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Dr. Ifeyinwa Kanu: “Be empathetic to others, although it is business”

It is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining: It takes a lot of effort to evolve your innovation, prove to yourself and other people that is innovative, convince your patent attorney to file a patent for you, work in the lab from morning to evening running experiments, cleaning up and writing reports followed by engaging with […]

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It is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining: It takes a lot of effort to evolve your innovation, prove to yourself and other people that is innovative, convince your patent attorney to file a patent for you, work in the lab from morning to evening running experiments, cleaning up and writing reports followed by engaging with the wider stakeholders that will cover employees, consultants, contractors, investors, executive team, suppliers, etc. In all these, try to make it fun and appreciate yourself for any milestone achieved.


As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Ifeyinwa Kanu.

Dr Ifeyinwa Kanu is the Founder of IntelliDigest Limited. She loves nature and passionate about creating Engineering solutions to address environmental challenges. Ifeyinwa has a PhD in Civil-Environmental Engineering from Heriot Watt University-Edinburgh, involving application of Artificial Intelligence and omics analysis to optimize anaerobic process.

She has a solid and progressive experience in all aspects of Civil Engineering, specialising in water, wastewater and waste to bioresources. Ifeyinwa has filed 8 patents covering novel anaerobic process, municipal wastewater treatment process, Enzymatic hydrolysis, and microbial fermentation. She has successfully raised series of grant funding as well as executing RBS Back Her Business crowdfunding.

She has led IntelliDigest to win various awards demonstrating the impact of their solution such as EIT Climate KIC, EIT FAN, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society of Edinburgh, etc.

In 2017, she was nominated for Women’s Engineering Society (WES) Top 50 women in Engineering under 35 in the UK and in 2020, she was nominated for WES Top 50 Women in Engineering (WE50): Sustainability. She is a Council member of Women’s Engineering Society.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My love for nature and passion for engineering solutions to address environmental problems.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

The academic and entrepreneurial world are very similar when approaching a problem i.e. you will need to establish the hypothesis to work from; test and then iterate until you obtain the right answer. However, the delivery methodology is completely different as businesses need to be agile and swift while academics need to be repetitive and thorough, thus it was an interesting experience moving from a research and experiment intensive PhD to starting up a business. A mind shift was crucial.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Thanks to EIT Climate KIC/Climate LaunchPad, Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship and Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Fellowship, Investing Women AcceelrateHer, Telefonia-Wayra AI/Blockchain Accelerator, EIT Food Accelerator Network, Edinburgh Business School Incubator, Royal Bank of Scotland Climate Accelerator, Better Futures Programme and London Waste and Recycling Board. These organisations provided the enabling support to get through the mind shift with great people mentoring, coaching and advising.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

I learnt quickly, networked endlessly by following up with every introduction that I deemed useful.

We are making a great impact and partnering with world class industry partners to deliver the most fulfilling, innovative, secure, and profitable experience for our customers to end food waste.

Through Cutting edge research collaborations, we are evolving new Intellectual Properties (IP) for licensing, delivering excellent research services and Independent capacity building training.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made was personalising my innovation. In the early days, I found it difficult sharing my vision for IntelliDigest as I was worried that someone else would take it on.

However, as I continued to network and build confidence, I came to the realisation that most people genuinely want to help; they appreciate that I have put in a lot of effort and if they try to steal my innovation they would struggle to catch up with the expertise I have developed over the period I have been working on it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At IntelliDigest, we collaborate in cutting edge research, develop innovative technologies, deliver independent consultancy and capacity building training to end edible food waste while converting inedible food waste to sustainable chemicals.

These sustainable chemicals could be used as building block chemicals for other manufacturing processes such a biodegradable packaging, detergents, cosmetics and advanced agriculture-hydroponics and cellular protein.

