Nicolas Riggio started in finance before eventually pivoting to food tech when he noticed the food industry was full of empty promises to consumers—empty promises that more advanced technology could help. With that, Riggio launched Blissimo with an algorithmic based research and development process to both improve nutrition and the supply chain. We sat down with Riggio to discuss how advanced food technology can improve the food supply around the world, and how his extensive background in technology and finance paved the way for a successful future in food tech.
Grit Daily: You had your own adventures before becoming a food tech entrepreneur. Share those?
Nicolas Riggio: I started early in Europe, then I spent almost 18 years in the multinational Philips Electronics. I was young and I needed a structure to learn and grow, so my first job was in finance, which is critical to understanding how a company operates. From there, I went into sales, product and marketing, and general management. I moved up the corporate ladder from summer intern to VP and GM for the consumer segment company in the US. It was a long, hard process that helped me to understand how corporations work and the real value of a team in a complex matrix organization moving towards one goal.
I was lucky as I’ve had the opportunity to work in many countries and positions within several segments in the company. I remember a moment that changed my life, when the company decided to create a ‘startup’ to enter the mobile phone market. I was a part of that group and fell in love with creating something from scratch, my career would never be the same after that.
I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. For those arguing whether or not to work for a big corporation or became an entrepreneur, here’s a valid example that your career is not determined by where you work, it’s more connected to what you really want, who you really are and the self-confidence you have in you. You are either ready or you feel that you need to give it more time to nurture yourself enough to be confident.
Grit Daily: For the uninitiated, what is food tech?
NR: Well, certainly the name doesn’t sound appetizing. A decade ago, companies both big and small understood that the whole food value chain needed more than just empty promises to consumers. Our job now is to improve that whole food value chain by applying innovation (digital and analog) to the whole system. Sometimes it’s just redefining the way we buy ingredients, scale and use them, sometimes it is applying algorithms to improve your product formulation and impact to the consumer and the value chain. In a nutshell, food tech is how we apply innovation across the whole process.
In our case, we apply algorithms to understand the behavior of ingredients in our formulation and supply chain system so we can improve product nutrition while at the same time organizing our supply base for success. We see different cases every day, super products that use a niche ingredient that is impossible to scale, or even a decent product that is not natural enough to sustain the product promise. We think proper use of technology and R&D can help us solve this problem, that’s why we spend more time and resources on R&D, processes, and how we can digitize our formulation process for the better good — rather than use an old-fashioned manual process where we leave a lot to faith. We believe science reduces the chances for failure and it doesn’t diminish our objective, which is to provide a better natural option for consumers.
Grit Daily: Inquiring minds want to know: How did you build a food company from scratch?
NR: The straight answer is quite boring: planning, people, and process. If you plan in advance what you want, while supported by talented and passionate people that understand what they’re doing, you can create a process that allows the company to build its foundation, create culture, and build fundamental pillars. Then, you have 50% done, and the rest is execution. You’ll have to repeat it over and over again, because in repetition you find perfection.
It’s important to have an open dialogue, actively listen, and be able to change the course of things if needed.Nicolas Riggio
This is a lot of fun, but you have to keep yourself open-minded because a successful startup is not the one that has the stronger vision from the founder, it is the one that has the best solution for your consumer.
You also have to actively participate in each of the building blocks because people care what you think, that is part of creating the company’s culture. It’s similar to building a house — you’ve got the vision and how it should look, but the secret is how to lead a bunch of crazy misfits like you to share your dream and build it with you. The real challenge in building a house or a startup is how you lead people — they have to look up to you for guidance, but it is them that will do the job and share the sense of belonging to something that has never been done before.
Grit Daily: How did you increase Blissimo’s revenues to $10 million over a period of five years?
NR: With focus. We knew our products were good, but we also knew that we would have a lot of competition and forces that would play against the company. That’s just life.
We focused on simple things — to have the best, natural product possible, and to make sure that consumers were repurchasing our product. If they don’t love us, they’ll never come back. We weren’t shy when it came to product development. If consumers didn’t love it, we took it off of the shelf and replaced it with another option they might like, because you only have one chance with retailers and consumers. The rest was a relentless focus on execution, step by step, region by region, store by store.
Grit Daily: What’s behind the UNNICO name?
NR: UNNICO’s brand tries to pass along a sense of uniqueness, it’s pretty straightforward.
The functional component of a product is really important. We wanted to bring back the creamy, rich yogurt that was a staple on the table, and to be honest, I yearned for that scoop of real food. The challenge was to make it sustainable and modern, so we started with a wish, which was to have a great tasting, functional product that was also free of dairy, sugar, and plastic!
So our three fundamental pillars rely on being free of dairy, sugar, and plastic.
We strongly believe that there’s a need to discuss the environmental aspect of dairy versus plant-based, the excess amount of sugar we eat, and the role that companies have with packaging and plastic. Instead of arguing about them, we decided to do something.
There is a lot of companies ‘selling’ this, but in our case, it was more a call for “what can we do better in this industry” — to drastically change the ways of working and come up with something people would love and, at the same time, create a positive impact.
Take packaging for example — today only 8% of the plastic we use gets recycled. If we continue like this, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.
UNNICO stands for a simple purpose connected to doing something about the topics that need to be discussed, while at the same time using technology to bring the best options to consumers.
Grit Daily: What are some important quality aspects to consider when developing these types of products?
NR: In our case, it is an obsession for details. We never rest until we know that we gave it our best. We ask people for their honest feedback — you can talk to small farmers but also to big corporations to supply your ingredients, so you never lose sight of what’s important.
Then, you try to apply science and innovation to everything you do, from a product formulation to the master box that will carry your products. I would say that it’s crucial to never give up and to have a healthy dissatisfaction and obsession for details.
Grit Daily: What concerns might you have regarding ingredient sourcing?
NR: Twenty years ago, we had a ‘natural’ industry growing, and everyone was willing to help grow small companies. Now those companies have become big, and with that, supply companies started focusing on big volume and scale. My biggest fear is that they could lose their origins and stop innovating. Although, I do believe that you can grow as much as you want without losing your purpose.
Grit Daily: What has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial career to date?
NR: Blissimo winning the Best Protein Yogurt of the Year award in Brazil was certainly one of the many. Bringing real innovation for consumers is what I’m passionate about. Being able to formulate impossible products without the need for sugar, preservatives, or artificial ingredients and being consistent with our mission over the last decade.
Being an entrepreneur is always interconnected with suffering because we always want to improve. In hindsight, there are a lot of things that make me proud, like the pace of our growth, the talented people that grew together with the company, the countless consumers, and how we were able to improve their habits.
Grit Daily: What’s one conventional wisdom about food tech entrepreneurs that’s just plain wrong?
NR: I’d say many companies are focusing on empty promises and underestimate traditional values. Instead of saying what’s wrong, I’d focus on things that can be simply underestimated – like food safety. Consumer knowledge is also important. For example, not being honest on the nutrition labels, or even that the process used can be harsh.
We shouldn’t underestimate brick-and mortar-retailers. I get that online is the future, but consumers still love to browse the shelves and get something fresh and new from a store.
No matter what you do, do not underestimate taste. Your product has to taste great because you want consumers to come back to you every day.
The company’s culture and its mission are also crucial. The company culture is the reflection of your daily activities, the way you lead, how you leave colleagues to interact, the tools you give, and the freedom you facilitate. Confusing objectives, hidden agendas, not having a clear purpose for the betterment of everyone can be your biggest mistakes. Finally, don’t run your company through the P&L — run the cash flow, because cash is king and at the end of the day, that’s what helps your company to move forward.