Tag Archives: Founder story

Founder Story: Epinutra Targets A Natural Solution To Heartburn

Benesco by Epinutra - a natural solution to heartburn

When the team behind Epinutra first started its research, it was looking for solutions to strengthen the connections between cells in the body. Ten years later, it has developed a natural food supplement that could provide a new way to tackle heartburn – even in vulnerable groups like pregnant women.

epithelial-cells-in-esophagus

Epinutra’s CEO and founder Richard Hampson admits that the company took an unconventional approach, first looking for compounds that strengthen the epithelia – the outer layer of cells that protects many internal organs – before considering possible uses for them.

“From a business perspective, it was the wrong way around,” he said, explaining that he and his team spent a decade inventing the test and screening more than 2,000 molecules to see if they hit their molecular target of interest.

A natural solution to heartburn

“We found roughly five candidates that fit the bill, and two of them were food ingredients. So that meant instead of looking at drug development, we could look at natural food supplements,” he said. “There is often a preference for a natural food supplement rather than a drug, especially for pregnant women for example, who often take a ‘grin and bear it’ approach.”

Man-with-heart-burnEpinutra was set up in the summer of 2019 as an affiliate company of Portugal-based Thelial Technologies, S.A., supported in part by grants from the European Research Council and the EU Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Programme. It is dedicated to the development of benescoTM (check explainer video about benescoTM), a supplement taken as a lozenge to support oesophagus health for people who suffer from heartburn. The product is based on two active ingredients: an antioxidant found in apples called quercetin; and vitamin B2, or riboflavin; as well as the sugar-free sweetener isomalt.

The active ingredients are present at relatively low doses – the quercetin is equivalent to that found in about three apples, just over 30 mg – while the vitamin B2 is about 15% of the recommended daily dose. The company suggests that someone might question why it would be necessary to take a supplement when these nutrients are so readily available in a healthy diet, but the time it takes to consume them is important. Eating apples means the quercetin passes very quickly through the oesophagus tube that links the mouth and stomach, whereas sucking a lozenge  similar to breath-freshening mints takes several minutes, which is crucial for the compound to have an effect, in addition to stimulating saliva production.

So, why the oesophagus?

Epithelial health could refer to any number of tissues in the body, but Hampson and the Epinutra team chose to focus on the oesophagus because it is by far the simplest part of the digestive tract to reach.

esophagus-epithelial-cells

“The oesophagus is the simplest for us to address,” he said. “If you want to target anything in the gut you have to pass through the stomach. The oesophagus is much easier.”

Heartburn and indigestion are incredibly common, but few remedies are available, and often come with side effects. There are over-the-counter antacids, which work by either capping stomach acid, preventing reflux into the oesophagus, or by neutralising acids with an alkali compound.

It is an enormous market: the global antacids market alone is worth about $10 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization.

The other option is proton pump inhibitors, which suppress stomach acid production, but over time, they can cause headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, and even interfere with the absorption of some nutrients and prescription drugs.

Licensing opportunity

“There are options, but they all target stomach acid and reducing stomach acid, which we don’t,” said Hampson. “…It is a crowded market, but with solutions that have been around for a long time. Our principal competitors are protein pump inhibitors. They are effective, but have side effects in the long term. And beyond that, they have gone off patent.”

This is part of the reasoning behind the company’s fundamental strategy to license its technology to someone else, rather than developing and marketing its own product; manufacturers are likely to have an appetite for new options (and potential revenue streams) for tackling heartburn in this highly competitive market.

“We just received our first prototypes of benescoTM and we are launching for ourselves with a distribution partner in the Netherlands,” said Hampson. “In the longer term we are certainly looking to license it to a larger player.”

At this stage, however, he says the project is still in an early phase and needs more development before the product will be ready for licensing.

Working with StartLife

The company’s founders already had connections with clinical partners based in Amsterdam, and this sparked their interest in the Netherlands, but Epinutra was established there after contacting StartLife at the beginning of 2019. It was accepted onto the StartLife Accelerate program, and launched just a few months later.

“We don’t come from a strong food background,” said Hampson. “StartLife fitted exactly with what we needed, which was that they saw the innovation that we had and they had experts and connections in the food industry. StartLife has really been a gateway to the food industry in the Netherlands. They can be credited with why we set up a Dutch company.”

He added that having the backing of the StartLife brand and Wageningen University has been a helpful seal of approval with its partners, and StartLife clearly was important financially as the company’s initial investors.

Less than a year after it was founded, Epinutra has just closed a funding round led by Rabobank, and has built its Netherlands-based presence from a small, scientific-focused team to one that includes a variety of experts, including marketing professionals.

After launching the product this year, the company plans to seek equity investors to develop other targeted nutraceuticals. If you are interested in this opportunity please contact Richard Hampson directly: rhampson@epinutra.com.

 

p.s. You can also follow StartLife on LinkedinTwitter or stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scaleups and more via the StartLife newsletter.

Founder Story of Verdify: Better Health Through AI And Personalized Nutrition

Image Verdify - 600x400

Healthy eating should be easy for everyone – including those with chronic medical conditions and specific dietary needs, according to the founder and CEO of personalized nutrition platform Verdify.

Launched in November 2019, Verdify is an artificial intelligence platform that links food retailers’ recipe databases with consumers who have special dietary requirements. Users can choose recipes they like on the retailer’s website, with ingredients that can be modified to fit their requirements and, if they wish, these are added to an online shopping list. Currently, the platform caters to those on low salt or low carbohydrate diets, pregnant women, and those with gut health problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease.

Jochem-Bossenbroek-CEO-Verdify

The company’s CEO, Jochem Bossenbroek, has an MBA and a background in biotechnology and life sciences. He said Verdify stemmed from his frustration with health

providers’ overwhelming focus on treating symptoms rather than preventing them from developing in the first place.

“I got more and more frustrated to see how much money was going towards medicine for symptom relief rather than prevention,” he said. “At the same time, I was working with researchers who were studying the links between nutrition and health…Very little of this knowledge is used in practice, so that was really the spark to start this company, Verdify.”

An individual approach

The potential is enormous, considering how many people suffer from long-term health conditions that need to be controlled through diet. IBS alone is thought to affect as many as one in seven people in the world, and an estimated 1.1 billion people have hypertension, requiring a low-salt diet to reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke. The low-FODMAP diet recommended for IBS sufferers excludes about 100 ingredients, so automating the process of adjusting recipes is particularly welcome.

People with health conditions often are given recipe ideas and dietary plans to follow, but what makes this platform different is that it takes into account everything from medical information to allergies and personal food preferences and then adapts to fit the individual. The company has a dietitian and recipe developer on its team – along with a medical doctor – whose expertise fed into the platform’s development, a process that took about two years.

“What we did was try to copy her brain into the software, her way of thinking about how to adjust a recipe to meet dietary challenges, and that’s why it took a lot longer than anticipated,” Bossenbroek said.

“It is not only about replacing ingredients, but also about changing the cooking instructions, which is even more challenging…We wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow a complex diet.”

Tapping into existing databases

Verdify partnership with Supermarket Albert Heijn

Originally, the plan was to build a consumer-driven platform, but the team soon realized they could achieve much more by working directly with businesses.

“Food retailers have a large online collection of recipes and they are used a lot,” he explained. “Some of the Dutch retailers have more than a million visitors a month just looking at these recipes.”

Verdify’s first step toward this business-to-business approach was sparked after it linked its consumer platform with the supermarket chain Albert Heijn. Members could see recipes that matched their personalized profile, and after selection, they could connect with the supermarket for delivery or pick up of the ingredients.

“We then got calls from other supermarkets who were interested in how we adapted and personalized these recipes,” he said. “…Then we realized we could reach a much bigger audience by implementing our technology on the recipe websites of retailers so that all their visitors were directly reached.”

“We are now working with a team that specializes in artificial intelligence to automate any steps that we are still doing manually at this time,” he added.

Apart from licensing its technology to supermarkets, the company also is targeting home meal delivery companies and even kitchen appliance manufacturers, which supply recipe ideas to inspire their customers.

