The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek — This applies to people who have good ideas, but never dare to execute. If your vision is important, then take the risk. The worst scenario is that you fail. So what? You can find a job or start over again with a different idea. But if you aren’t willing to take the risk, then you will regret it for the rest of your life.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Luo.
Robert, the Co-founder and CEO of Mi Terro, is a three-time entrepreneur. He is a Forbes Under 30 Scholar and Global Shaker’s Sustainable Fashion Innovator 2019. He is also a GreenBiz “30 Under 30” honoree.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Mi Terro was started after I visited my uncle’s dairy farm in China and saw buckets and buckets of spoiled milk on his farm, which led me to investigate surplus food in agriculture and later in all industries. I realized it’s a huge problem that we as a society just don’t talk about enough.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Mi Terro is the world’s first biotechnology company that creates ocean degradable and home compostable packaging materials made from agricultural byproducts and surplus food. We are not turning agricultural byproducts into beverages or snacks. Instead, we are giving agricultural byproducts and surplus food a new life by repurposing them to replace plastic and cotton.
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?
Dealing with spoiled milk isn’t a pleasurable experience for anyone. If you learn one thing about milk, it doesn’t get better with age. I wasn’t quite sure of the science behind why milk spoils in the first place, so I conducted a lot of research, it turned out that milk curdles in part because of bacteria.
When I first experimented with spoiled milk in my kitchen, I was grossed out. One sniff of spoiled milk turned my stomach upside down. My entire house slowly smelt like spoiled milk. To reduce the smell, I turned on all of the ventilators in the kitchen and opened all the windows. I figured that the smell wasn’t going away soon, so I put on an anti-odor face mask to continue with my experiment.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Dave Nagle is one of my mentors. He is a mentor at The Batchery, an incubator located in Berkeley, CA. He helped me draft financial statement sheets and logistic estimation plans.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Plastic bags were invented in 1959 to save the planet, according to the son of Swedish engineer, Sten Gustaf Thulin. The bags were developed as an alternative to paper bags, which were considered bad for the environment because they resulted in forests being chopped down. They were significantly stronger than paper bags, which meant — in theory — they could be used over and over again.
However, single-use plastic took off and now our consumption of this polluting material is one of the biggest threats facing the world’s seas, with marine plastic set to outweigh fish by 2050. Animals have been documented consuming or becoming entangled in plastics.
However, alternatives to plastic bags are not necessarily the greener option. Although opting for paper or cotton bags would reduce litter and waste, they have other significant environmental effects. According to the UK Environment Agency, a paper bag has to be used three times to be as environmentally friendly as a plastic bag that is recycled. Making paper bags uses more energy and water and they are also heavier, which makes them more expensive to transport. Bags made of cotton — a crop which requires huge amounts of water to grow — need to be used at least 131 times to be as environmentally friendly as a recycled plastic bag.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Seek to first understand, then be understood — Listen to what your employees and customers have to say before offering your opinion
- You don’t get what you don’t ask for — Be curious, be fearless and be active in learning. Ask questions. No question is dumb.
- The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek — This applies to people who have good ideas, but never dare to execute. If your vision is important, then take the risk. The worst scenario is that you fail. So what? You can find a job or start over again with a different idea. But if you aren’t willing to take the risk, then you will regret it for the rest of your life.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Mi Terro is revolutionizing the flexible packaging industry. We are creating ocean degradable and home compostable packaging materials made from agricultural byproducts and surplus food. We are giving agricultural byproducts and surplus food a new life by repurposing them to replace plastic and cotton.
Our proprietary technology re-engineers’ agricultural byproducts and surplus food into plastic-alternative packaging material. Our packaging film is 3–5 times cheaper than other bio-based materials (PLA, PHA, PBAT), is at a similar price as LDPE film, is home compostable, ocean degradable, heat sealable, provides excellent water and oxygen barrier, low thickness, and is potentially edible. Our technology can potentially apply to any type of agricultural byproducts and surplus food, including plant, dairy, and vitamin supplement byproducts.
Our material accommodates a diverse range of fully compostable packaging applications for fresh produce, dry food and fashion.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
I recommend reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Reading the story of Phil Knight in his fight to get where Nike is today was a very good read. To include personal stories of the people along the way and what they meant to the company’s success in such a real-life way gave credence to the struggle. It’s never a one-man show in real life and Phil gave that full attention.
Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Great ideas are crazy until they are not.”
When I first started Mi Terro, I was rejected by everyone close to me, including my parents and professors. Everyone thought the idea of developing something out of spoiled milk was crazy. Nevertheless, I never cared about their opinions. I saw a very important vision that can revolutionize the way society treats food waste and invents plastic-alternative materials.
I proved all of them wrong.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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 want to trigger a food waste upcycling movement called “Gold Plate.” The leftover food on your plate can be turned into valuable materials. So, the next time before you throw away your food, think about what you can do with it, maybe give it to us.
How can our readers follow you online?