Sustainability in business is no longer just a ‘nice-to-have’, it’s imperative if we’re going to tackle climate change, and if we’re going to recover from the economic crisis of COVID-19, according to Goterra founder Olympia Yarger.
Founded in 2016 by former sheep farmer Yarger, Goterra runs robotic insect farms, taking food waste and feeding it to a particular species of maggot, and then turning those maggots into a high-protein feed for livestock.
Last month, the startup bagged $8 million in funding, in a round led by agtech VC Tenacious Ventures and Grok Ventures, the VC fund of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes.
The funding followed a challenging time for Goterra — and for everyone.
The startup had been growing at a rate of 500%, month-on-month, Yarger tells SmartCompany.
“But the bushfires and then COVID-19 definitely challenged some of that growth,” she says.
However, the business is still growing “at a pretty reasonable rate”.
The founder has even purposefully slowed down growth briefly, as Goterra moves from its prototype plant into a commercial facility.
“We’re not a SaaS platform. We can’t just accelerate users. We have to move into a whole physical building and establish stuff before we can increase users,” she says.
“There’s a transition period for that.”
When the latest funding round was first announced, Yarger used some of the press attention around Goterra to draw attention to something she’s personally passionate about.
In a LinkedIn article, she called on entrepreneurs to not only claim to ‘change the world’, but to put their money where their mouth is and take responsibility to tackle climate change.
“When you commit to creating change, there are opportunities. Huge opportunities,” she wrote.
Goterra is all about managing food waste in an efficient and sustainable way, without damaging the environment. It’s been built around Yarger’s fierce passion for combating climate change and protecting the environment.
The bushfires of this past summer brought those concerns into stark clarity. Yarger is based in Canberra, which was significantly affected by the bushfires, and cloaked in smoke for some four months.
At the time there was a “pervading conversation about who gets to own sorrow or despair” about the bushfires, and about climate change more broadly.
“I was getting really frustrated,” she says.
“Nearly every tech business in the world uses some form of sustainability or circular economy argument in their discussion,” she adds.
“Yet we’re still having this argument about who gets to say this is not ok anymore, and the reasons why.”
During the bushfire crisis, when people in Sydney commented on the amount of smoke in the air, farmers would make snarky comments about ‘city folk learning about bushfires’, she says.
And when farmers posted on social media about a lack of resources and calling for support, there was a vein of commentary blaming them for voting for the current government and its climate policies.
For Yarger, it was too much.
“How can we be here, when the world is literally on fire and we’re going to piddle in the margins about what needs to be done?” she asks.
As an entrepreneur, she’s inclined to look past the soundbites, and to try to actually deliver climate solutions. And the case for climate change technologies is an economic one, she adds.
“As entrepreneurs, we have an opportunity to put our money where our mouth is and stop using it as a soundbite and start making it happen for real.”
Time for action
In Australia, the past 12 months has brought drought, bushfires and now the health and economic crisis that is COVID-19. In the recovery from each crisis — and the prevention of another one — technology has a significant role to play, Yarger says.
During the economic downturn of COVID-19, tech companies like Atlassian, Canva and Afterpay have continued to thrive. We’re also seeing earlier-stage startups in the fintech, edtech and even foodtech spaces growing and attracting funding during this time.
It’s often suggested that tech businesses will underpin the economic recovery, post-pandemic.
At the same time, a move to sustainability in Australia will also likely be tech-driven, and those sustainability initiatives will also boost the economy.
The two are one and the same, Yarger says.
“We’re already seeing it,” she says.
“That’s what tech entrepreneurs do. They have the skill sets within their teams to figure out how to reconcile the immediate problems in front of them, and adapt at speed to those things.”
What’s changed is that these challenges are now so front-of-mind, we’re forced to pay attention, and to take action.
“When you’re comfortable, you tend to allow yourself to be more cautious, because you have the time and the money to do so,” Yarger explains.
“When you’re uncomfortable, There’s an urgency to solving a problem,” she adds.
“Who solves problems faster and with less money than a bloody entrepreneur? I don’t know.”
But, while Yarger’s business is built around her passion for sustainability, she acknowledges that not every entrepreneur has to be on the frontlines.
She predicts a “huge surge” in companies with sustainability at their core. But that means there are also opportunities in the tools to support those new businesses.
“Being sustainable doesn’t mean your business creates sustainability. You may just create a business that implements and creates opportunities for other businesses to do so,” she says.
“I think we’re going to see a lot more focus on delivering on those things.”
“It’s happening. It’s real.”
When asked whether tackling climate change has to be at odds with good business and economic growth, Yarger is temporarily “rendered monosyllabic”.
“Just no … how can it be?,” she demands.
“The damage done to our economy from the bushfires alone should have been evidence that anything that helps prevent the warming of our climate is going to create economic security,” she says.
“That’s not a leap any more, because the evidence of that was in our face for four months.”
Yarger suspects that anyone trying to make that argument has different motivations. Trying to convince people that halting climate change is good business is just not where we should be, she adds.
“I can’t even reconcile to try to argue that point, because it’s moot,” she says.
“Right now, we know that the economic case for climate change-based businesses and for renewables is there. It’s unequivocal and there is no argument anymore.”
“It’s happening. It’s real. Anyone who believes there’s no financial case for addressing it, I don’t understand their perspective.”