Shifting ambitions

The shift from its initial consumer-focused approach to a business-to-business one has allowed the company to do more with less marketing investment, Bossenbroek said, but it also has required a change in mindset.

“We started with the ambition to focus mainly on the people with a chronic condition, and now of course we are talking with retailers whose consumers are more about the mass market and diet options, people who want to stay healthy or do more sports,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a shift in the mentality – in our mentality mainly.”

Broader applications

Verdify Personalized Food Pill imageStill, the idea is to adapt the platform to a wider range of medical conditions. Preparing people for chemotherapy is one area that particularly interests Bossenbroek, helping cancer patients to start treatment as well-nourished as possible, and to tackle common side-effects during therapy, such as a sensitive mouth and weight loss. In addition, he would like the company to help bridge the substantial gap that exists between life sciences and personalized nutrition, by linking results from DNA tests, blood tests and stool analysis with users’ personalized profiles.

The company also is making its technology available for use in clinical trials on a not-for-profit basis, and it is already working with researchers at Wageningen University on dietary interventions for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Study participants are guided in their meal decisions with Verdify.

“We would like to contribute to clinical trials that want to test dietary interventions,” he said. “I think there is a big need for randomized controlled trials to find out what the impact is on a large scale…We do want to take this internationally and expand the functionality to all kinds of medical conditions.”

Working with StartLife

Bossenbroek first came across StartLife at a conference, where he met one of the coaches and decided to apply to the programme. For him, working with StartLife brings three main advantages.

“Firstly, they are a good sounding board,” he said. “If we have any strategic issues, they can provide relevant advice…Later on, they could provide funding of course.”

Finally, he says being affiliated with StartLife provides a seal of excellence in itself.

“When we go to conferences, people recognize that we are part of StartLife and see that as a positive, that we are a serious company,” he said.

F&A Next - Next Heroes in Food- And AgTech 2020

Verdify already has received widespread recognition for its innovative platform. It was selected by F&A Next and Foodbytes! by Rabobank as one of eight Next Heroes in Food- & AgTech 2020, and on June 11, the company will showcase its technology in the finals of the Blue Tulip Awards.

 

 

p.s. You can also follow StartLife on Linkedin, Twitter or stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scaleups and more via the StartLife newsletter.

 

Founder Story of Ellipsis: Using Satellite Data and AI To Build A Better World

Ellipsis-Earth-Intelligence

Satellites constantly monitor every part of our planet’s surface, but until now, only the most technically-minded have been able to access the relevant data. Ellipsis Earth Intelligence wants to change that, bringing automated analysis of satellite imagery to the mainstream.

Founded in April 2018, Ellipsis Earth Intelligence has developed a self-teaching system that gives a clear picture of environmental changes as they happen, helping businesses make the best use of data to manage their resources, without the need for specialist know-how. It focuses on working with organisations and companies that have very specific information requirements, whether in an agrifood setting or for engineering projects, for instance.

“We started out with the idea of making sure that more people – not only those that are very technical – are able to leverage all the information that is being put out there,” said CEO Rosalie van der Maas. “The world we are living in is under increasing pressure to make better use of resources.”

Beneficial technology

Rosalie van der Maas - CEO of EllipsisVan der Maas has an academic background that spans social and environmental sciences, as well as a strong interest in data analysis, while the company’s co-founders bring expertise in mathematics, physics and IT. She was working on her Master’s degree when they had the idea of creating a company that used data science for a good cause.

“We landed on using satellite data for this,” she said. “It brought everything together in terms of expertise and inherent interest. Call it the disease of millennials: You try to use technology for good – and we felt that we had found something that allowed us to do that.”

The idea is to provide accurate, automatically updated information on diverse landscape conditions, minimising the need for companies to conduct field visits. It can be used to analyse the scale of deforestation, natural grassland, erosion or land subsidence, for example. However, the system can go into much greater detail when required, allowing assessment of specific types of trees, the state of riverbeds, or even whether land on a particular farm is being used for grazing.

Targeted analysis

This case-by-case approach – and its self-teaching IT infrastructure – sets it apart from other analysis systems, which van der Maas says may go into more detail than any particular user requires. Instead, clients can specify the exact area they want to analyse and the methods they want to use to assess what is happening on the ground. The company charges by the square kilometer, with economies of scale for large areas of interest.

“We saw that the pipeline that we built could be leveraged for a whole host of uses,” she said.

Van der Maas notes that other companies carry out similar analysis in nearly every situation that the Ellipsis system monitors, but they tend to be more expensive.

“Because we have focused on infrastructure instead of on use case, we can price everyone out of the market,” she said.

You have a bunch of companies that monitor for deforestation, and sometimes they almost do too much. It should be a little bit more lightweight and cheaper.”

She said many people suggested they should focus on one area to get to know a specific market segment – and that approach has some logic to it – but she recognized that the system could be used more broadly.

Automated and shareable

In addition, because the company’s unique value comes from its custom-made IT structure, it is happy to share its methods, models and data with clients – something that she says worries competitors.

“For example, on cases like land subsidence, companies are very much focused on how to do that and are relying on technologies that are open sourced,” she said. “They are focused on doing that manually. Our system is automated.

“The reason that we compete is that we are operating in a framework that has elements that can be changed…We always share our model with our clients, because it is not the model, but the data infrastructure is where the value is.

Identifying risk

Ellipsis WWF Project

The company is now working on a wide range of projects, including with NGOs like Solidaridad, ECO and WWF. One of the most innovative is a monitoring programme to check the authenticity of claims related to pasture-raised cattle.

“Big dairy companies have a big issue with verifying that their cows actually go outside to graze,” she said. “Together with them, we have developed a method to define a risk fingerprint.”

In practice, this means that low-resolution satellite imagery monitors patterns in how farmers mow their fields. If this data reveals that a farmer is mowing a large proportion of their land at once, it might suggest that cattle are being held indoors. At that point, more detailed, higher resolution analysis can reveal what is really happening.

“It’s such high resolution you can actually see the cows in the field,” she said.

StartLife benefits

Van der Maas said she was already spending many hours working on the initial Ellipsis Earth Intelligence concept during her Master’s degree when she made her first bid for funding. The project didn’t win at that time, but the jury of assessors included representatives from StartLife, who encouraged her to apply to the StartLife Accelerate program.

“We were at a relatively early stage,” she said. “I believe you can benefit a lot from organizations that have seen this kind of structure before.”

StartLife provided a business coach, which van der Maas said was particularly useful in helping her define her own role in the company, and the program was directly responsible for linking the startup with its main financer, Eindhoven-based IT company Itility.

When it comes to working with the agrifood sector, she said it is still a big challenge getting companies to take action.

“It is getting harder and harder to ignore calls for sustainable production,” she said. “At first everyone talks about how it should be better, but we now are helping organisations actually act it out. There used to be a lot of focus on corporate social responsibility and then it started to become clear that sustainability was also good for the bottom line.”

She added: “We are most proud of having people who are not tech savvy using resources in a more sustainable way. That is what it all comes down to.”

 

Founder Story Sundew | targeting ‘huge unmet need’ for aquaculture

Fish farming has become an increasingly important part of the food supply – but there are major flaws with the range of treatments available for aquatic pests and diseases. Now, a team of biotech entrepreneurs is taking a radical new approach to solve one of industry’s biggest problems. Sundew is an early-stage biotech company that aims to provide safe alternatives to treat waterborne pests and diseases, especially those that affect aquaculture.

The company was founded about two years ago, after its chair and co-founder Neil Goldsmith came across an intriguing biological technology to control the common fish parasite ich – also known as white spot disease – on the Danish IP Fair website. A few months later, he and three other high-profile biotech entrepreneurs formed Sundew, and gained a worldwide exclusive licence to commercialize the technology.

Sundew - Company Visual

“There’s nothing fundamentally novel about treating diseases in water, but we are finding a different way of doing it,” said co-founder Andy Gardiner. “That is the huge unmet need – doing it better.”

