Think deeply about the things many ignore

If one were to come up with a list of exciting dinner topics, it’s reasonable to think veganism might take a look while climate change might get the nod for the second act. However, a topic that has an intrinsic connection to both of the above – agricultural chemicals – will rarely be at the top of the list. That’s not to say that dinner conversation is the litmus test for topics worth discussing, just that some issues may be seen as overly specialized.

But people are clearly starting to think more about how our food is processed before it hits our plates and, more importantly, how it is produced. This is where Nicola Mitchell comes in. As the founder and CEO of agrochemicals company Life Scientific, Mitchell has made a career of thinking deeply about things many ignore.

“It’s a spiritual practice,” she explains as we trace her career and the foundations of her business in a conversation on Zoom. “It’s a labor of love and that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our ego and that we really want to be successful in traditional terms… but none of it matters in relation to the cost of what we are doing. let’s do. ”

Reverse engineering

What she and her company are doing is creating generic versions of chemicals used for agricultural purposes – such as herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides – by reverse engineering those products. Put simply, Mitchell’s company aims to better recreate the recipe for a product to sell under a different name, a process that consumers of some longtime pharmaceuticals will be familiar with. The difference is that Mitchell wants to do it “better than multinational quality” and “for less”. In a market Mitchell calls an “oligopoly,” dominated by big players like Syngenta, BASF and Bayer, these goals are arguably difficult to achieve.

“These large multinationals are built for new molecules… [not] for older existing molecules. And they try to keep us out of that space and we say ‘no’ to that and ‘we don’t accept your limits’… we really want to position ourselves as the number one disruptor of this oligopoly.

Just like in pharmaceuticals, products have a shelf life of about 20 years, after which patent protection disappears. And it is in this market segment that Life Scientific is active. Unlike pharmaceuticals, governments are not as efficient at promoting and purchasing generic products which are often cheaper but with the same formulation. Mitchell took it upon herself to “remind multinationals of this, so please move on.”

This approach has not always been straightforward. In fact, it sometimes forced Mitchell to fight in court. Last year, Life Scientific won damages after winning a series of lawsuits in Germany against regulators it accused of unfairly delaying the licenses for its products.

“All that I want [regulators] to see is that we work very hard, we deliver products that deserve a place, and what better than multinational quality at a lower cost? “

Of course, reverse engineering pre-existing recipes is not the end for Mitchell. Loftier is still its goal of “reverse engineering mother nature”. Simply, the ambition here is to better understand 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 works.

Food

All of Mitchell’s ambitions point to a world that is changing at least when it comes to the way food is consumed. But she is clearly excited. “We’re in a golden age… because we’ve never experienced so much, we’ve never had so many choices, so many options. I eat chia seeds in my porridge for goodness sake.

Great if you like chia seeds, maybe not so good if you like beef, given Mitchell’s prediction that the way we currently produce meat is “going to be okay.” And it remains to be seen whether the fact that “we can make meat in the Petri dish” will appease the most avid carnivores.

As excited as Mitchell was about her chosen line of work, it was never clear that she would end up here. Describing herself as a “blank canvas”, she initially envisioned a career in law. After a phone call with his mother’s lawyer friend and a push from his father, Mitchell chose to study chemistry at University College Cork (UCC).

Due to the lack of work opportunities in the Republic at the time, she decided to stay at UCC to do a postgraduate degree, after which she left to work at Barclay Chemicals Limited. There, her boss was “a generous man” who supported her ambition for a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) which she completed at Fordham University in New York.

Among the classmates of this program was the former CEO of Enterprise Ireland, Julie Sinnamon.

“Then after that you have to stop all education and do something with it,” Mitchell says. And so, in 1995, she created Life Scientific.

Education

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 resulted in “high standards” on her mother’s side of the family. “You could get 99% on a test and they would ask you what happened with the 1%. ”

This approach has clearly been successful throughout the family. Mitchell’s first cousin, for example, is Samantha Power, a former US ambassador to the United Nations and recently appointed by US President Joe Biden as administrator of the US Agency for International Development.

