Thinking deeply about the things many ignore
Interview: Life Scientific founder Nicola Mitchell is focused on how science is changing food
EY Entrepreneur of the Year Nicola Mitchell: ‘I don’t want to end up in snake oils. I’m a scientist so I want to understand mother nature.’ Photograph: Laura Hutton
If one were to draw up a list of rousing dinner party topics, it’s reasonable to suspect that veganism might get a look in while climate change could get the nod for the second act. However, a topic with an intrinsic link to both of the above – agricultural chemicals – will rarely get top billing. That’s not to say dinner party conversation is the litmus test for subjects worth discussing, simply that certain matters might be viewed as being too niche.
But people are clearly starting to think more about the manner in which our food is treated before it lands on our plates and, more importantly, how it is produced. That’s where Nicola Mitchell steps in. As the founder and chief executive of agrochemicals company, Life Scientific, Mitchell has made a career of thinking deeply about the things many ignore.
“This is a spiritual practice,” she explains as we chart her career and the foundations of her business over the course of a conversation on Zoom. “It’s a labour of love and that’s not meaning that we don’t have our ego and want to be really successful in traditional terms … but none of that is important relative to the cost of what we do.”
What she and her company do is create generic versions of chemicals used for agricultural purposes – such as herbicides, fungicides and insecticides – by reverse engineering those products. In simple terms, Mitchell’s company aims to better recreate the recipe of a product to sell under a different name, a process consumers of some long-standing pharmaceutical products will be familiar with. The difference is that Mitchell wants to do it “better than multinational quality” and “for less cost”. In a market which Mitchell describes as an “oligopoly”, dominated by large players such as Syngenta, BASF and Bayer, those goals are doubtless difficult to reach.
“These big multinationals are built for new molecules … [not] for older existing molecules. And they’re trying to keep us out of that space and we’re saying ‘no’ to that and ‘we’re not accepting your boundaries’ … we really want to position ourselves as the number one disrupter of that oligopoly.”
Much like in pharmaceuticals, products have a life span of about 20 years after which patent protection falls away. And it’s in that segment of the market that Life Scientific is active. Unlike pharmaceuticals, governments aren’t as effective in promoting and buying generic products which are often cheaper but with the same formulation. Mitchell has taken it upon herself to “remind multinationals of this, so please move on”.
That approach hasn’t always been straightforward. In fact, it’s been one that occasionally required Mitchell to fight her battles in court. Just last year, Life Scientific was awarded damages after winning a series of legal cases in Germany against regulators it had accused of unfairly delaying licences for its products.
“All I want [regulators] to see is that we work really hard, we deliver products that deserve a place, and what could be better than multinational quality for less cost?”
Of course, reverse engineering pre-existing recipes isn’t the be all and end all for Mitchell. Loftier still is her goal to “reverse engineer mother nature”. Simply, the ambition here is to understand better the reasons why things happen biologically.
“I don’t want to end up in snake oils,” she explains. “I’m a scientist so I want to understand mother nature. So that means if this plant extract works, what is it that works.”
All of Mitchell’s ambitions point to a world that is changing at least where the manner in which food is consumed is concerned. But she’s clearly excited. “We’re in a golden age … because we’ve never known as much, we’ve never had so much choice, so many options. I’m eating chia seeds in my porridge for god’s sake.”
Great if you like chia seeds, perhaps not so good if you like beef, given Mitchell’s forecast that the way we currently produce meat “is going to go”. And it remains to be seen whether the fact that “you can do meat in the petri dish” will appease the most fervent carnivores.
Enthusiastic as Mitchell is about her chosen line of work, it was never a foregone conclusion that she would end up here. A self-described “blank canvass”, she had originally considered a career in law. After a phone call with a lawyer friend of her mother’s, and a push from her father, Mitchell opted to study chemistry in University College Cork (UCC).
Owing to the lack of work opportunities in the Republic at the time, she decided to stay on in UCC to do a post-graduate degree after which she left to take up a job in Barclay Chemicals Limited. There, her boss was “a generous man” who supported her ambition to do a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) which she completed through New York’s Fordham University.
“Then, after that, you have to stop all the education and make something of it,” explains Mitchell. And so, in 1995, she established Life Scientific.