Indeed, there is an enormous need for chemical-free solutions, and Sundew claims its technology provides just that: a natural compound that eliminates risk for industry and consumers alike.

With more than 20 years’ experience in launching biotech startups, Gardiner comes from a financial and commercial background, rather than a life sciences one. In early 2018, he and Goldsmith had set up a company called Double Bio. Goldsmith had recently stepped down after 13 years as CEO of the specialty health and nutrition biotech firm Evolva, and they were looking for a biotechnology venture they could help bring to market. This was it.

The technology platform is a naturally occurring bacterium produced via fermentation to control ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) in freshwater fish. Developed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), it needed some business savvy and a significant cash injection to introduce on an industrial scale.

“We had already talked about setting up a business that could deal with environmental diseases,” Gardiner said. “This gave us a focus.”

The problem

Aquaculture has been growing at about 6-7% a year for the past 30-40 years, according to FAO figures, far outpacing growth in other food production sectors. The value of world trade in fish and fish products has grown from $8 billion in 1976 to $143 billion in 2016. However, there are challenges that come with such rapid growth, and safe, effective disease control is one of them.

“The solutions that are currently on the market are not ideal in many ways,” Gardiner said. Some treatments for controlling ich on food fish, such as malachite green, are only approved for use with ornamental fish as they pose risks to human health. At the moment, Formalin (made with formaldehyde) is one of the only widely approved treatments, but it is hazardous to handle and not easy to apply.

“It’s technically banned in Denmark , but the industry still has a special licence to keep using it because there’s no other option,” said Gardiner.

In May 2019, Gardiner attended the F&A Next event in Wageningen where he spoke with StartLife’s Program Director Loet Rammelsberg. Rammelsberg encouraged him to apply for the StartLife Accelerate program, and in September, Sundew was selected. So far it has secured €35,000 under the scheme, with a further €50,000 in the pipeline. In addition, it was awarded a grant of €780,000, under the Danish government’s Green Development and Demonstration Programme (GUDP).

Scaling up

For now, Sundew is far from commercial scale, still working at petri dish level, but it is working to bring production up to at least kilogram-scale so it can provide quantities suitable for industry testing.

“We need to get to tonne-scale before getting this on the market,” said Gardiner. “There is a very high degree of confidence that we can get the product up to where we need it to be over the next three years.”

But controlling this one parasite is only the very beginning.

“We have a single molecule at the moment that we know works on more than one disease,” he said. “Our first thing is to screen that molecule against other similar parasites and see where else we might have an effect. Apart from that, there are a whole lot of other, smaller molecules that could treat things in a similar way.”

Further down the line, the team intends to tackle some of the problems that affect conventional agriculture, and even human health, also using biological approaches.

“Beyond aquaculture, in terms of diseases carried in water, there’s human diseases like cholera and malaria, nematodes, which are a problem for cattle, and red tides [algal blooms that release harmful toxins].

“There’s currently no good solution for that, and possibly we could find things that work.”

For any application, the product will need to be environmentally benign, scalable and reasonably cheap.

Asian aspirations

Apart from the company’s four co-founders, and a researcher who was hired using funds from the Danish grant, a freelancer is working to building a network for Sundew in China.

“Ideally, we will find a good partner in China in the long term, at least for distribution,” he said.

The Chinese market is a major target. It has by far the world’s largest aquaculture production , and freshwater fish like carp, eel and catfish dominate its seafood market.

“Because of the structure of the aquaculture market for freshwater fish, Asia is particularly important to us,” Gardiner said. “Major animal health companies see this as their primary need in China…All freshwater fish farms will have ich as a risk. You can imagine a very well-run farm where they can keep this out, but anything that’s drawing water from natural sources is likely to be affected by it from time to time.”

When it comes to regulation, the company is looking at global routes to market for treating food fish, as well as ornamental fish, for which the regulatory path may be faster.

“We are at the start of a long road,” Gardiner said. “We have no real doubts that it’s likely to take us three or four years to get through the regulation that will allow us to sell this really broadly to the aquaculture market.”

Despite the challenges ahead, he is optimistic about the company’s potential.

“We are never going to be short of waterborne diseases and needing solutions that work well,” he said. “Being the company that deals with aquatic diseases, that’s our long-term vision.”

 

Hello Sundew

In the 40-seconds video below Andy Gardiner gives a brief introduction to Sundew and explains why he joined the StartLife Accelerate Fall 2019 program.

 

 

Founder Story Farmertronics | A machine for farmers of the future

StartLife has an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups are eager to share their experience with other entrepreneurs. This story is about Thieu Berkers, founder of Farmertronics.

Farmertronics develops an unmanned, clean tech tractor to work the land, not running on diesel but electrically driven. It is a cross-over between the sectors high-tech, automotive and agriculture.

Country lad with tech skills

Thieu Berkers used to be a hard-core high-tech machine developer at corporates like ASML and BESI in the Netherlands. Though he loved his job, Thieu sometimes missed the connection to his youth: the farm. In his home town his father still used a horse and later on a diesel tractor to work the land, those were the 1960’s. Thieu made the decision to combine his passion for engineering machines and farming as an entrepreneur, in 2012. First, he studied several options like developing a database or applying drones in agriculture. Eventually, developing a ‘riding platform’ or robot seemed the most promising option, because some farmers are in need of a light and fuel saving tractor.

Thieu Berkers, founder of Farmertronics
Thieu Berkers, founder of Farmertronics
A tractor on a battery

Full of courage, Thieu started to develop the robot, called the eTrac, together with two former colleagues. Unfortunately, his friends were less determined to develop a new product, so Thieu had to go on on his own. Defining and building the tractor took much more time than he had expected. It was to be a light autonomous machine running on electricity, which was able to detect and remove weed automatically. The biggest challenge besides funding, was to find a light but powerful battery that would last long enough to drive the eTrac.

Slow motion farming

Now, 5 years later, the development of a first proof of concept was subsidised by Metropool Regio Eindhoven. First the manual mode of the eTrac will be tested. Secondly, vision and GPS-RTK technology will be added for automatic mechanical weed control. This will be tested at a Dutch endive farmer. This farmer is not using chemical weed killers and pesticides; he already controls the weed in a mechanical way but with a heavy and expensive machine connected to a huge tractor. Crossing his field once with this tractor takes him 11 minutes. During these 11 minutes he is just sitting there, doing nothing. At the end of each row he just has to turn his tractor for a next row. In the future he can program the eTrac upfront to control the weed unmanned and automatically with a much lighter robot.

Help from partners

As an advice for other entrepreneurs, Thieu recommends expanding network and choosing the right partners. Thieu is developing his machine together with ACE engineering & consultancy, a company that had just the right expertise. A company in Deurne called M. Aldenzee LMB, will help him build a prototype. At the moment, Thieu is focussing on the functional properties of the eTrac. Thieu coordinates a team of 4 students of the Avans and Fontys Hogeschool. They are a valuable help in business innovation and the technological development.

Thieu met Frans Kampers, his business coach at StartLife, at a high-tech conference in Eindhoven. Frans provided him with advice to strengthen his case and Thieu further increased his network in Wageningen.

Frans Kampers: “given the high costs and poor availability of human labour in agriculture, the future is in autonomous machines that can do the heavy, dirty, monotonous and repetitive tasks. The sector rapidly develops a demand for the solutions like the one Farmertronics is developing.”

Founder Story AgriSim | Software to optimize yields

StartLife has an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups are eager to share their experiences with other entrepreneurs. This story is about Ronald de Bruijn, founder of AgriSim.

AgriSim uses big-data, technology and algorithms to optimize farms (agri and livestock), by creating options for better decision-making in farming and land-use. With the tools AgriSim develops, farmers will be able to choose the crops, fruits and/or vegetables that fit them best in terms of physical and economic results. And thus increase cost effectiveness.

