GRILLED by TechBBQ #07: Interview with Tatsiana Zaretskaya, CEO & Co-founder of Laava Tech.

January 25, 2023 / 8 min. read

GRILLED by TechBBQ #07:

Exclusive interview with Tatsiana Zaretskaya, CEO & Co-founder of Laava Tech

Driving the future of food production

Tatsiana Zaretskaya founded the Tallinn-based agritech startup, Laava Tech, in 2018, creating a solution that helps agriculture give back more than it takes, both to people and to our planet. Laava Tech’s energy-saving indoor farming platform is a new approach to data-supported lighting and helps to optimize food growth and reduce energy consumption in indoor farming.

On behalf of Techbbq, I met with Tatsiana Zaretskaya, CEO and Co-founder of Laava Tech to talk about the food crisis, challenges in the food sector, and the potential of indoor farming solutions. I also asked her to share how it was to develop in the tech field as a female founder and reflect on the current state of inclusion within the ecosystem.

Tatsiana was named on the Forbes 30 under 30 list back in 2022 as well as the MIT Innovator 35 under 35 list. She has also mentored many startups and has founded her second company, Meliora, a carbon offsetting trading platform.

Photo: PR / Indoor farming, Laava Tech

Interview with Tatsiana Zaretskaya, CEO & Co-founder of Laava Tech

Q&A with Tatsiana Zaretskaya

Martina Popadakova:
»Can you tell us about your drive behind starting Laava Tech?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»Initially, I always wanted to leave some impact and do something meaningful for our planet and myself. We have the resources and technologies to be able to make our planet a better place. The challenge is that we are spending those resources in our time very often not on the right things. Back then, when I started Laava Tech, I wasn’t thinking about it and did not expect how challenging it would be for a person like me, a female founder, especially in the hardware technology industry.«

»Today, my husband and I have a six and a half year old daughter and I realize that I can’t give up. Even if I would make it 1% easier for other female founders. It is already worth it. So basically, the second drive is that I strive to make it easier for my daughter in the future, whatever she decides to do, and for other girls in their future endeavors.«

Martina Popadakova:
»What is Laava Tech trying to solve?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»The main downside of outdoor farming is that we do not have enough suitable land to produce the food we need to meet increasing demands. With the food crisis and war in Ukraine, we are facing a very big problem with food production. The quality of soil we can use is decreasing very fast due to agricultural practices; We cannot produce endlessly in the same space. Then food production can be also affected by air, water, and land pollution. Yet, we need 70% more food in the next two and a half decades.«

»Indoor farming is pretty much the only solution that can help us meet this demand, at least partly. The problem is that indoor farming itself uses a lot of resources at this point. So basically, our long-term mission is to make indoor farming sustainable and comfortable to provide enough food for the growing population that is decent and healthy.«

»On the consumer side, you can reduce dependency on land usage because you can also grow food vertically. The small size vertical farms are equipped with our automation which we are providing to schools and restaurants. To restaurants, because they can grow food obviously without a logistic gain and within resources. And to schools, because it is a great educational tool, where kids can learn how food grows. Additionally, they can learn the IT part of it and understand how we can interact with technology from a young age and why it is important from an environment point of view.«

Indoor farming. Photo: PR / Laava Tech

Martina Popadakova:
»How does Laava Tech as an agritech solution for indoor farming work?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»At Laava Tech, we develop technology to increase the efficiency of indoor farming. Our proprietary combination of software and hardware optimized the light output of LED grow lights to give each plant optimal growing conditions without impacting yield and in many cases even increasing it. With raising energy prices, it becomes less profitable to sustain an indoor farm. Our solution helps reduce energy consumption significantly.«

»Additionally, we develop a fully automated system that allows you to control light but also anything from air flows to irrigation. We provide our customers with solutions to decrease operational costs. We help by collecting data from various sensors so that any IoT devices on the farm can be connected to our system. Then our customers can manage the facility, and optimize resources to keep the same yield or even increase it.«

Martina Popadakova:
»How was it for you to develop in your field as a female founder?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»When I started Laava Tech, I was quite young, and at the age of 23 and a half, it was much harder to be taken seriously, especially when talking about the startup idea. The general message was that I was too young and also a woman, so I do not stand a chance. Even today, you are not allowed to be an ambitious woman in many countries, also the country I come from, Belarus. As a woman wanting to take risks and achieve something big, the assumption is that you are not possibly smart enough to build anything meaningful. Obviously in Europe and the US, the situation is much better in that regard and you can imagine how much worse it is for many other countries.«

»Today, being a little older helps with how people perceive me. Having reached some milestones like being selected on the MIT Innovators list helps people to take you a bit more seriously. But on a larger scale, I don’t think we have progressed fast enough, and I am afraid we are not there yet. We need to speak about it, and we need to raise the topic and support each other continuously.«

Photo credit: Tatsiana Zaretskaya, CEO & Co-founder of Laava Tech, personal archives

Martina Popadakova:
»What challenges are female founders facing right now?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»Well, let’s talk about the topic of funding first. There is the Unconventional Ventures fund, which publishes reports on the funding of the female founder and they recently published one for 2021. The funding for female-founded companies was at an all-time low, I think it was 0.8% out of 100% founders funded compared to 2.1% in 2019. In some European countries, all female founders’ teams did not receive any funding or a single team would receive funding. And it is Europe, so we probably can assume that in some other regions, the situation is much worse.«

»How can you become a founder if you have zero chance in some cases to receive any funding? Another thing is that when you are starting a startup, you need to hustle a lot. If you are a male and you are starting a company, no one ever asks you if you have a child or whether you could travel without your kids, and so forth. But as a female, you immediately face these questions.«

»So, how do you win, when the stereotypes are still strong? You are expected to be nice and if you are nice, no one hears you. It is expected that you speak out loud, but when you do, you are perceived as aggressive. So how do you win?«

Martina Popadakova:
»How do you see the ecosystem progressing in this regard?«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»For instance, the EU has recently approved a law requiring the inclusion of a minimum of 40 percent of women on non-executive European listed company boards by 2026. I think frameworks like this need to be established more seriously, and on a larger scale.«.

So I think there should be a bit more meaningful push towards the support of female founders not only talking about it but actual actions that would be taken towards it. I know, it is a lot of work, but it is also a lot of work for female founders and we are willing to prove that we can do it and we want to do it. «

Martina Popadakova:
»What can be done from the female founder’s side to support each other??«

Tatsiana Zaretskaya:
»We know the problem and we know the struggles. If I see great female founders I am always happy to give introductions when I can. I think rooting for each other is something that we need to be doing continuously to create our ecosystem and support each other when we can. We must understand our problems because we are facing all of them basically in the same amount. Because there is nothing to compete for, as we are all growing. But if we grow together, it can bring more value and take us forward.«

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