Every year, a handful of Wageningen scientists, students and alumni launch a start-up or a spin-off. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) aims to foster innovation and increase the number of start-ups and spin-offs launched. But how do you get from an idea to a business, and how do you get it financed? Four entrepeneurs describe their journey from dreams to entrepreneurship.
This story was previously published in Wageningen World 2|2023, magazine of Wageningen University & Research.
Text Tanja Speek
Innovations only prove their worth when they are put into practice. Which is why Wageningen University & Research invests about 1.5 million euros a year in courses and programmes on entrepreneurship, in support to spin-off development programmes, and in grants.
WUR students, PhD researchers and recent graduates are also welcome at StartHub, a programme for the development of entrepreneurial competencies, among other things. Researchers can get support from StartLife, a national programme for new and established entrepreneurs in the food and agriculture sectors. Every year, dozens of students, PhD candidates and other researchers approach one of these programmes with their ideas. Nevertheless, start-ups often get stuck in the phase of developing their idea into a working prototype or service concept. The problem is often lack of financing: they are not yet of interest to investors, who prefer to invest in companies with impressive results.
‘It proves to be a challenge for start-ups to find financial support in the earliest ideas phase,’ says Lies Boelrijk, director of University Fund Wageningen. ‘It’s difficult to get a loan, or your company is not interesting enough for investors yet. We want to help by offering a donation or a loan from a new fund that’s going to be established.’ This fund is intended to help in the early stages, to enable a start-up to fine-tune the business model, for example, or to gather knowledge. Four entrepreneurs talk about their ambitions and how they realized them.
‘I started with Surfix in 2011, during the financial crisis. StartLife, the ‘incubator & accelerator’ for start-ups, was still in its infancy, so the landscape for beginning entrepreneurs was very different back then. There weren’t as many support programmes, nor as many options for starting capital, and few other academics dared to take the plunge.'
‘In 2010, I got my PhD in the Organic Chemistry group on a topic related to nanocoatings, and then went on to a postdoc at Eindhoven University of Technology. But going into business appealed to me, right from childhood. My father gave me a couple of sheep to keep the grass short around the house, and I was allowed to sell them. That’s when I learned my first lessons in closing deals.'
‘After my PhD I soon got talking to two experienced entrepreneurs, strategic investors. Most investors are primarily interested in the profits on their financial contribution. But strategic investors are players who want to expand their portfolio or who stand to benefit themselves from the technique you want to develop in your company. They invested in my company and also helped me tremendously with their knowledge of the business world. They helped with everything: administration, insurance, websites, HR policy. I could ring them with my questions 24/7.'
‘Surfix started out as a company that puts nanocoatings on materials, such as proteinresistant layers, or layers that work like a kind of glue for sticking biomolecules to a biosensor to create a “lab on a chip”. Now we have specialized in the development of new diagnostic tools based on photonics, detection with light. Our nanocoatings are still essential there. I am not the CEO anymore. I’ll always be a technical guy, so I’ve passed on that job to someone else, and I’m the technical director. Acquiring new financing is a big part of our work. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA.’
‘At Scope Biosciences, we make diagnostic tests that you can do quickly on location. To locate diseases in crops, for example. The plan came up after a game of squash at the Bongerd sports centre with three other alumni I knew from our participation in iGEM, a Biotechnology student competition. We were also working on diagnostic tests then too, but for infectious human diseases.'
‘One of the team members started a PhD in Microbiology. That group is steaming ahead with research on the CRISPR-Cas technique, with which you can cut and paste DNA efficiently and safely. Suddenly we saw the potential to use that technique to conduct diagnostic tests much faster and more precisely that was hitherto possible. We went to talk to StartLife about launching a company. We learned a lot there, about obtaining financing among other things.'
'There were lots of nerve-wracking moments in the early years, about whether we could manage financially. We soon got money through the Call for Innovation, an initiative by the Agrotechnology & Food Science group at WUR to study the feasibility of start-ups. That enabled us to cover the costs such as salaries and laboratory expenses for the first few months. Two of us set to work in the lab to find out whether our idea was technically feasible, while two followed StartHub’s incubator programme for students and graduates.'
‘Six months after our launch we could raise the first glass of champagne in a toast. Things were coming together. We discovered that our idea of using a specific type of CRISPR for diagnostics did work and that we could apply for a patent. We also got financing from the Dutch Research Council’s Take-Off Grant. In 2021, we also won the Atlas Invest Entrepreneurship Grant, a fund set up by an alumnus. We got 35,000 euros, which enabled us to continue and more importantly boosted confidence among the investors we were seeking to get on board.’
‘At Time-travelling Milkman, we make plant-based dairy substitutes creamier. A lot of attention is paid to the proteins in these products, but it is the fat in them that makes them creamy. We know how to imitate those fat droplets using European seeds, such as sunflower seeds.'
‘The company is building on my PhD research. I was already thinking then about what I wanted to do next. Maybe a postdoc or a job with a big company. But I felt that I could have a bigger impact by launching a start-up for this product. Going into business is a completely different ballgame. The fact that you have to learn a lot of new skills to do it really appealed to me.’
‘StartLife gave us a loan of 10,000 euros on favourable terms, such as a low interest rate and only starting to pay it back after two years. Then came a subsidy of 55,000 euros from Eurostars, a European programme for innovation in small to medium enterprises, and later another grant of 40,000 euros from the Dutch Research Council. That helped us take the first steps. I could employ someone and could hire experts to help me with financial and legal advice.'
‘Now we have obtained a grant of 925,000 euros from the Eastern Netherlands region. With that, we can invest in upscaling our production. In programmes like StartHub, you learn to start small and to imagine your ideal client at that moment. For us, an example was the now famous restaurant De Nieuwe Winkel in Nijmegen, where the food is entirely plant-based, and includes crops from local food forests. They have two Michelin stars. Of course, we’re hoping for bigger clients, such as Unilever, so we can have a real impact. But it takes time before big players like that have confidence in a small company.’
‘Plant-e makes electricity using living plants. The electricity comes from bacterial processes in the soil. We can’t generate a lot of electricity, but the supply is very reliable and continues all day. So it’s a system that’s mainly suited to supplying electricity for lamps and sensors.'
‘I set up the company when I was six months into my PhD research. I never saw myself as a scientist. From the start of this PhD project, the aim was for a company to come out of it eventually.'
‘About six months after I had started my research, the patent for the technology had to be established internationally. That is very expensive and at that time, the university did not see an obvious market and didn’t want to take that step. Then came the question of whether we wanted to take it over. We could only do that if we set up a company. I was happy to do so and I took the lead in starting Plant-e together with my co-supervisor David Strik. I was able to combine setting up the company with my PhD research, thanks to which I had an income, at least. But setting up a company is costly – buying a patent for instance. There weren’t yet any supportive initiatives like StartLife and StartHub, specifically for WUR. We could borrow money through the national Technostarter scheme for tech start-ups. The handy thing about my PhD research was the courses I could take on subjects such as entrepreneurship.'
‘Unlike most starters, we started selling products very early on. We didn’t depend on investments in the first phase. That sometimes had an inhibiting effect, and sometimes we couldn’t take certain steps because there was no money for them. At the end of 2021, we got a prestigious EIC Accelerator Grant from a European innovation programme, with which the company grew to a staff of 15. We are in the midst of a serious investment round now, which is due to finish at the end of this year.’
Fund for fresh ideas
University Fund Wageningen aims to launch a fund in mid2024 to help start-ups in the early stages. Lies Boelrijk, director of University Fund Wageningen: ‘We are keen to talk to readers who would like to contribute to this fund, either financially or with knowledge and experience.’