Successful traineeship

Ronald de Bruijn studied Economics and Econometrics in Amsterdam. He started his career at (what is now known as) Kappa Packaging; a multinational paper and cardboard company with Dutch roots. Although Ronald was a trainee, he was able to increase the annual revenue of the company with millions of Euros. He managed to reduce the costs of purchases by writing a business plan and setting up a strong international network.

Russian paper factory

The management of Kappa Packaging gave Ronald a second challenge; to establish a paper factory in Russia. Ronald threw himself in the deep end, did a crash course in Russian and moved to Russia. After two years the factory was up and running. Mission accomplished. Afraid of being bored as well as taking over too much of the Russian habits, Ronald decided to start his own company. After changing his non-compete clause at Kappa, Ronald opted for his next challenge at competitor IP (International Paper) as an independent consultant.

Business plans in Turkey

During his consultancy work for IP, Ronald met Roel Pieper, known for his position at Philips and for the famous book the “Broncode”. Together, the two established several companies in Russia, Georgia and, in a later stage, in Turkey. For example the Turkish department of MyJet based on the very light jets of Eclipse Aviation; a company that introduced the concept of “air-taxi”. Later, Ronald also established a web analytics company, Advertisement, that built algorithm software as well as software programs. Ronald’s entrepreneurial activities drew the attention of the Turkish Minister of Agriculture; they asked him to investigate how the crop yields in Turkey could be improved. For this project the Ministry provided Ronald with years of data on all Turkish subsidized crops. It was this moment that Ronald realized the value of it. This big pile of data couldn’t only explain low yields in Turkey, it could also help to predict yields!

European network

From 2015 on, Ronald build the yield predicting tool. He interviewed farmers to create algorithms with his team. Meanwhile he got subsidies, grants and enlarged his European network. In 2017 Ronald applied for an intake at StartLife. “StartLife has great connections with the university, giving me the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural experts and exchange valuable knowledge”, says Ronald.

Hans de Haan, business coach of AgriSim: “Ronald brings a lot of international commercial experience with him, and a team with ICT expertise. AgriSim knows its target market well and has the skills on board to operate it. The team has the capacity to quickly convert ideas into practical applications and thus grow quickly.”

A few months ago Ronald moved back to the Netherlands with his family. Now, Ronald obtained his first launching client in Turkey.

Advice for entrepreneurs

Ronald has over ten years’ experience as an entrepreneur. As an advice for other entrepreneurs he recommends to adapt to the culture with which you’re doing business. For example, Ronald once made the mistake of refusing to drink alcohol at a Russian negotiation meeting. Refusing a drink during a meeting is ‘not done’ in Russia so this resulted in a cancelled deal. Secondly, Ronald really recommends being modest when spending money at early stages of a company’s establishment; be selective in expenses, reserve at least 30% of the budget for marketing and do thorough research on customer’s needs before spending any money.

agrisim founder story big-data, technology and algorithms soft-ware to optimize yields
Ronald de Bruijn ready to take a soil sample

Get in touch with ronald

Founder Story BLUE-tec | A breakthrough in waste water treatment

StartLife has an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups are eager to share their experience with other entrepreneurs. This story is about Lex van Dijk, founder of BLUE-tec. BLUE-tec uses forward osmosis to treat waste water in a sustainable way. The technique is revolutionary in the water treatment industry and has applications in the food industry as well

Valuable waste

Lex van Dijk studied Environmental Technology in Wageningen. During his time in Wageningen he became interested in filtration techniques and methods for extracting valuable compounds from waste (streams). After a few years working as a consultant, Lex felt he wanted to start a business. In 1996, Lex encountered the membrane bioreactor. He discovered that it was a technique with many potential applications that weren’t, until then, used much in general. He decided to establish a company: Triqua. At Triqua, Lex tested and sold techniques to treat waste water, using a membrane bioreactor. After 12 successful years, implementing various new techniques and finding many international partners, Lex sold the company. “Time for something new”, said his ‘entrepreneurial mind’ and so he went.

Waste in a pressure-cooker

In 2008 Lex discovered another filtration technique: thermal hydrolysis, which is hydrolysis but then using a kind of pressure-cooker technique. He raised a new company: Sustec, to treat waste (or sludge) in a sustainable way. Sludge is the 10% waste that is left after waste water is treated by bacteria. Although Sustec’s goal was to reuse and recycle sludge, Lex wasn’t satisfied. Sludge comprises only a small part of the total waste water. Due to the bacterial treatment, most compounds are lost (or “eaten” if you like). “Why isn’t there a way to save more valuable compounds?”, Lex thought. With BLUE-tec he wanted to make a change in the waste water industry.

Success factors

Within a year, BLUE-tec was established and fully operational. Lex didn’t have many problems establishing this third company. StartLife could offer him a soft loan. His advice for other startups : “Don’t be opportunistic in choosing your partners”. Lex thinks it is really important to share the same vision with people you will collaborate for a certain time. “Don’t make this a rational decision. Listen to your gut feeling”.

What Lex’s success factor was? Lex thinks he has gained the right experienced and met the right people during his career. In many cases, people are willing to do business simply because they like you. Not because of scientific evidence. It’s about emotions and a factor of goodwill: “disruptive startups are the most creative and the fastest growing companies that are loved by everyone”. The reason these companies are successful, is the same as the reason they “die” easily: sometimes their story is great, but their business model isn’t fool proof.

Many disruptive startups have small teams. These teams can act much faster, as decisions don’t have to be considered by a large management. Enabling startups to make larger but more risky steps. On the other hand, having a small team can be demanding, because a broad set of skills is needed to run the company. Lacking a competence can mean the end. Besides that, Lex doesn’t believe that entrepreneurship can be learned: “it should be in your nature”.

Breakthrough technique

BLUE-tec uses forward osmosis to treat waste water in a sustainable way. Forward osmosis splits waste water into clean water and sludge. It can greatly concentrate sludge, without spoiling valuable nutrients. This enables users to recycle the “waste” even better. Moreover, waste doesn’t have to be dissolved in water, saving precious water. The technique is not only applicable for waste water treatment, but also in the food industry.  “Many food manufacturers vaporize liquid products to obtain more solid end-products using a lot of energy. At the moment, we help food manufacturers to implement systems using forward osmosis.”, says Lex. “Using forward osmosis to treat waste water, like BLUE-tec, could become a real breakthrough in the industry!”, says Lex, “I will put my heart and guts into this company till I am retired”.

Would you like to know more about BLUE-tec?

Visit the website

Get in touch with BLUE-tec

Founder Story Onszaden | Foreign seeds

StartLife has an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups want to share their experience with other entrepreneurs. This story is about Sander Onsman founder of Onszaden, a company that sells foreign seeds.

Teacher or entrepreneur

Sander studied biology in Wageningen. He wasn’t an ordinary biology student. Sander was interested in entrepreneurship, teaching and organising events. During his studies he organised the annual Open Days of the university and also  finished a teacher training program. Although finishing his Bachelor didn’t go fast, no time was wasted. “Doing different activities during your study, helps students to make a better choice for their future career”, says Sander, “in the end, I found my mission”.

Hobby project

Before Sander (Onsman) started his studies, he had already registered his company “Onszaden” at the Chamber of Commerce. He wasn’t sure if he would really do something with it, but at least it gave him the opportunity to experiment and build his own web shop. On the website Sander sold exotic seeds. During his study he ran the business and ordered seeds from all over the world. Like that wasn’t challenging enough, he had to collect, repack, send and store all goods in his tiny student house.

Beers and ideas at the cafe

The networking gatherings Sander visited regularly during his study proved valuable. There he met people that liked to discuss their business plans and drink a beer or two. It gave Sander the opportunity to test his ideas about expanding his web shop. The friends at the café discouraged some ideas but gave him confirmation too. Sander: “The drinks at the café were a bit like the Entrepreneurial Drinks at StartHub. Though, they often continued until  much later…”.

Sympathizers at StartHub

Via friends Sander had met at the drinks, he rented a flex-office at StartHub. “Working together in a building with other entrepreneurs was really motivating. Talking with them tuned my ideas”, says Sander. At that time, StartLife awarded Onszaden with a Young Hero Award. Later, Sander received a Student Startup Loan from StartLife to increase his sales and hire employees. When, suddenly, a shop-premises became available at a great spot in the city centre of Wageningen, Sander made the decision to expand his web shop with a physical shop.