And his own successes are remarkable. Today, Life Scientific employs over 70 people and has a portfolio of 62 registered products. The company has business operations in Great Britain, Germany, France and Spain and has partners in Eastern Europe, China and Paraguay.

It is currently submitting files to regulators in Brazil and North America with the aim of further expanding its reach.

To some extent, it is a necessary hedge. In Latin America there are two and a half growing seasons compared to that of Western Europe. And unusual weather conditions can clearly have an impact on a business that depends on agriculture. But the expansion is also part of a five-year plan to boost Life Scientific’s revenue to 250 million euros, which will put the company’s valuation at 1 billion euros.

These numbers are not far-fetched when following the growth of the company to date. Until around 2013, it was a research and development organization under a research contract. Mitchell pivoted the company, and in seven years Life Scientific increased its revenue from $ 2 million to around $ 60 million last year. This year, Mitchell notes, sales will be stable due to bad weather in France.

The French market accounts for 50 percent of the company’s sales following an agreement Mitchell reached in 2014 with InVivo, the largest agricultural cooperative group in France. The deal saw InVivo acquire 50 percent of Life Scientific and granted the company market access.

This also prompted the company to expand into Germany and subsequently acquired a Spanish entity to increase sales there.

Mitchell expects more investment to come. Long-term pension funds are her sights, but she is “open to all options.” An initial public offering seems less likely, however, due to the quarterly reporting requirements on many exchanges. “It’s so focused on the short term,” Mitchell says of government procurement.

And there’s no doubt Mitchell is here for the long haul. She explains that she does not have “the bandwidth” to sit on boards of directors, for example, and that she would be “very badly” in retirement, not that she is still at this stage of the process. life. But working hard is something she loves. Evidenced by two trophies sitting on the back of the frame of her Zoom, awards she won as EY Entrepreneur of the Year.

Family

As the national winner, Mitchell represented Ireland in the EY World Competition on Thursday. The EY contest is particularly poignant for Mitchell as she met her partner, businessman Enda O’Coineen, at the awards show a few years ago.

“Someone said to me ‘now Nicola it’s time to go out’. And I thought, ‘jeekers no, should I do it?’ But I knew the exact place to go, to go to Citywest, all those lonely contractors and there was no need to fish, ”she jokes.

Mitchell also has three children from his marriage to Patrick Ronaldson, the founder of the Rothco advertising agency (“if you saw them, you’d think I did everything right”). “We are divorced and my greatest pride is that we are a family, it is a great friendship.”

For the most part, his weekends are quiet business spent with the family. What about recreation?

“This [job] is so devouring that I can’t even read a newspaper because I don’t have the bandwidth for it. Surely she reads the Business Post, the title owned by O’Coineen? “Of course I do,” she said with a wry smile.

As we wrap up, I ask her about her thoughts on the past year and, of course, if she thinks remote working will play a role in her business in the future.

“We are an R&D center [research and development] company and I want to be the best R&D group in the world and I do not accept that it is on Zoom.

“I’m often wrong but… certainly for me, it broadens my mind hanging out with other people and you don’t get that spontaneity on Zoom.”

It’s clear Mitchell wants a lot to change in the sphere in which she operates. It is not unreasonable to forgive her if she wants certain practices to remain the same.

CV

Name: Nicola Mitchell.

Position: Managing Director and Founder of Life Scientific.

Age: 56 years old.

Lives in: Dublin.

Family: Enda partner. Children Anna, Joe and Louis.

Leadership Style: “All I know is I bring in people who are better than me and I let them go. If my presence in the room meant that people weren’t saying something they meant, it would be me defeated. People have to come up with their point of view and get rid of it completely 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 – could play a role.

Something that might surprise: Mitchell did ballet for 14 years.


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