Imperial College London

Starting up a startup: insights from female founders in Undaunted's community


Photos of the female founders profiled in our IWD series for 2023

For International Women's Day (IWD) we're sharing reflections from female founders in our community at different stages of their enterprise journey.

It can be easy to assume that founders experience eureka moments, waking up one day with a fully-formed idea and solid business plan just ready for scale-up. The reality, however, is very different!

At Undaunted we work with fantastic women in cleantech and sustainable enterprise all the time. Our International Women's Day series shares insights on starting up a startup from female founders across our cleantech community, at different stages of their enterprise journey. 

Alice Simpson and Emily Jane Taylor, Co-Founders and Directors of SAGES London

Funding stage: raised a Pre-Seed round

Emily Taylor and Alice Simpson
Emily Jane Taylor and Alice Simpson

Alice and Emily bring years of fashion industry experience into their startup, SAGES London, founded in 2020. SAGES, who were part of Cohort 3 of The Greenhouse accelerator, make natural textile dyes from food waste, as an alternative to the harmful synthetic dyes the industry currently uses.

The duo has currently raised a pre-seed round. They say: "Accessing equity free funding is the biggest hurdle we've faced! As a hardwear company, we have a long road of R&D (research and development) ahead of us... Access to lab space and equipment is also a big hurdle."

Best bit of advice they've been given? "Just keep going! We were told that not everyone will like your idea and you may meet people who don’t understand what it is you’re trying to do. But if you stay true to the mission you founded your company on, things will start to happen."

Who are their role models in the cleantech space? "Our biggest role models are our fellow female cleantech entrepreneurs who are constantly inspiring and supporting us: 
Elissa Brunato from Radiant Matter, Aurélie Fontan from Osmose Studios and Joanna Power from Lylo Products Limited."

"The cleantech space is a great one to be in. You really feel as though you are working towards a brighter future and there are so many inspiring innovators you can connect and collaborate with. Our advice would be to stay true to your core beliefs, only accept investment on your terms, and be comfortable with all the business decisions you make; even if this means taking an extra beat to think about them.

"The biggest lesson we've learnt is to have collaboration agreements with partners agreed asap! Ensure you know exactly what rights each partner has in terms of IP, licensing and payment terms. Otherwise you can end up with a project with results that you are not able to exploit.

"Cash flow is currently our biggest challenge. We have been very fortunate to have two grant proposals accepted recently, and whilst we are over the moon with this, it does mean that we now have to consider very carefully how we plan, and raise for, the next 12 - 18 months of the business to ensure that we have enough cash flow to exploit the outcomes of our R&D to their fullest extent.

"There are many events we attend where we are the only fully female team. Whilst this would never hold us back, it is something we would like to see change. We have found that we have to push that extra bit harder to get the same deals/terms that we know male teams are getting given straight away."

Insiya Jafferjee, Co-Founder and CEO of Shellworks

Funding stage: raised their Seed round in 2022

Insiya Jafferjee
Insiya Jafferjee

Shellworks is on a mission to eliminate plastic waste, creating a material called Vivomer that degrades in any natural environment. The team aims to raise its Series A funding round mid-2024.

Insiya Jafferjee, its Co-Founder and CEO, (and Innovation Design Engineering alumni!), says that, when the team was starting out, the big challenge was "easy access to labs and workshops. It’s one of the hardest challenges for early-stage companies focused on tangible solutions."

What's the biggest challenge as they prep for their next milestone? "Vivomer is new and is a solution to an industry that hasn’t been disrupted in the last decade. This requires education, resilience, and behavioural change to create adoption for the material of the future. Finding the best way to communicate this to a large audience is one of our key challenges."

Any advice for aspiring female founders? Two bits, actually!

  • "Possibility is a mindset. We’ve had a lot of no’s or this is impossible throughout our journey and that piece of advice has really proven to be true."
  • "With an amazing team behind you - it is possible to achieve your vision. Focus on finding the right partners and first hires."

Solveiga Pakštaite, Inventor, Founder and Director of Mimica

Funding stage: Pre-Series A

Solveiga Pakštait?
Solveiga Pakštaite

Mimica make food freshness indicators that turn bumpy when food should no longer be consumed, based on real temperature storage conditions. This new standard of freshness information prevents unnecessary waste caused by worst case scenario printed dates. 

Solveiga Pakštaite invented the original technology, and is now Founder and Director of the company, which is currently at the Pre-Series A stage of funding. Is there a piece of advice that she's kept with her along the journey? "I was once told that the difference between startups that succeed and fail is the ability of the founder to make connections and build their network by having a genuine interest in people. I think there’s some truth to that."

Anything she wishes she'd known at the start of her journey that she knows now? "How important building a mission and values-centred culture is to the success of the company. It’s the only way you will attract and keep the very best people.