Flourishing business

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It seems Sander has found a niche market. His collection of seeds can be found in the shop, on the web, in several magazines and even in an plant encyclopaedia composed by the University of Groningen. Now, a year after the official opening of his shop in Wageningen, sales are still increasing. Sander: “Entrepreneurship suits me well. My ambition? I want to expand the sales and enter the international market. By doing that, Onszaden can become so big, we will be able to really make a difference for small seed farmers abroad.”

Get in touch with Sander Onsman

GO TO WWW.ONSZADEN.NL

Founder Story Zip Drill | Tools that save money for farmers

StartLife nurtures an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups want to share their experience with other entrepreneurs. This Founder Story is about Thierry Stokkermans founder of Zip Drill. Zip Drill develops tools for conservation agriculture. Worldwide, conservation agriculture is the first alternative to conventional farming.

Soil-loving product engineer
Thierry studied agriculture in France, his country of birth. After working as a farmer in Australia for a few years, he started studying again. Within five years he finished another bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, a master in product engineering and a master in advanced technology management. During his study, he learned how to transfer “proof-of-concept” innovations into valuable technological products. Thierry had always been an entrepreneur. When he was 23, he invented a skateboard, but unfortunately he couldn’t beat the competing companies. After he had worked a few years in the field of agricultural machinery, Thierry developed interest in conservation agriculture.

Different farming system
In the Netherlands all agriculture is conventional farming, known for its use of manure and land tillage. A less well-known farming technique in the Netherlands is conservation agriculture. Conservation agriculture mimics nature. It has 3 important features: 1) soil covering, 2) avoiding tillage, and 3) biodiversity. It is practised on a worldwide scale on 125 million hectares (ha), which is 9% of the farmable cropped land (Friedrich et al., 2012). In comparison, organic farming is practiced on 43 million ha (Willer & Lernoud, 2016). Modern conservation agriculture is less costly than conventional farming, is better for the environment and it has the same yields as conventional farming. Thierry saw the advantages and decided to start a business.

Saving money with better tools
Conservation agriculture helps save the environment and prolong soil life. Thierry cares about soil: “Soil is the stomach of plants”. Thierry discovered that in conservational agriculture there are more developments since the 60’s. Developing better tools would save a lot of money for farmers worldwide! Although Thierry has always been open for cooperation, it was hard to find a business partner. Thierry decided to stake all his savings in developing a product himself.

Unique selling points
Now, Thierry is almost ready to launch his first product. In the past two years he has developed a sowing tool for conservation agriculture farmers. The product has four unique features: 1) it creates a higher humidity of the air surrounding the seeds, 2) it prevents plant residues from getting into the ground, 3) it enables farmers to safely place a fertilizer in the seed slot and; 4) it’s affordable!

What he’s learned
Looking back Thierry has learned a lot from his adventure. He discovered that being a good student and smart doesn’t mean starting a business is easy. As an entrepreneur you really need to be a jack-of-all-trades. There is nowhere where you can learn to become an engineer, a PR person & marketeer and a salesman at once. Thierry found out that making things easy and straightforward is the best way to go. For example, he approaches his customers (farmers) directly, using personal one-to-one communication.

Help from StartLife
A StartLife coach helped Thierry to realize the importance of a solid financial plan. Making things financially clear is the only way to progress. Moreover, Thierry really appreciates his office at StartHub: a great place, more than enough networking opportunities and many valuable workshops to attend.

Hans de Haan, Business Coach at StartLife: “Thierry has started Zip Drill after having worked in the industry for several years. He is not only well-informed on technical issues but also has a good insight in the industry dynamics. The combination with his interest in soil provides him with a lot of potential to become a successful company”.

Thierry is optimistic about the future. The only thing that Zip Drill lacks is a co-founder who loves “Sales & Soil”!

Get in touch with Thierry

Read Thierry’s blog or have a look a Zip Drill’s teaser:

Founder Story Hudson River Biotechnology | CRISPR-Cas9 to boost natural ingredients

StartLife nurtures an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups want to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. This Founder Story is about Rudi Ariaans and Ferdinand Los founders of Hudson River Biotechnology (HRB). The duo noticed the current need for more profitable crops producing natural ingredients. HRB helps companies to improve yields and lower the costs of high-value compounds.

‘StartLife opened the door for us to the “kitchen” of Wageningen. We were able to meet the right people much faster’, Rudi Ariaans, one of the founders of Hudson River Biotechnology

Solution for the market
Rudi and Ferdinand met in New York in 2011. The company was named after the famous river that flows through the city. Rudi has a background in international business. Back then he worked as a commercial manager at DSM in New York. Ferdinand has a background in science, with a PhD in biology from the University of California at San Diego and consulting experience from the Dutch company ttopstart.

Rudi and Ferdinand talked a lot about their experiences and challenges in the ingredient business. The sector is dealing with a paradox. On the one hand, there is a need for more natural food ingredients instead of the synthetic ones. But, those natural ingredients from plants are difficult to produce and thus far more expensive. Novel breeding techniques, driven by recent advances in genetics, have made improving such specialty crops economically viable. For example, Rudi and Ferdinand use modern breeding techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9 to increase plant productivity and thus making natural ingredients cheaper. HRB’s first business case was lutein extracted from marigold flowers.

Successes
As a route to fund their first project, Rudi and Ferdinand applied for funding under the EU’s Horizon2020 program. They managed to beat the competition and got their first application immediately approved. This European subsidy opened many doors and provided the opportunity to partner with Wageningen University & Research. HRB still rents lab space on the campus for their genetic research in plants.

Challenges
Not everything went smoothly from the beginning. Rudi and Ferdinand started their lutein research in 2015. They planned for 6-12 months of research, but a stroke of bad luck turned this into two years and additional spending. At that time Rudi and Ferdinand both had full-time jobs, so they had to work day and night. If they could give a piece of advice to other entrepreneurs it would be: “stay optimistic, be persistent, work on the things you are passionate about, and make sure to have a private financial plan!”.

Hudson River Biotechnology USPs
Hudson River Biotechnology focuses on ingredients that are hard to increase through the traditional breeding methods, because of the lack of simple, visual markers” says Ferdinand. “Our focus is on specialty crops and not on mass crops like corn”, adds Rudi, carving out a clear niche for HRB. HRB is driven by customer-demand, as opposed to most university spin-offs, which are technology-driven. “We are creating an innovation factory in specialty crops”, says Rudi.

The value of StartLife
Rudi and Ferdinand are very thankful for the help they received from StartLife and the Regional Development Agency; OostNV. “StartLife opened the door for us to the “kitchen” of Wageningen. We were able to meet the right people much faster’’, says Rudi. “To the outside world, our connection shows that we are StartLife-proof”, both founders agree.

Flourishing future?
Now, Hudson River Biotechnology is partnering up with international companies in Asia, the Americas and Europe. The next ingredient that will be developed is lavender oil, an important substance for the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries. Rudi and Ferdinand, are talking with several investors and they are open to meet other parties as well. Although the company is in a pre-market phase, they are expanding and adding people to their R&D team. Looking ahead, Rudi and Ferdinand expect to develop many more crops.

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Founder Story Waterly | The drinking-water revolution

StartLife nurtures an enormous network of startups with inspiring founders. These startups want to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. This Founder Story is about Bart Verweijen, the founder of Waterly.

Bart aspired to make drinking-water more attractive and satisfying for people at the office. StartLife helped him to introduce “fruity water”; a natural alternative for coffee and sweetened beverages. Now, Waterly is slowly entering the market.

Never take ‘no’ for an answer. You probably got a ‘no’ because you were sharing the wrong information

A few years ago Bart planned a journey through Rajasthan, India. Rajasthan is one of the driest places on earth. Bart saw people suffering from the drought on a daily-basis. Then, he realised that Dutch people take clean drinking-water for granted. In the Netherlands there is plenty of fresh and healthy water available but, we hardly ever choose to drink it. We grab a coffee or sweetened beverages, but never plain water.

