 freelancers all over the world, but we want to expand our core team locally and hire developers for further stable growth.”
Bart Broothaerts seemed to be very excited when was describing his team. “The amazing thing is that each of them is professional at one specific thing. For instance, the designer makes the best designs ever, while it’s always easy to communicate with him. I have a lot of ideas in my head, which is hard to describe verbally, but he understands me well without long explanations. Our CTO is very smart in all the technical aspects, and she is able to answer the toughest questions from my side. Similar things can be told about everyone in our team, and that’s why I’m very contented to work with them all.”
What is more, Unova’s CEO highlighted the team as one of the two most significant his achievements. “My first success was that we got a pretty good evaluation, and we got sufficient funds to have a real impact. Secondly, it was forming the team, because people that are working right now with me are very talented. I consider attracting talented people to work with you and follow your dream also as a success.”
How to measure success if you a startup?
Despite the fact that most entrepreneurs usually measure progress considering revenue, the interviewee made an emphasis on the usage of the platform. “I think there are two metrics. Firstly, we can be regarded as a successful firm if we have much influence on a few considerable companies. On the contrary, it could be a bit of impact and improvement but on a large number of companies. To me, our company is successful because of the business model as we see how companies here in Belgium and even global ones want to be on our platform. It makes us sure that the future of data in the supply chains has enough perspective to improve our platform.”
On where to find motivation
At the end of the interview, we asked Unova’s CEO about the inspiration sources, and he gladly shared them. “Definitely, I’m following Elon Musk in social media. I like how he combines being a serious CEO in the huge company, but he’s joking around a lot. Also, he did a lot of genius marketing work. What relates to my favourite book, it is ‘How To Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie.”
R. Buckminster Fuller once said: ‘Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.’ One has to have enough passion and patience to use technologies in the needed way. It seems that Bart Broothaerts tries to move precisely in this direction and transform his inner energy into valuable achievements.