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MetaBelly: Split’s startup that follows the gut feeling!

Nikolina Kukoč

Nikolina Kukoč

19.07.2022.

Watching this year’s STup! international university startup competition we had a gut feeling that MetaBelly might turn out the winner. Not because it’s a local startup from Split or because of any personal preference, but because we observed all startup pitches during the two competition days and really thought MetaBelly was the best of all of them.

The fact it’s a startup from our startup ecosystem was just a (happy) bonus!

MetaBelly was founded in December 2020 by Ena Melvan and, being its founder, she shared what this startup is all about: “Our primary focus is gut health. We currently have one product: prebiotic fibers combined with a personalized nutrition service.

Based on the 16S analysis of the users’ intestines and their dietary and lifestyle habits, we provide a diet plan that suits each person best. We are also currently developing a science-based data-driven platform that automatically interprets microbiome analysis findings and provides a personalized nutrition plan.”

The MetaBelly team currently counts six members. Alongside Ena, who is the founder and CEO, the team is composed of dietitian Sandra Zugan and clinical doctor Andrija Karačić, as well as Marko Dragunić and Josip Vujčić who are in charge of the IT development, and Anja Melvan who is MetaBelly‘s go-to person for marketing.

Winning this year’s STup! startup competition (Photo by: Student Business Incubator)

Aside from these “basic facts” about MetaBelly, we were curious to know more. We already know that this startup won second place at last year’s Get in the Ring competition and, by winning first place at this year’s STup!, is set to participate at the Silicon Castles’ Startup Executive Academy, but we wanted to chat with Ena about her startup journey so far.

Including mistakes, obstacles, lessons learned, and what she loves most about the startup life.

So, read on to learn more about MetaBelly’s gutsy venture!

How did you get the initial idea for MetaBelly?

“I have been doing research on the gut microbiome for 8 years, and I did my doctorate on modeling gut bacteria in relation to obesity. The idea arose as a result of research and appeared in my head more than 5 years ago, but it was only a little more than a year ago that I started actually working on its implementation.”

What were the biggest obstacles you encountered on your startup journey so far?

“To be honest, in a certain way, I was my own biggest obstacle. As confident as I was in the research part, I was very afraid to initiate an entrepreneurial venture.

So, for a long time, this lack of courage prevented me from doing what I do now.

Of course, there are obstacles regarding the work itself almost every day. At this time, they are mostly of a financial nature because we still haven’t started applying for and asking for larger investments.

Therefore, we manage the best we know how with what we have and the income we earn from the sales of supplements and personalized nutrition services.

Competing at the Get in the Ring competition in 2021 (Photo by: Student Business Incubator)

Business-wise, the biggest obstacle at the moment is the data itself, which is very scattered and unstructured.

We are working on solving this issue by focusing more on the data and on structuring it better. We also got a team of students who help us with all the necessary tasks.”

What is the biggest mistake you made and what lessons did you learn from it?

“So far, I have been a part of two startups that had not-so-glorious endings. Therefore, I thought I learned all of my lessons from those experiences.

Still, even with MetaBelly, I made a couple of big mistakes. Pretty silly and stupid, looking back. 😀

One is, for example, that I expelled myself from the GrowIT competition because I did not deal with the bureaucracy properly. From that, I learned that bureaucracy is important, no matter how foreign it is to me. And that I need to be organized with the paperwork.

Another big mistake I made was when I went to optimize the logistics behind the supplement – packaging, filling, storage, etc. I lost a lot of time on that, and in the end, the packaging itself was not correct and kept breaking during transport.

That’s when I learned that you first need to make the thing work the way it should work.

Only after you achieve that can you go into optimizing the whole process. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time on nonsense. There are numerous little mistakes, but these two are the first that come to mind as more substantial ones.”

Ena taking part in a startup-themed panel discussion during last year’s Festival of Technology and Entrepreneurship
What do you love the most about the whole startup experience?

“There is a meme that says: “I didn’t want to work from 9 to 5, so that’s why I work 24/7 now.

I’m joking a little, but yes, I love the freedom that such a life gives you – from making decisions, choosing working methods, the freedom of location, choosing collaborators, etc. – is definitely the best that the start-up world offers.

Also, the atmosphere is proactive and there is always something new happening.

I also find the work dynamics very interesting – the fact that one scheduled meeting or even a random encounter can change the direction of the entire development.”

What was it like initiating your startup right here in Split?

“I was absent from Split for 14 years. During that time, there were several times when I would come back and then leave again because I couldn’t adapt to the city’s settings and mindset at the time.

Nowadays, at least from my point of view, the situation is significantly different in a positive way, and things have shifted and progressed.

I am happy that I initiated a startup here in Split, and I can really say nothing but positive things!

Of course, the ecosystem is still relatively small but I think this actually provides advantages because you can easily and quickly reach people who can help you and from whom you can learn something you need to advance.

The only thing I would change, if I could, would be the whole procedure of starting a company. The entire process needs to be clearer and more structured, but that has nothing to do with Split – it’s a nationwide issue.”

Knowing what you know now, what piece of advice would you give yourself before you started MetaBelly?

“Done is better than perfect. Meaning I should not be so afraid to make mistakes and that I do not look for an excuse for that fear in perfectionism.”

We’d like to thank Ena for sharing insights about her startup journey with us and wish her and the MetaBelly team lots of success in the future! 😀

Cover photo: Ena at the Festival of Technology and Entrepreneurship

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About author:

Nikolina Kukoč

Researching is woven into my DNA, but I am a musician at heart. Interested in too many things and always curious. Forever in love with Split and enchanted by people who teach me new things. When I am not creating content about Split's tech community, you will find me in singing rehearsals, somewhere in nature, in the theater, or with my head stuck in a book. I do my best to live by the verse from the opera "Fedora" by Umberto Giordano: "Love forbids you not to love."

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