After his journey, Bart started to work for Dopper, well-known for its trendy water bottles. Dopper strives to increase the availability of drinking-water worldwide. As managing director, Bart began to understand why and when Europeans drink water. After two successful years, Bart struck out on his own and founded Waterly. His mission was to stimulate a healthy lifestyle in developed countries whilst making clean drinking-water available in developing countries.

Of course, Bart understood how difficult this mission would be. Plain water lacks tastiness and caffeine. Bart didn’t want to invent another artificial flavoured water. They already flooded the market. So he combined water with fresh fruit and herb juices. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to transport his water and keep it fresh. Water with juice stays fresh for only a few hours!

Finally, Bart found a solution. In collaboration a food appliance manufacturer and a product designer he developed a dispenser that gives out fresh fruity water at any time. The machine keeps the water fresh for two weeks. Now, a prototype of the dispenser will be tested at Papendal, the national sports centre of the Netherlands. Visitors the Top Sport Restaurant can try a variety of fruity water recipes. Waterly drinks contain 12% juice and have less than 7 kcal per serving.

“A lot of people discouraged me from using fresh and natural juices, as the prices, preservability and supply chain are real issues. But if you have a dream, you need to be determined. And now we are almost there’’, says Bart. Another tip Bart has for other startups is to “Never take ‘no’ for an answer. You probably got a ‘no’ because you were sharing the wrong information. By participating in pitching events, for example at F&A Next, you will quickly learn how to present the right information”. One of the greatest opportunities for Waterly was participation in the national “PresentYourStartup” pitch-competition in 2016. Bart was confronted with the weaknesses and strengths of Waterly. In the end, his pitch had improved so much that Waterly became one of the finalists.

The worst experience for Bart was his pitch for the Review Board of the StartLife Stage Gate Incubation Program. In spite of his confidence in Waterly’s business plan, his application for Stage 2 was rejected. However, now he reflects positively on the experience. He needed to be critical about his ideas. StartLife taught him about the way investors think. His coach encouraged him to segment his business-case so that it could be tested and phased into the market. That was a necessary step for winning over investors and partners: “Keep in mind that no one will invest in a project that only exists on paper. Make the product tangible in an early stage and reduce the risk by taking small steps in the development process”, says Bart.

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Right: Bart Verweijen, left: Linda Kester. Founders of Waterly

Founder Story VitalFluid | Thunderstorm-technique for sustainable crop growth

StartLife has a large network of startups. These startups have inspiring founders who are willing to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. This Founder Story is about VitalFluid, one of the few companies in the world who brought plasma activated water (PAW) to market.

When the idea was born, VitalFluid had a long way to go. StartLife helped them to find the right market segment. Now, VitalFluid’s product seems to be a possible solution the sustainable production of crops.

Paul Leenders, one of VitalFluid’s founders, began his career in the aerospace industry. He was responsible for air treatment filters upon the International Space Station. In 2006, Paul performed a feasibility study, commissioned by TNO Space/ESA, on the decontamination and sterilization of air. One of the promising techniques that arose from this study was the “plasma activation technique”. Plasma activated air is produced by treating the air by electrical current. This yields oxygen and nitrogen with unique disinfecting properties. Back then Paul had no idea about other uses for this technique.

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Paul Leenders (left) and Polo van Ooij (right), founders of VitalFluid, with their test system for plasma activated water.

In 2009, Paul launched a new project on plasma activated air. In collaboration with TNO, Radboud University Nijmegen, Filtex Air Filtration and Bactimm, they had to develop an alternative for alcohol-based hand sanitizers. For the development of a device based on plasma activated air, they received 1,2 million Euro PIDON subsidy. The project team found out that the technique itself was safe. Unfortunately, due to the risk of inhaling gasses, developing a safe disinfection device wasn’t possible.

A breakthrough came in 2011, when Paul lead a project with students from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and the University of Technology in Eindhoven (TU/e). In Eindhoven he met Polo van Ooij, a TU/e electrical engineer who later became a cofounder of Vital Fluid. The WUR students performed some small experiments with PAW produced at TU/e. They performed a simple study whereby roses that were put into normal water and into PAW. The results were stunning; the PAW kept the roses fresher for 2 to 3 days longer. That was the moment when Polo and Paul realized that this technology would be of value to the agricultural sector.

In 2014, Paul and Polo were finally able to test PAW technology on a larger scale in a joint subsidized EFRO project in collaboration with WUR, TU/e, Radboud University Nijmegen, FloraHolland, Alewijnse, Bactimm and Filtex. The results were, again, very promising and in July 2014 VitalFluid was officially established. A tip Paul has for other startups is to focus on one specific market, stick to your business plan and never give up. “StartLife offered great support”, Paul says, “our coach Linze was an excellent coach. He helped us to define the right market“. Linze Rijswijk, business coach at StartLife: “VitalFluid has developed a frontier technology that is applicable in many sectors. It is a disruptive technology with a positive impact on the environment”.

Paul Leenders: “Focus on one specific market, stick to your business plan and never give up”

Now VitalFluid is one of the few companies in the world offering solutions and equipment using PAW. In a specialized plasma reactor, ambient air is split into reactive oxygen and reactive nitrogen by an electrical current. These elements can be easily dissolved in water, creating the unique properties of plasma activated water. At the moment, the focus is on the treatment of seeds for the agricultural sector. Several companies have already shown interest. In the future, many pre- and post-harvest applications, like fertilizers, sustainable crop growth and hygiene, will also be available. And off course you can also wash your hands with VitalFluid!

Also look at VitalFluid the Dutch tv-program “De Kennis van Nu

Founder Story Cerescon | Starting the asparagus-revolution

StartLife has a large network of startups. These startups have inspiring founders who are willing to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. This Founder Story is an interview with Thérèse van Vinken, one of the co-founders of Cerescon.

It all started in the province of Brabant, 17 years ago. Thérèse and Ad van Vinken and Marc Vermeer decided to do something about the issues with foreign workers in the asparagus sector. Marc was an asparagus farmer and Ad, Thérèse’s husband, had over 30 years’ of experience in machine development and was a co-founder of SoleyTec, another successful high tech startup. Thérèse had studied maths, chemistry, marketing and marketing communications. Ad and Thérèse had always dreamed of starting a business together. Building an automatic selective asparagus harvesting machine with this team was the opportunity they were looking for. It turned out to be a difficult quest but they received a lot of help, in prime part thanks to StartLife.

Several companies had already tried to develop an automatic selective asparagus harvesting machine but they were all unsuccessful and therefore, until recently, asparagus was always harvested manually. Cerescon tried harvesting using different techniques such as radio frequency and radar but they weren’t successful. Finally, in 2014, they had a breakthrough with a capacitive sensor which could measure moisture. Asparagus contains 97% moisture in comparison to soil which only contains 8-12% moisture. This technique enabled the harvesting machine to detect the asparagus’ subsurface and subsequently harvest them before they appeared above ground. Therefore increasing both yield and quality of the asparagus, thus resulting in a higher turnover for the farmer.

Even with the idea, that is just the start of building a business. The team then had to make the technique applicable for farmers by building a reliable machine. They participated in several programmes in an attempt to raise money and subsequently found a private investor. By the end of 2014, when the team had almost given rise to the last sub company, something terrible happened: Marc Vermeer fell severely ill and sadly passed away.

The loss of Marc had a huge impact on Thérèse and Ad. After they had gone through a very difficult period, they decided to fulfil the Marc’s dream and make Cerescon a successful company. Thérèse and Ad realized that with Marc’s death their business has lost their connection to the farming network. Thérèse decided to contact the most innovative and open-minded farmer she could find and pitched their business-proposition like she had never pitched before. Ron Martens, the farmer in question, had seen the failures of other automatic asparagus machines. When asked if he would like to test the Cerescon machine and become the first member of a Cerescon User Group he said: “Mwah” (which meant “yes” in this case). After Ron’s cautious commitment, Cerescon started to expand their User Group. This was of the utmost importance, as they needed a continuous source of user-information.

