Social entrepreneur Gavin Armstrong is the founder of Lucky Iron Fish, a social business and B-Corp aiming to combat iron deficiency. Nearly 3.5 billion people around the world suffer from iron deficiency or anemia, resulting in constant fatigue, dizziness, and difficulty concentrating at school or at work. The Iron Lucky Fish is a piece of iron cast in the shape of a fish. When boiled with food or broth, it releases enough iron to provide up to 90% of the daily necessary intake.

Turning this simple idea into reality was no easy task. Gavin started the B-Corp in Cambodia while simultaneously pursuing a PhD. He went for years without a salary. He made mistake after mistake and things didn’t work out as planned. Yet Gavin kept tinkering and iterating.

The Lucky Iron Fish is a global phenomena now. Gavin was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for social entrepreneurship.

Many people in the developed world also suffer from iron deficiency. You can buy a Lucky Iron Fish ($25) for yourself and the company will give one to a person in need. The Lucky Iron Fish is a great holiday gift for friends and family.

Lucky Iron Fish

Show Links for Gavin Armstrong

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia

Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek

Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism by Muhammad Yunus

  • Gavin Armstrong’s experience during college volunteering at a refugee camp in Kenya made him want to fight world hunger
  • Researcher Christopher Charles had a project called Happy Fish that sparked Gavin’s interest. The original thesis paper can be found here.
  • Chris abandoned the research project
  • Gavin Armstrong continued Chris’s research in Cambodia
  • Cambodia has an extremely high level of iron deficiency due to nutritional and genetic factors
  • Iron deficiency is the world’s most common micro-nutrient challenge
  • Half of the world’s population suffers from this preventable condition
  • Symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, and even death
  • Iron deficiency leads to a loss of $70 billion to the world’s GDP
  • Women, especially, suffer from iron deficiency
  • Iron deficiency does not discriminate between the poor and the rich
  • Iron supplements have negative side effects and are expensive
  • Gavin Armstrong pursued a PhD in Canada revolving around this project while starting the company in Cambodia
  • He spent many days on airplanes
  • The lucky iron fish is a simple health innovation product
  • You boil the piece of iron with the food for 10 minutes, which releases iron into the meal
  • The iron is reusable for 5 years
  • The lucky iron fish doesn’t change the food’s color or taste
  • The product is in the shape of a fish because the fish is the symbol of luck in Cambodia
  • The Lucky Iron Fish received $180,000 from the university to start the company
  • “We were very lean in the beginning.”
  • Gavin Armstrong worked with a foundry in Cambodia to make cast iron material that met international specifications
  • Gavin Armstrong made sure the iron was safe, bio-available, and contaminate-free
  • Much of the iron in Cambodia was contaminated by arsenic
  • They made the prototypes out of wood and approach local focus groups in rural communities to get their feedback
  • Rapid prototyping was key
  • Gavin went to all the focus group meetings
  • He observed people’s facial expressions
  • The fish’s surface area was important to be able to release the right quantity of iron per use
  • The Cambodians called the prototype models the “Heavy Black Fish”
  • Gavin wanted to brand the product better so he stamped the front of the face with the Cambodian symbol that means “good” and people began calling it the “Good Fish”
  • The smile of the fish is designed so that after five years, it fades away… so when the smile fades away, the families know they need to trade it in
  • Lucky Iron Fish is a top ranked B-Corps and not a nonprofit organization
  • B-Corps (Benefit Corporations) is an international certification given to social enterprises that make a social impact
  • Gavin was frustrated by the sustainability of nonprofit organizations, which are unable to get investments like for-profit companies
  • Understanding the distribution model was a major challenge
  • There was no established trust with the communities in the beginning
  • They tried a travelling road show, which didn’t work
  • They pivoted their model to sell the product to NGOs in the area that already had built up trust with the target communities
  • The NGOs are the front-line workers for the Lucky Iron Fish
  • These NGOs were already buying iron supplement pills, and these pills were much more expensive than the pills
  • The purchase price of the Lucky Iron Fish ranges from $5-$10 for NGOs
  • The iron pills can cost $30 per person per year
  • The NGOs are in charge of the distribution
  • They use a tuk tuk
  • Lucky Iron Fish has an eight-person team
  • Cash flow becomes critical so you can pay your staff members each month
  • Two big challenges Gavin had to overcome were obstacles with the Cambodian government and funding
  • During a low point with his work, the BBC ran a story on Lucky Iron Fish that went viral
  • Oprah said that Lucky Iron Fish was “off the hook”
  • “Success can be temporary. Failure can last a lot longer” Gavin’s outlook on humility
  • The families are usually concerned whether Lucky Iron Fish will affect the taste of the food
  • Gavin has faced criticism because of his age or sexual orientation
  • “The only thing you can do is to prove them wrong.” Gavin on critics
  • People can buy a Lucky Iron Fish and give one in the Buy One Give One model
  • Gavin feels very well-versed at trial and error and especially the error part
  • Gavin though the travelling road show was going to be a huge hit but it did not work out because he didn’t understand the market at the time
  • Lucky Iron Fish is expanding to India
  • Gavin loves going back out into the field in Cambodia to get reinvigorated and not get caught up in the mundane tasks ahead
  • Gavin’s favorite Cambodian food is spicy peanut chicken curry
  • Gavin takes time for himself to unwind. Exercising, cooking.
  • Gavin loved his mother’s cooking and he often helped out
  • Gavin didn’t earn a salary during the first few years of starting Lucky Iron Fish
  • “Never forget the power of one person and their ripple effect.”
  • Gavin feels a bit of imposter syndrome despite all of his success
  • He remembers the times that haven’t been easy and so is mindful of the importance of the team
  • Gavin is grateful for his entire team and recently he hosted a team retreat