"It’s important to get to the point efficiently as you’re more likely to be interrupted than a male counterpart. To look at the positive side, being succinct and direct is not a bad reputation for anyone to have!

"I have great admiration for the work that Agnes Czako does with her company AirEx Technologies both in the impact they are having on energy efficiency in buildings but also due to her visionary and resilient leadership style."

What challenges does the team face as they prep for the next milestone? "Mimica is working in the food industry which has been particularly affected by the cost of living crisis. We need to be extra meticulous when sharing evidence that extending shelf life drives increased sales and a reduction of in-store waste - there is an amazing opportunity for brands to deliver better value for money to consumers by helping them finish products."

Dr Florence Gschwend, Co-Founder and CTO of Lixea

Funding stage: currently raising Series A

Dr Florence Gschwend
Dr Florence Gschwend

Lixea's revolutionary technology turns the vast amount of global agricultural and wood waste into profitable, sustainable materials and fuels. Currently raising Series A, its Co-Founder and CTO, Dr Florence Gschwend, says that funding has been a challenge the entirety of the way - and it still is. "People always think it’s amazing what we’re doing... but then it’s so difficult to get financing for it. That is super frustrating."

Any advice? "The journey can be a complete roller coaster, so I try to treat it like a normal job, and not to make it too much part of my own identity. Otherwise it can become really overwhelming."

"It might seem that there is nothing to lose but there's always something to lose. Spending your time on pursuing a startup means there are other things you’re not doing.... There are many reasons to do or not to do something, but gender should not be one of them."

"Just having a community can make a huge difference. The entrepreneurial journey can be very lonely and it’s nice to have a community to share the journey with."

Réka Trón, Co-Founder COO at Multus

Funding stage: currently on its Series A funding round

Réka Trón
Réka Trón

Multus is creating the key ingredients to make cultivated meat affordable and scalable, and is currently on its Series A funding round, having recently raised £7.9 million from investors to support further R&D!

Meet Réka Trón, its Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer. With her background in life sciences, Reka is motivated by the positive impact of revolutionising our food production system.

Reka's advice for female founders at the start of their journey?

  • "Don’t let it change how you behave when you are only surrounded by men. Feel free to speak your mind and be yourself, this is the only way other women can also be themselves."
  • "Don’t hesitate to reach out to people – whether it’s to customers to test your assumptions, to advisors and fellow entrepreneurs for advice or to academics for technical brainstorming. People are always happy to help."

Saasha Celestial-One, Co-Founder and COO of OLIO

Funding stage: completed Series B

Saasha Celestial-One
Saasha Celestial-One

For our final IWD2023 profile we chatted to the brilliant Saasha Celestial-One, Co-Founder and COO of OLIOSaasha visited us at Undaunted's offices at The Royal Institution a few weeks ago to talk with some of our current Greenhouse startups over lunch - and it was super interesting to hear about her experiences.

OLIO is a free app harnessing the power of mobile tech and the sharing economy to provide a revolutionary solution to food waste. It completed Series B funding in the second half of 2021 and is growing quickly, empowered by more than 100,000 volunteers. Since 2016, seven million OLIOers have shared over 80 million portions of food in 62 countries!

Named one of the UK’s “Coolest Female Startup Founders” at Insider Business, Saasha has an MBA from Stanford, is mum to ten-year-old Nolan, and is the proud daughter of hippy entrepreneurs! Before OLIO she founded London’s first pay-as-you-go high street childcare provider, and prior to that, spent 13 years at Morgan Stanley, McKinsey and American Express.

What could she have benefitted from that didn’t exist when she was starting out? "More female investors and female partners with check writing power – our product skews female, and it was a more difficult pitch to male investors, who often aren’t in charge of the kitchen or home surplus."

And she's got insightful advice for budding cleantech entrepreneurs:

  • Fail (and learn) fast – time is your most precious resource
  • Make sure you have an amazing relationship with your cofounder, it can be your secret weapon, and you’ll need him/her to get you through the rough patches
  • We’ve been remote since day one, which has meant I’ve been able to be a hands on mum whilst also being a full time entrepreneur – if you’re a parent founder, do you really need an office? Something to consider...

What challenges is the OLIO team facing as it preps the next milestone? "We’ve invested in becoming a proper scale up – tools, talent, etc – now we’re waiting for our big bets to pay off, it’s the year of delivery"

Keep up-to-date

Find out more about how Undaunted is working with the Greater London Authority's Better Futures programme to develop a Women in Cleantech (WiCT) network across London in this blog post by our Director, Alyssa Gilbert: Women in Cleantech is Just One Way We’re Dealing with the Climate Challenge.

Stay in-the-loop about what our cleantech community is up to - sign up to the Undaunted newsletter.

Thank you to all our female founders.

In the face of climate change, we are Undaunted.

Undaunted is a partnership between The Royal Institution and Imperial's Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment.



Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences

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