But education was then, and remains to this day, important to her and her family. Mitchell hopes to learn more about coding and genetics, for example. Much of this goes back to her grandmother “who valued education more than religion”. This gave rise to “high standards” on her mother’s side of the family. “You might get 99 per cent in an exam and they’d ask about what happened the 1 per cent.”
This approach was clearly successful throughout the family. Mitchell’s first cousin, for example, is Samantha Power, formerly the US ambassador to the United Nations and recently appointed by US President Joe Biden as the administrator of the US Agency for International Development.
And her own successes are noteworthy. Today, Life Scientific employs more than 70 staff and has a portfolio of 62 registered products. The company has commercial operations in Britain, Germany, France and Spain and has partners in eastern Europe, China and Paraguay.
To some extent this is a necessary hedge. In Latin America, there are two-and-a-half growing seasons compared to western Europe’s one. And unseasonable weather can clearly have an impact on a company that relies on agriculture. But the expansion is also part of a five-year plan to increase Life Scientific’s turnover to €250 million which will place a valuation on the company of €1 billion.
These figures aren’t outlandish when one tracks the company’s growth to date. Up until about 2013, it was a research and development contract research organisation. Mitchell pivoted the business and, in seven years, Life Scientific has built its turnover from €2 million to about €60 million last year. This year, Mitchell notes, turnover will be flat owing to bad weather in France.
The French market accounts for 50 per cent of the company’s sales as a result of a deal Mitchell agreed in 2014 with InVivo, the largest agricultural co-operative group in France. The deal saw InVivo acquire 50 per cent of Life Scientific and granted the company market access.
It also spurred the company to expand into Germany and it subsequently acquired a Spanish entity to increase its sales there.
Mitchell expects more investment to come. Long-term pension funds are in her sights, but she’s “open to all options”. An initial public offering appears less likely, however, owing to the quarterly reporting requirements on many exchanges. “It’s so short-term focused,” says Mitchell of public markets.
And there’s no doubt that Mitchell is in this for the long haul. She explains that she doesn’t “have the bandwith” to sit on company boards, for example, and would be “very bad” in retirement, not that she’s yet at that stage in life. But working hard is something she enjoys. Testament to that are two trophies sitting in the back of the frame on her Zoom, awards she won as the EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
As the country winner, Mitchell represented Ireland in the global EY competition on Thursday. The EY competition is particularly poignant for Mitchell in that she met her partner, businessman Enda O’Coineen, at the awards some years ago.
“Somebody told me ‘now Nicola, it’s time to date’. And I thought, ‘jeekers no, do I have to?’ But I knew the exact place to go, go to Citywest, all these lonely entrepreneurs and there was no fishing needed,” she jokes.
Mitchell also has three children from her marriage to Patrick Ronaldson, the founder of advertising agency Rothco (“if you saw them, you’d think I did everything right”). “We’re divorced and my proudest achievement is that we’re a family, it’s a great friendship.”
For the most part her weekends are quiet affairs spent with family. What about hobbies?
“This [job] is just so all-consuming I can’t even read a paper because I don’t have the bandwith for it.” Surely she reads the Business Post, the title owned by O’Coineen? “Of course I do,” she says with a wry grin.
As we move to wrap up, I ask about her reflections on the past year and, of course, whether she thinks remote working will play a role in her company into the future.
“We’re an R&D [research and development] company and I want to be the best R&D group in the world and I don’t accept that that’s going to be on Zoom.
“I’m often wrong but … certainly for me, it broadens my mind being around other people and you don’t get that spontaneity on Zoom.”
It’s clear that Mitchell wants a great deal to change in the sphere in which she operates. It’s not unreasonable to forgive her if she wants some practices to stay the same.
Name: Nicola Mitchell.
Position: Chief executive and founder of Life Scientific.
Family: Partner Enda. Children Anna, Joe and Louis.
Leadership style: “All I know is I bring people in who are better than me and I let them off. If me being in the room meant people didn’t say something they thought, that would be me defeated. People have to come in with their views and fully thrash stuff out and the best ideas win, wherever they come from.”
Something you might expect: Mitchell wants more transparency for consumers buying food. She suggests that blockchain – the digital ledger technology that records vast swathes of information – might play a role.
Something that might surprise: Mitchell did ballet for 14 years.