Startups have been "making the world a better place" ever since they had to sell their superlative visions to investors and the public. Now, the deepening environmental crisis has brought a new seriousness to the familiar cliché. Entrepreneurs and investors are putting issues such as climate change and biodiversity at the heart of their business activities, while employees and consumers are scrutinising sustainability claims more closely than ever.
How does entrepreneurship really work as a tool to solve some of the world's biggest problems? Grappling with this question is at the heart of Origin by Ocean's project to save the oceans through an algae-based transformation of the chemical industry - and of social anthropologist Sakari Mesimäki's doctoral research into startup entrepreneurship as a tool for societal transformation.
Activism and industry
Currently completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge, Sakari joins the Origin by Ocean team in the role of Activist Anthropologist. While the various "activist" titles used by the company may seem novel in the business world, 'activist anthropology' is an established term referring to collaborative research and action in social movements. In his role at the company, Sakari will conduct ethnographic research for his doctorate, while also helping the company develop and implement its communications strategy.
Origin by Ocean's new algae-based ingredients hold huge potential to transform the chemical industry and its impact on the environment. But it is not always easy to imagine big changes that have yet to be fully realised, especially when there is considerable scientific and industrial complexity involved. However, as the company moves steadily towards piloting and commercialisation, it is an exciting time to consider how best to tell the Origin by Ocean story.
Not just an ambitious vision, but real industrial production facilities, real products and, soon, real commercial scale. "At the end of the day, the ambition is not to change the world as a startup, but as a major industrial company," Sakari reflects. He is also looking forward to thinking with the team about what it means to be an "activist" project that also needs to integrate productively with existing industries: "If you want to be credible both as an activist and as an industrial partner, you have to find the right balance between playing by the rules... and not playing by the rules".
From Japanese studies to a seaweed startup
Sakari brings communications experience, including several years as a consultant in Tokyo and cross-cultural freelance work in Helsinki, as well as a more academic interest in language and meaning. In previous research, he studied how Tokyo creatives used branding and marketing techniques to make political participation attractive and "cool" for politically disengaged youth. Now he is interested in how people turn to startups to make a difference in the world. "I'm super excited to be doing research at Origin by Ocean, and very grateful for the team's openness to having an anthropologist poking around the labs!"