It’s widely known that startups benefit from advice and guidance by experienced entrepreneurs and professionals. Sometimes the spark between a mentor and his mentee light up to such extent that the mentor ends up being recruited by the startup. It happened to foodtech startups Cano-ela and Greencovery. When interviewing them about the change of roles, we noticed an interesting overlap.

Cano-ela spurs growth with Benjamin Maclean as Chief Commercial Officer

Benjamin Maclean and Juliana Juliana Romero Guzmán

In the Spring of 2021, StartLife welcomed dr. Juliana Romero Guzmán and dr. Alberto Masetti Niccolai into the sixth edition of StartLife Accelerate with their one-year old startup Cano-ela; a Wageningen-based foodtech startup that developed a patented tailor-made process to extract innovative food ingredients from oil-rich seeds, focusing on Canola.

Though Canola, a variant of rapeseed, is a relatively new crop (1978), it has already become one of the world’s most important oilseed crops. In fact, with a market size of 69 million metric tonnes rapeseed in 2020, it’s the third biggest seed in the world, after palm and soy! But canola is so far only used for its oil. The full-usage of these crops represents a huge market that offers great opportunities for ambitious and sustainable entrepreneurs.

Cano-ela founders, Juliana and Alberto

And as it happens to be, Juliana and Alberto are ambitious and sustainable entrepreneurs. By disrupting the traditional oil seed industry, they have set sail to become a game changer worldwide and remove refined ingredients from the food supply chain entirely. With such high ambitions, Juliana and Alberto welcome all the support they can get.

StartLife connected the founders of Cano-ela with two startup mentors. One of them is Benjamin Maclean, a strategic business development specialist within the food science sector (FrieslandCampina) with a proven track record of launching new products and building new dairy ingredients factories.

Before connecting with Cano-ela, Benjamin had mentored various startups already. “I really love startups. The entrepreneurial spirit and drive of startup founders is very energizing and ‘contagious’. And the vibes between Juliana, Alberto and myself have been exceptional good from the get go,” said Benjamin.

“Last summer we had a BBQ at my house, with self made plant-based burgers. This was a final confirmation of our joint passion for food innovation. It also was the moment that Juliana and Alberto asked me to join the team to accelerate Cano-ela’s growth.”

Benjamin Maclean
Benjamin Maclean

Juliana: “As our startup mentor, Benjamin has provided us valuable strategic advice in combination with a big doses of enthusiasm for Cano-ela. He is a very enthusiastic person who is prepared to go the extra mile. After conversations about actions we should undertake, he immediately picks up his phone and starts organizing and getting things done.”

“Any business, but in particular startups, need people which such entrepreneurial aptitude. And, in addition to his professional input, we also have lots of fun together. It feels like the perfect basis to execute all our ideas.”

“Benjamin has all the expertise and connections to help make this dream come true!”

In the coming two years, Cano-ela is focused on upscaling its technology. In the meantime they will explore the possibility of building their own factory.

Juliana: “We understand this is a huge undertaking, which will also takes it time. But Benjamin has all the expertise and connections to help make this dream come true. And also his business development skills and ability to connect with people are very valuable to us. So it’s my greatest pleasure to announce here and now that Benjamin has accepted to becoming our Chief Commercial Officer!

Benjamin commented: “Finally, the word is out and I can start sharing this wonderful news with everybody. I am so proud and excited to join the Cano-ela team. Soon will also finish my Global Executive MBA at Copenhagen Business School, which will give me a lot more time on my hands.”

“I look forward to helping Cano-ela grow and fulfilling our shared ambitions to remove refined ingredients from the food supply chain! It feels great to be working on sustainable food solutions and contribute to the plant based protein transition!”

Greencovery powers up with Petra Vossenberg as Market Innovation Lead

Greencovery Team

In 2018, Dr. Carlos Cabrera was following a postdoctoral study at Wageningen University & Research when he decided to start his own foodtech company: Greencovery. With this company he helps food manufacturers to upcycle their food side-streams to new high quality ingredients with the use of proprietary technology.

“Our technology allows food producers to unlock new value from their food side-streams whilst diminishing food waste, carbon dioxide and water consumption at the same time,” Carlos explains. How great is that!

In the fall of 2018, Carlos joined the first edition of StartLife Accelerate, which helped him get his company on track. Fast forward, in October 2020, StartLife introduced Carlos to one of its new startup mentors: Petra Vossenberg, a Wageningen University alumna and former Global Open Innovation Manager at FrieslandCampina who had just become a freelance innovation consultant. It turned out to be a match made in heaven, sort of speak.

Greencovery Team in laboratory

Carlos was really happy to connect with Petra as his startup mentor. “Petra has been active in the food industry for quite some time already. She knows the industry really well and also how players in the market operate. She has a keen sense on finding new business opportunities and with her excellent people skills building partnerships is pretty much second nature to her. Thanks to her technical background she fully understands all the important processes and requirements involved in our upcycling business. That is so much more than I had bargained for.”

“We appreciated all the advice Petra gave us as startup mentor, but we also needed more hands-on support.”

After the three month initial startup mentorship ended, Carlos did not ask Petra to continue as his mentor but to truly join the Greencovery team and to take on the the role of Market Innovation Lead.

“We appreciated all the advice Petra gave us as startup mentor, but we also needed more hands-on support. Thanks to the mentorship, I knew that Petra had all the competencies needed to find food producers that are interested in upcycling their side-streams and also to find new applications to the upcycled ingredients. And, also, that she is a great person to work with. I would have been crazy not to try and get her become more involved,” said Carlos.

Rather than hiring Petra as an external consultant, Carlos wanted Petra to really become part of the team. “If Petra would be a hired consultant, our working relationship would have been project oriented and, as such, more detached. I want her to be involved for the long term and also create a setting in which we are more flexible further developing her role of market innovation lead.”

It’s not the first time that Carlos attracts corporate talent into his startup. Two years earlier, Carlos convinced Juan Cajiao, former Head of Growth at Twill-Maersk, to become co-founder and Commercial Director of Greencovery.

Petra Vossenberg
Petra Vossenberg

Petra is not surprised. “Carlos is an ambitious entrepreneur with a clear drive to make things happen. He has a lot of technical knowledge and his ability to generate new ideas is truly inspiring. Carlos is also pleasant to work with. He is open to thoughts and ideas, shares responsibility and gives a true sense of co-ownership.”

What does the future have in store for Greencovery? Carlos: “Thanks to Petra, we are now in advanced stages of conversation with a good pool of potential customers that are interested in our latest project which involves natural umami extracts. We have also set a clear dot on the horizon, which involves bringing our own first on-site implementations.”

And what about Petra? “It’s really rewarding to actively contribute to the valuation of side-streams and building a more sustainable food system. And I really like being part of the Greencovery team. We are in fact already talking about doubling my involvement,” Petra admits. Carlos shows a big, happy smile.

Magical formula?

It doesn’t happen every day that startup mentors become a staff member at the company of their previous mentees. It’s not something that StartLife strives for. Neither do we discourage it. What happens, happens. And if it helps accelerate the business of the startups, why not?

When writing this article, we did notice some rather interesting overlap between the two stories however. Two Latin-American entrepreneurs (Juliana and Carlos), who both studied at Wageningen University and have a Phd degree, successfully recruited their startup mentors, who both worked at FrieslandCampina, which has it’s R&D centre on Wageningen Campus. A coincidence or a magical formula? Who knows.

Want to know more about startup mentoring by StartLife? Check StartLife’s mentor program.

Note: Photos of Greencovery by Nils van Houts, edits by StartLife. Photos of Cano-ela by Mohammed Gharyeb.