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Thérèse van Vinken | General Manager Cerescon

 

In the spring of 2015, Cerescon contacted StartLife and joined the Stage Gate Incubation Program. Their coach, Frans Kampers, did entice them with many critical but necessary questions. The “StartLife Personal And Team Assessment (PATA) module” was useful, since it confirmed the balanced composition or their team. “Success within the program was essential for our startup”, Thérèse says, “because it convinced investors”. A tip Thérèse has for startups, is to focus earlier on developing a solid financial plan. “There is even subsidies available for advice on building a financial plan”, she adds. Next to that Cerescon thinks it is important not to give shares away too easily in the beginning as you need the shares in a later stage of your establishment to acquire interest of large investors.

“Cerescon is a professional startup, that finished the Stage Gate Program in a record time”, adds Frans Kampers.

More and more asparagus growers have joined the Cerescon User Group. Now, even the biggest German growers are showing commitment. Cerescon expects to bring the first commercial machine on the market in 2018. Soon, asparagus will be harvested automatically!

Founder Story B-Mex | Creating value with greenhouse-science

StartLife has a large network of start-ups. All of these start-ups have powerful inspiring founders who are willing to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. In order to give these founders a platform to share on, we started the StartLife Founder Stories. This story is an interview with Fokke Buwalda, founder of B-Mex.

“Greenhouse growers don’t want to experiment with their crop. They are looking for answers. The products we make are similar to the development from road maps to navigation systems”, says Fokke, “local data were already present, but now the effect of changes in growing conditions can be predicted accurately.” Via the web service which is provided by B-Mex, growers can gain insight into their crop performance.

Fokke Buwalda started his career as an Eco-physiologist (the study of the interactions between plants and their environment). Over time, he gained considerable knowledge about the influence of environmental factors on plants. Together with Gerrit van Straten and Ido Seginer, he set up a large European research project aimed at applying crop science into mathematical models. The project resulted in applicable models and many highly cited papers. However, the models never reached the market. It became a pattern: at the end of each project, the next step, i.e. a company investing in commercialization of the model, never eventuated. Gradually, Fokke became frustrated: valuable knowledge was not finding its way into practice, but disappeared in scientific reports. As a hobby, he started to develop mathematical models for himself.

In 2011, Fokke met Jan Meiling. Jan organized a business challenge and invited him to participate. Like many academics, Fokke knew very little about entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, together with two fellow researchers, he submitted a plan to commercialize a simulation model designed to predict pepper yields. Although Fokke and his team didn’t win the award, they were invited by Jan for a workshop by Wietze van der Aa on setting up service-oriented start-ups. That training was a real eye-opener: suddenly Fokke realized that he could start a business himself, rather than waiting for others to invest in his ideas.

At the same time, Wageningen University and Research announced a reorganization. Fokke seized the opportunity and resigned from his permanent position by the end of 2013. His employer had become aware the importance of knowledge valorization. As a result, a comprehensive licensing agreement was reached, granting Fokke’s company B-Mex access to the latest advancements in horticultural science and exclusive rights to commercialize simulation models.

In October 2015, Peter van Beveren joined B-Mex. He is an expert on simulation models for energy management in greenhouses. Expanding the team was of utmost importance: “even though I am a jack of all trades, time is always limited”, says Fokke. At the moment, B-Mex’s team consists of four employees. Another lesson learned was that it is crucial to focus on the planned trajectory when starting a company. Sometimes it is wise to outsource work or to seek partnerships with other companies rather than try it yourself and stagnate. StartLife provided him with the right network. Now, B-Mex is able to make valuable knowledge practically available in the greenhouse industry.

“B-Mex is an example of a true university spin-out. They showed that cooperation between spin-out and university is needed to commercialize scientific insights” – Gitte Schober, Centre of Entrepreneurship Wageningen & StartLife.

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Founder Story Foodcase | Persistent startup gets wings at last

StartLife has a large network of startups. All of these startups have powerful inspiring founders who are willing to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. In order to give these founders a platform to share on, we started the StartLife Founder Stories. This story is an interview with Wilbert de Louw, co-founder of Foodcase.

A patent for a self-heating system for cans, that is what it all started with. Together Wilbert de Louw, entrepreneur, and Oscar Huizing, chef, decided to develop a product with this technology. In 2011 they got in touch with StartLife. The technology needed improvement. StartLife connected them with the right experts from Wageningen University & Research. The experts helped them with texture and preservability issues. Beginning 2012, Foodcase created their first products: chocolate milk and soup, in a self-heating can. The food could be heated anywhere & anytime. A product with many opportunities you would think.

Airline industry

Unfortunately, it was more difficult to find a good market segment than initially thought. When a large party showed interest, the product had to be changed a lot. This party was a Dutch airline company. To fit this market, Foodcase had to improve the product in terms of hygiene guidelines, taste, packaging, air pressure resistance, nutritional content, production method and scale. They even carried out market research in collaboration with StartLife, in order to investigate this drastic change of course.

In 2013 Foodcase made the leap and signed the global contract with an airline caterer. Unfortunately this global contract did not give Foodcase enough market awareness. It seemed that the caterer wanted to have an agreement to protect their own business rather than to accelerate Foodcase’s business. Therefore Foodcase decided to focus on its own sales force. With that, their beachhead market increased to 27 airline industries. To create the best meals Foodcase recruited a full power team of nutritionists, food technologists, market & consumer experts above all culinary experience.

When they began selling their first products in 2013, a factory in the province of Brabant took care of production. Unfortunately this manufacturer was not able to guarantee the specs of the products and Foodcase received many complaints. They were forced to find a new manufacturer, which they found in the province of Limburg.

Bankrupt

At the end of 2014 something unexpected happened: the manufacturer almost went bankrupt. Foodcase had made itself reliant on them. Again they had to make a hard decision: either invest all their capital into production or lose the market with the risk that they wouldn’t survive. They choose the first option. Foodcase had to stop all development activities, reduce its staff and invest a lot in production. But they survived. After a few hard years and a lot of learnings (production is now again outsourced and factory has been sold to a production partner) Foodcase is market leader in ambient meal supply for airlines in Europe.

Last week, Foodcase joined the Dutch Trade Mission of Prime Minister Mark Rutte to Indonesia. Foodcase found a great partner in Indonesia to meet the demand of the growing market in Asia.

Looking back, Wilbert is proud of what the company has achieved. Decisions, like the commitment with the airline industry and switching from development to sales, and above all the operational excellence and relying on solid production partners were crucial for the success of Foodcase. In the future, Foodcase will focus on perishable foods in closed market segments like healthcare and army catering. The goal is to become the experts.

Thomas van den Boezem, Program Manager at StartLife: ‘’Foodcase is a perfect example of a radical innovation that adds value to suppliers, end-users, as well as the environment. The highly experienced and passionate team is able to overcome the obstacles that they face. We need more Foodcases to shake up the Food and Hospitality sector.”

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Wilbert de Louw, CEO Foodcase (photocredits: A. Oomen)

Founder Story No Fairytales | Fight against obesity

Two years ago Bernadette Kooijman started her own company with the aim to contribute to the worldwide fight against obesity. Bernadette: “After a long day at the office I sat on the couch watching a commercial about the “pizzaburger”. That was the moment I woke up and decided to do something.

Healthy has to be a habit

Bernadette studied Food Technology in Wageningen. “My ambition is to increase the vegetable intake by making products more appealing and tasty as well”. Healthy eating shouldn’t be a difficult choice, it has to be a habit. If that would be the case, people would automatically eat less fat and sugar, and more vegetables and fibers”, Bernadette says.

