StartLife ten years: how to transform your smart idea into a million euro business

January 4, 2021

Regardless of how innovative their idea may be, only 1 per cent of the start-ups manages to grow into a successful business. There is help for pioneers in the domain of agro-food technology: StartLife. This ‘agrifood-tech accelerator’ celebrated its tenth anniversary in December, and currently supports some forty start-ups with intensive coaching, loans and introductions to companies on and far beyond Wageningen Campus. Everyone is welcome: from recently graduated to seasoned technicians.

An algae-based substance that is so much like chicken protein you can use it to effortlessly bond veggieburgers and bake fluffy meringue. Music to the ears of an increasingly large group of vegans in the Netherlands and abroad thought Edgar Suarez after obtaining his PhD in Wageningen. He pitched his idea to StartLife, the agrifood accelerator housed on Wageningen Campus since 2010. StartLife provides smart ideas in the domain of food and agrotechnology with the stimuli needed to grow into a potential million-euro business.

Strict selection

Suarez’s Fumi Ingredients was provided with a StartLife loan. To date, the maximum loan is set at 85,000 euros. However, through tapping into new funding opportunities, this will be increased to 250,000 as of next year. In addition to loans, StartLife offers intensive coaching to some forty start-ups every year. Twenty of these budding businesses are included in an intensive twelve-week accelerator programme, says operational director Laura Thissen.

The competition is stiff, and the requirements strict. Thissen: ‘There are generally some seventy candidates longlisted, of which we admit ten every half year.’ Thissen and her team conduct the assessment. The team consists of experts in the field of technology, market and investments. ‘We consider aspects such as market potential, technology and the composition of the team. And, also very relevant, we demand full commitment. Thus: always be present at meetings, online now as a result of corona, and adhere to our advice, ranging from market validation (checking whether the idea really is new to the market, ed.) to funding, applying for patents and collaborating successfully with corporates.’

Large global network

Over the last decade, StartLife has built an impressively large network of start-ups, investors and corporates looking for innovations. Thissen: ‘These are partly located on campus, such as Unilever, but mostly throughout Europe. This includes Givaudan (Switzerland, flavours and aromas) and the PWH-Group (Germany, poultry products). But, we also collaborate with parties well outside of Wageningen, such as the Brazilian Citrosuco, the world’s largest orange juice producer, and Cosun, a Dutch corporation that trades millions of tonnes of sugarbeets. These big players have their own tech-departments but are always looking for new insights, especially in the area of sustainability.’

The companies that are affiliated to StartLife are not just seeking innovations for themselves, they also share their professional expertise in the StartLife coaching programme. After all, who better to learn the art of successful entrepreneurship from than those who have already proven themselves?

StartLife goed further than StartHub

Although StartLife’s roots lie with Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and WUR is one of the greatest investors (next to Gelderland Province and FoodValleyNL), the organisation is now independent. This month, it has therefore changed its logo. Thissen: ‘The owl in our logo referred to science. Although we still collaborate closely with WUR, our operation is much broader now. This is why we chose the arrow (see the new logo): That symbolises progress and growth’. Start-ups don’t necessarily have to originate from the university. Thissen: ‘We are sometimes confused with StartHub. StartHub is an actual part of WUR and helps students with a good idea in their first steps. We, in turn, help them optimise their technology, acquire capital and link them to other talent and the market. Teams that reach out to us may consist of young PhD graduates, but also people in their fifties who have already proven themselves in the domain of biotechnology and want to start their own business.’

Success stories

Just 1 per cent of the start-ups manages to scale up, says Thissen. ‘Of course, we cannot elevate that number to 100.’ The loans that StartLife provided in the last decade have not all been paid back. ‘But, many start-ups are doing really well, and some even manage to turn their idea into a million-euro business. Consider, for example, Cerescon, that has taken major steps with their asparagus harvesting robot. Especially now that Covid-19 is keeping seasonal labour away from the farmers.’ And then there is NutriLeads, that managed to raise 6.5 million with the Xtramune, a fibre derived from roots that fortifies the human immune system and helps prevent the common cold.

Other recent success stories range from the Fumi Ingredients protein substitute (raised 500,000 euros in investments this year, to the Time Travelling Milkman’s fatty substance that adjusts the properties of plant-based milk to appear like real milk (150,000 euros). And, completely different, in the field of Artificial Intelligence, start-up Verdify managed to generate 750,000 euros. Their online platform generates tailored recipes based on your personal profile (taking into account your food preferences or medical conditions).

Not finished by far

Has SartLife seen all possible innovations in the field of food and agrotechnology over the past decade? Thissen: ‘No! We focus on everything from farm to fork, or from farm to what ends up on your plate at home. The market is huge. There is an increasing interest in StartLife’s work. We benefit from the solid international reputation Wageningen has in food and agricultural technology and the collaboration between science and business.’

StartLife is housed on Wageningen Campus in the new Plus Ultra 2 building. On their website you will find a selection of startups that have been guided by StartLife.

Watch the jubilee video.