Coffee producers remove beans from coffee cherries and the remains are thrown away. A waste, says Rudi Dieleman from the Wageningen based start-up company Pectcof. Together with partner Andres Belalcazar he has developed a unique bio-refinery process for extracting the valuable substance pectin from coffee pulp.
We meet Rudi just after he has returned from Munich, where Pectcof was one of only two non-German companies to be given an honourable nomination as ‘Start-up of the year’. Philadelphia is next on the travel agenda where Rudi will be a guest in the Holland Pavilion during the World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology. In the meantime, his partner Andres is meeting with possible partner companies on a trade mission to Brazil. Earlier this year, Rudi received plaudits for his TEDx presentation in The Hague. Rudi: “Three years ago we had no idea that our concept would be so successful.”
‘Let’s work together’Rudi and Andres met in 2011 when they were both students at the Wageningen UR campus. During the course ‘From idea to business plan’ Andres presented his idea to convert coffee pulp into pectin. Rudi stepped up to Andres immediately afterwards and said: “You have knowledge on the technology, I have knowledge of marketing and finance. Let’s work together.” They then wrote a business plan with two fellow students.
StartLife, a partnership including Wageningen UR which helps entrepreneurs establish their own company, granted the plan an innovation loan. Andres, Rudi and an Italian partner finished their studies while simultaneously building the company. “On the recommendation of StartLife we sought the help of a coach, who helped us work in a process-oriented way.”
From shed to professional labThe first steps were taken at the laboratory of Wageningen UR, parallel to Andres’ Master Thesis’ study. Pectcof acquired the intellectual property rights for the bio-refinery technology, the proof of concept went well, and a patent was requested. For the up-scaling, the partners moved for eight months to an old shed on the farm of Rudi’s parents. As of recently, the young company is housed in a professionally equipped laboratory in Wageningen.
This move was a response to the enormous interest being shown in the technology by major pectin suppliers. “And we needed to be able to show high-quality samples,” continues Rudi. “These samples show that pectin from coffee pulp is an excellent emulsifier and stabiliser for food products and medicine. In a comparison with commonly used gum arabic from South Sudan, we showed that it requires one gram of pectin from coffee pulp compared to 30 grams of pectin from gum arabic to achieve the same valuable emulsion.”
Interest from major producersPectcof hopes to be able to establish a test factory soon and Rudi is confident about receiving a good supply of concentrated pulp: “We have excellent contacts with three major producers in Brazil and Costa Rica. They see us as a solution for the waste problem, and a major opportunity to make money with the waste flow. The timing seems right, now that coffee has also penetrated the middle classes of Brazil and India. This development has exacerbated the waste problem and we can overcome a large part of that.”
Rudi does not preclude selling the technology to the world’s large pectin producers. “With the profits we would be able to develop processes to extract other substances from coffee pulp, such as antioxidants, cellulose and red colouring agent. In the end we see ourselves more as technology developers than as ingredient producers.”
The future may seem bright, but there is a lot involved. Andres and Rudi recently had to say goodbye to their Italian partner, for example, due to a difference in vision. “Only go into business with people who are on the same wavelength as you,” is Rudi’s advice to start-up companies. “And be prepared to pinch pennies. My parents’ shed didn’t cost us anything and we were able to work there well enough for eight months. Investors like that sort of thing.” In addition to the innovation loan from StartLife, the partners also received financing from regional fund PPM Oost and the European innovation network Climate KIC. Rudi: “We also managed to rake in some funds by entering and winning competitions.”
Pectin is just the startFurther growth requires more investors. Based on meetings Rudi is currently having with Dutch and foreign parties he thinks there is a significant chance that Pectcof will soon have one or more extra shareholders. “We are offering an interesting business case. And the production of pectin is just the start: in the long term we will be able to use nearly 95 per cent of coffee pulp for valuable substances.”