Welcome to Startup of the Week. A column highlighting BC’s most innovative and exciting tech startups. Today, we’re featuring Vancouver’s ThisFish.
Fishing is an ancient practice that dates back some 40,000 years, making the seafood industry one of the world’s oldest. In a classic case of old ways die hard, this industry has largely remained anchored to the manual collection of critical data collection. Paper records are still common.
Yet most people would be shocked to learn how much data is collected in seafood processors. For example, a single food processing plant records more than one million data entries or 2 gigabytes of data a year. The paperwork is simply overwhelming, and it’s a costly pain point.
Digitalization is the painkiller. ThisFish is hooked on bringing an ancient industry into the digital age. What puts this global team into overdrive is its mission to improve the social, environmental, and financial sustainability of seafood industry so that it can continue to feed the world.
Eric Enno Tamm, CEO and co-founder of ThisFish, recounts how the company grew out of a pivot, talks about how to attract top talent even when you don’t have Google or Apple’s deep pockets, and offers some recommended reading for startups.
Q: Imagine I’m an alien visiting earth. How would you explain what your company does?
A: Most data in the global seafood industry is still trapped on paper, creating huge inefficiencies and opaque supply chains. We’re bringing this ancient industry into the digital age by providing seafood manufacturers with software and artificial intelligence that enables them to digitize all their traceability, production and quality control data in real time, on the factory floor, using tablets and IoT devices.
We drive profitability and sustainability through better data: digital, real-time, accurate.
Q: Why did you start your company?
A: We have a unique genesis since we actually spun out of a Vancouver-based environmental group called Ecotrust Canada in 2017.
Back in 2008, a group of fishermen from Ucluelet on Vancouver Island approached Ecotrust Canada to develop technology to allow them to trace their fish and connect with consumers. They wanted to share the provenance of their seafood to gain consumer trust and premiums. As we started to develop a traceability platform, we realized that most of the data in the supply chain was on paper and the seafood processing plants were data bottlenecks and hubs.
Processing plants are the most critical node in the supply chain since most of the supply chain data comes from the factories, which were largely running on paper records. So, we pivoted, recognizing that we needed to help these factories, which were largely running on paper records, digitize in order to achieve our goal of improved traceability and digitization.
I was born in Tofino and raised in Ucluelet in a fishing family and so I have a deep history in commercial fishing. I’m passionate about helping to improve the sustainability and profitability of the fishing industry.
Q: Congratulations on winning the THRIVE Canada Challenge for top Agtech startup in 2020! How has this helped you to build your business?
A: This award was a big surprise. We were literally a fish out of water (pun intended) in this challenge. Of the 90 startups in the competition, we were one of the few in seafood and the only finalist focused on seafood. Most of the companies, sponsors and judges were from terrestrial agriculture.
The ocean is often overlooked as a food source, but about nine percent of global protein comes from the sea and lakes. The THRIVE Canada Challenge helped us to connect with the Agtech sector and have investor calls with VCs that may not have traditionally looked at the seafood sector.
Q: What’s the best advice you recently received?
A: I’m a first-time founder and a non-engineer running a tech startup and so I solicit a lot of advice from mentors, staff, experts, board members and shareholders.
I recently received great advice from a panel about a pitch for a competition. I really listened and made some pretty big changes to the pitch, which fundamentally made it much stronger. I think the first step is being open to advice and being humble and honest about what you don’t know.
Q: What future trend do you think will most impact your company?
A: I’ve created a graph which I call the Fish n’ Chips Index which shows the relative cost of fish from FAO statistics and semiconductor chips indexed to the year 1990. Since then, the relative cost of fish has increased 60 percent while the relative cost of technology has declined by 40 percent.
Ironically, seafood is becoming more valuable while technology is being commodified. This tells me that there will be growing demand for technology in our sector as seafood companies try to better manage their raw material costs, which can be as high as 75 percent of their total production costs.
It also tells me that we need to build a technology company that differentiates itself in services and innovation since the cost of development technology continues to decline. For this reason, we’re investing in customer support and AI to be our differentiator in an increasingly commoditized technology market.
Q: What quality do you think is most important for any startup?
A: Building a values-based and mission-driven company is key to a startup’s success because it will allow you to recruit committed, talented employees. People are what make tech startups successful.
A startup can’t compete against Amazon, Google or Apple in terms of salary or benefits alone, but I think most great employees aren’t strictly motivated by money. People are looking for more than that. We have an incredibly talented team and most of them could be a cog in Jeff Bezos’ money-making machine, but they aren’t. They work for us because of our values, our mission and the autonomy we give our employees to creatively contribute to our future.
Q: What is your favourite media?
A: I’m old school: I religiously read the Harvard Business Review (HBR), front to back, each issue. HBR has longer, more thoughtfully researched articles that are relevant to businesses large and small. For example, there was an incredible story recently on how Steve Jobs built functional units, not business units, as the foundation for Apple’s organization which is part of the company’s successful DNA.
Q: Any call to actions for our readers?
A: Yes, two! Firstly, on May 5, we became one of the ten finalists in the BC Aquaculture Awards and we’re looking for some votes for the people’s choice awards. You can sign up for the event here.
Secondly, I’d love to connect with folks trying to implement AI in traditional industries to share some lessons. Here’s my LinkedIn.
Want to be featured as a Startup of the Week? If you are, or would like to suggest, a BC-based tech startup that we should know about, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.