Our collaborators (UNFAO and EITFood) and customers (Marriott, Radisson and IHG) speak volume of the value we deliver.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

To thrive:

  1. Be empathetic to others, although it is business.
  2. Be convinced that you are passionate about what you are doing, that will see you through the ups and down.
  3. Crave for new knowledge, always useful when you least expect.
  4. Learn quickly, try quickly, evaluate quickly, fail or succeed quickly and move on.
  5. Build a great network of “non-crappy” people around you, most people that work with you at management level should be excellent people and better than you in the focus area for which you selected them

To avoid burn out

  1. Ensure that you have loved ones around you, they are always super helpful during the low times and celebration times.
  2. Exercise always, no excuse on time
  3. Focus on key deliverables and avoid distractions
  4. Know when to say “No, thank you”; there are more synergetic opportunities ahead.
  5. Delegate responsibilities or sub-contact where possible, you have so much to deliver within limited time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My family has been a great inspiration for me through my childhood and adult life and as I got married, my husband has been a massive support both emotionally and Intellectually as a loving and caring partner and an electrical/electronic/Software Engineer.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My vision for IntelliDigest is to end food waste. At IntelliDigest, we are developing ground-breaking technologies and capacity development programmes to solve global challenges that addresses the following SDGs:

1. No poverty

2. Zero hunger

3. Good health and well being

4. Gender Equality

5. Clean water and sanitation

6. Industry Innovation and Infrastructure

7. Reduced Inequalities

8. Sustainable cities and communities

9. Responsible consumption and production

10. Climate action

11. Life on land

13. Partnerships for the goals

14. Zero hunger and Reduced Inequalities

These SDGs are achieved by using upcycled inedible food waste in advanced agriculture such as hydroponics, thereby, enhancing sustainable food production as well as resilient food supply chain. This will make it possible for more people to access nutritious food within their local community as well as reduce inequalities.

On the other hand, the engagement of waste collection by the formal and informal sector in South Africa and in most developing world, result in the exposure of people to unhealthy working conditions. Haven picked up food waste from various food related business for my laboratory; I can attest that the task of handling food waste is dehumanising and should be eliminated as quickly as an alternative onsite solution evolves.

Through the upcycling of food waste for circular packaging, we are reducing dependency on plastics, deforestation and industrial cropping thereby enabling responsible consumption.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I wish someone told me that:

  1. It is mentally, physically, and emotionally draining: It takes a lot of effort to evolve your innovation, prove to yourself and other people that is innovative, convince your patent attorney to file a patent for you, work in the lab from morning to evening running experiments, cleaning up and writing reports followed by engaging with the wider stakeholders that will cover employees, consultants, contractors, investors, executive team, suppliers, etc. In all these, try to make it fun and appreciate yourself for any milestone achieved.
  2. I should be a great listener: In the early days, I thought it will be great to speak in most meeting trying to convince stakeholders to work with me and IntelliDigest. I have come to the realization that I need to listen to them and understand who they are and what they want. It is either there is a match or none. If there is a match, the relationship works easily as you will be selling directly to them exactly what they are seeking for and if not, it will be helpful for everyone to call it a quit early.
  3. It takes time: Developing a solution to address the global challenge of food waste, mostly inedible food waste, is a big task, if it is easy, someone else could have done it. From conception through research, design, manufacture, trials, deployment, supply change management, marketing and commercialization; each stage is a very challenging and interesting journey which will need to be properly planned, there is no magic wand to fasten it.
  4. I should prioritize closing sales to raising investment: It is great to receive my CrunchBase daily update and see all the amazing investments and hope that someday soon I will be closing my investment round. Unfortunately, it does not often work out that way as statistics have shown that dark skinned female founders have attracted only 0.0006% of VC fund. May be it is better to focus on sales, secure debt funding, if possible and prove all the doubters with poor emotional and social intelligence to make sound investment judgement wrong; then watch as they come begging to invest rather than the other way round.
  5. Your social network is a great asset, make the best use of it: I never cease to get such an immense support form my network whenever I reach out for help and I often ask myself why I am not maximizing the capabilities of the people around me.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am pleased to be part of the movement to address climate change through IntelliDigest, hence for my next movement, I will evolve actions to address socio-economic inequalities in our societies.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @IntelliDigest

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IntelliDigest.ltd

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/intellidigest-limited

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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