Tortilla’s

No Fairytales started with a carrot and beetroot tortilla, the first worldwide. 45% of the tortilla exists of vegetables, and it is a source of fibers. By eating two tortillas you already consume about 36 grams of vegetables. Not only that, the veggies also make these tortillas delicious. Bernadette tested many products by tastings  in shopping malls. “The first one was too dry. The next one didn’t taste like veggies. Finally, when 71% liked my product, I decided to go on with the recipe” After a long development process, No Fairytales can produce on a large scale. At the moment, the tortillas are available at the Cool shelf of the Albert Heijn (next to the fresh pastas) and the first sales figures are above expectations.

Scaling up

Another product line consists of fermented vegetables. The team working on these products are: Christian Weij (the fermentation specialist and writer of the book “Verrot lekker”), Kramer’s zuurkool (the largest Sauerkraut producer in The Netherlands) and professor Eddy Smid of Wageningen University & Research. These products are expected to be available for consumers in 2017.

No Fairytales is being discovered by bloggers and consumers. Recently, Janny van der Heijden, culinary publicist and presenter of the popular television program “Heel Holland Bakt”, published a recipe in which she used the No Fairytales tortillas.

The support of StartLife

No Fairytales received a loan via the state-gate program of StartLife. Bernadette: “The loan was really welcome for me as a starter. I had to spend a lot of money, for instance to select a good packaging and design of the brand. My account manager at StartLife, Jans Hoekman, helped me to connect with the right people, like a website developer and a social media expert.” Jans Hoekman: “I really belief in the success of No Fairytales. Not only because it provides the market its demand for healthy alternatives, but also because it is very tasteful. Only healthy doesn’t work.”

Where the name No Fairytales comes from? “I don’t sell fairytales, my products are fair and transparent. What you see, is what you get”, says Bernadette.

For more information and recipes: www.nofairytales.nl

Founder Story Nutrileads | Passion & Patents at the Kitchen Table

StartLife has a big network of startups. All these startups have powerful, inspiring founders who would like to share their tips & tricks with beginning entrepreneurs. To give these founders a stage, we’ve started the series StartLife Founder Stories in which they give others tips regarding how to begin a startup. In this second part an interview with Ruud Albers, founder of Nutrileads. The startup focuses on ingrediënts for health improving food and has recently settled in the new breeding place, Plus Ultra, on the campus of Wageningen University & Research.

Patents at the kitchen table

To tell the truth, Ruud Albers was doing just fine at Unilever. He had studied medical biology in Utrecht after which he got promoted and started working as immunologist at Unilever R&D. ‘Goal was to develop foods which support the effect of the immune system and have a positive effect on the health because of that. At first I did it alone but it grew into an expertise group throughout the years of which a part was in Vlaardingen and a part in Asia’. But when Unilever chose for a strategic change of course in 2011, where the focus was more on home and personal care and less on food, Albers chose for this passion: food & health. He went into discussion with Unilever about the technologies that were developed and the patents that were filed. Unilever might not have been planning on doing anything with it, but Albers wanted to continue with it.

Eventually he was able to take over a few of the patents. That formed the beginning of Nutrileads. ‘At that moment it means that you’ve left such a big multinational. And all context which you have because of that. That you can sit at home at the kitchen table with a moment like: Ok? And now? I have patents. I have a few kilo materials. I have the knowledge. But I’m not going to get any further here at home. How am I going to do this?’

Passion & stubbornness

‘I’m fairly stubborn. Some would even say extremely stubborn. Aside from that, I am convinced that food can have a huge positive effect on our health and I feel a strong drive to do something with that. And when I’m convinced that something is worth it, then I will continue for a long time. I think that’s also been the base for Nutrileads.’ Albers first step was making and expanding his network. That’s how he ended up at Startlife. ‘What Startlife has meant for me is the uncovering of a relevant network in the Netherlands. I was especially in an international network at Unilever, and I clearly needed a Dutch network for this. I needed to know where I could go. What the financing options would be for this kind of initiatives. What are the networks. Where can I station the company in the long-term. To tell the truth, from one thing came another.’

After a successful venture challenge, Albers is finally able to put together a strong team and they succeed in finding four investors who want to invest in Nutrileads together. ‘In October 2015 we managed to fulfill all the finances and since then it’s always gone quite hard. For example, we were able to intensify the cooperation with NIZO and with the University of Wageningen. And we have started working towards a first proof of concept. This study has just been finished successfully in such a way that the clinical phase is done and we are now waiting for the results of that. And that’s how we started out as an out of hand move from one man to a startup in which four people are now directly involved and around that a rind of people who we work closely with.’

Cherish the objection

After leading a startup for five years, Albers has quite some tips for beginning entrepreneurs. ‘Get away from that kitchen table as soon as possible and talk to people. Test your ideas. Test them on critical people who don’t only give the polite answer, but also the unpleasant answers. Cherish those people. Organize your own objection with that. And also, just do it and make sure you enjoy the ride. Especially enjoy the ride. I sometimes have to say it to myself as well but it’s a fantastic adventure when you manage to put down a startup. And then you’ll see what becomes of it. It always turns out different than you expected. Or like I heard recently: above all, stay stubborn in following your dream, but also be flexible when it comes to altering your plans.’

Founder Story Multi Tool Trac | About ideals and dabbling in the mud

StartLife has a large network of startups. All of these startups have powerful, inspiring founders who are willing to share their tips & tricks with other entrepreneurs. In order to give these founders a platform, we started the StartLife Founder Stories. In this first story, an interview with Paul van Ham, founder of Multi Tool Trac. This startup developed the first electric tractor. A development that will have a major impact on the current farming techniques.

IdealsPaul van Ham, Multi Tool Trac

Paul sees the foundation of Multi Tool Trac as a special story. ‘I graduated in Wageningen as an agricultural engineer. My major was about tillage combined with organic farming. Organic farming was so different from the conventional agriculture that I learned about at that time, which really fascinated me.’ Despite the great interest in organic farming, Paul did not immediately get to work on this by himself. ‘It wasn’t until 2009, when I was at work at a farm in Noordoostpolder, when I saw a real solution to soil compaction in practice. At that farm, they were driving around with tractors and machines across the same path with the wheels, very consistently. Truly a difference of day and night. At the spots where a machine never goes, all kinds of things come to life. Plant roots, fungi, earthworms: it’s alive! The farmers were obviously proud of their working method. But what they were less satisfied about was the machine that they used for their controlled traffic farming. They built it themselves and it was completely worn out because simply nothing else was available. When I was talking with the farmers, it was clear that they were frustrated about this, and I thought: this is my old major. I need to work with this!’

Dabbling in the mud

‘The first year, after I decided to help the farmers, we were truly fuelled by enthusiasm. At a certain moment, something else was added. It became a project and it had to be finished. Then it starts to become harder. Subjects and prototypes need to be created, which brings about the discussions. With two great partners, Eelco Osse and Henk Wissels, we eventually started building. We agreed that the farmers, who were going to buy the two machines, were to have the final say. So it would become their machine. Next, we were running out of both time and money and we simply had to dabble around in the mud. But then you enter into conversation again with your customers; this helps me realize what we’re doing it for. It keeps us going.’ In the same way, Paul got into conversation with Frans Kampers of StartLife. ‘I think he liked the project. And then things start to work out!’ StartLife visited the Multi Tool trac factory, tasted the enthusiasm and decided that it was time to help Multi Tool Trac on its way. ‘Initially I thought it was only about borrowing money so that we could start building our two prototypes. However, I soon found out that StartLife has so much more to offer. A workshop Marketing & Communication. A talk with investors. This really helps you in your way!’

‘All obstacles on the road? Yes, it’s true!’

After six years, Multi Tool Trac is now ready to finalize the building of the prototypes and at the same time, steps can be taken to start building the factory. Despite this being something completely different, Paul indicates that this is really something they have to do themselves. ‘It’s really our thing. You don’t put your child on the street when he’s only four or five years old.’ A development, which helps Multi Tool Trac, transform into a scale-up. When asked whether he has any tips for budding entrepreneurs, Paul does not hesitate for a second: ‘Start as early as possible! Don’t hesitate and realize that you would otherwise have to look at this twenty years down the road and explain to yourself why you didn’t do it.’