Frustration with annoying fruit flies led to the creation of a natural pesticide that proved to fill a gap in the market. It achieved more than that, because Fruit Fly Ninja proved to be a viable business, and now many variants of their invention are on people’s wish list. Ferdinand van der Neut (founder) and WUR-alumnus Stef ten Dam (employee) run their business from the StartHub incubator. An interview about Fruit Fly Ninja’s launch and entrepreneurship, and why they are on the Wageningen Campus and would prefer to stay there.
How did Fruit Fly Ninja come about?
‘In 2014, I found myself housebound,’ says Ferdinand. ‘To pass the time, I came up with business ideas for solving problems the easy way. Fruit flies hovering around the bin caught my attention. Annoyed, I thought: There has to be a solution for this, doesn’t there? Since existing pesticides proved ineffective, I started to develop something myself: a compact container containing apple juice and vinegar as bait.
The idea took off following a Kickstarter campaign. The target audience included hotels and restaurants and supermarkets, and we started supplying to them on a small scale. At one point, small chain of stores showed an interest in selling Fruit Fly Ninja to consumers, and Fruit Fly Ninja was launched on the retail market in 2016. It was our biggest order so far, so we realised there could be a future in retail. The company grew and I joined forces with a partner. In 2017 our first displays could be seen at Jumbo, spreading later into other supermarkets as well as Blokker and Etos.
Consumers turned out to be enthusiastic and began asking about pesticides for other purposes. That’s what led us to get in touch with WUR in 2018. We came up with the idea of starting an Academic Consultancy Training (ACT) project to control ants. A second ACT project focused on mosquitoes.’
How big is Fruit Fly Ninja now?
Ferdinand van der Neut studied at TU Delft. This year, Stef ten Dam graduated from WUR in Forest and Nature Conservation, specialising in ecology, and he was manager of the first ACT group.
Stef: ‘My interest in insects stems from when I was a student. That’s what sparked my interest in the ACT project on controlling ants. Now I work at Fruit Fly Ninja. My job is in R&D, where I work on the development of new products and on the quality control of our existing products.’
In addition to Ferdinand, who works from Amsterdam, and Stef, the company has two other employees. They work in the head office in Rotterdam. There is also an account manager who works in Sydney.
Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Wageningen and Sydney? Can we still regard the company as a start-up?
Ferdinand: ‘If you look at our locations and our business, then you can no longer rightly consider us to be a start-up. What we in fact are is a scaleup company. Our business model has been validated. We are self-sufficient; all of our investments come from our own pockets. We are currently also concentrating on the Australian market. With our product being seasonal, Australia is interesting because of its potential to provide business continuity even in winter.’
Stef underlines Fruit Fly Ninja’s mission, ‘Our aim is to replace the harmful substances in pesticides with sustainable and more ecologically responsible solutions. A natural and ecological approach can also be more effective.
Compare it with organic pest control in agriculture, where instead of poison, they use natural enemies. This approach often offers lasting and efficient protection. By not using harmful chemicals, we are using nature and protecting it at the same time.’
What’s the link to WUR?
Ferdinand: ‘Setting out our research question in ACT at WUR was a successful beginning. We wanted to recruit Stef and open an office in Wageningen. That’s how we ended up at StartLife, which worked out very well for our fledgling company We have since started running more projects of this kind. Now we’re hungry for more. Now, we have another question outstanding at the Communication Philosophy and Technology research group through the Communication & Persuasion faculty’.
As an experienced expert on the ACT approach, Stef says, ‘As a student during the Fruit Fly Ninja research, I felt that we were genuinely involved in a report that was actually being used. You are given a clearly defined assignment on how to develop an economically viable product, in this case for the consumer market. At Fruit Fly Ninja I supervise the current ACT assignments. So now, as the client, I’m not involved in the project. For example, we are looking at ways of reducing wasp infestations. Wasps are useful creatures, so rather than killing them, as many pesticides do, our aim is to repel them or drive them away. How? That’s what the WUR students are trying to work out.’
What is the difference between StartLife and StartHub?
Ferdinand: ‘StartLife really works as an incubator. They monitor the progress of your business, help you set goals and examine what it takes to achieve them. They also help you with writing your business plan.
Meanwhile we are at StartHub, which forms a bridge between university life and the business world. Students and starting entrepreneurs are often highly focused on the content. With StartHub you are actively encouraged to focus on your market.
We will shortly be moving to Plus Ultra II (Fruit Fly Ninja is now temporarily in Atlas, ed.). We work in the same space as other small businesses, which gives everyone a sense of belonging. We are all working towards achieving our dream, often with a focus on innovation and sustainability. Every week, advisors come and visit (e.g. from the Rabobank) to spar with us. Every Wednesday there is a get-together with drinks for students and entrepreneurs, with the occasional presentation thrown in. You can pick each other’s brains about solutions for things you may have run up against. It’s very inspiring.’
Why do you still have an office on campus?
Ferdinand: ‘Well, we can get a good lunch in any one of the buildings. Haha, just kidding. While that is true, the reason we are here is that we are always on the lookout for the most ecologically friendly version of our product, and we want to make use of the latest knowledge to do so. That state-of-the-art knowledge for our product is here, at the epicentre of relevant knowledge. At any regular business park, you’d miss that input to strengthen your own business. We are pleased with the short lines of communication to, say, ACT and the various faculties. There’s another point that plays a role too: Wageningen has a very good reputation in Australian agriculture. For this reason alone, we would like to remain associated with Wageningen.
What’s more, although in theory we have access to all WUR facilities, we don’t make use of them just yet because so far we have been able to take things to completion using our own resources. We are thinking about having other people’s products analysed here on campus. For instance, if one of our competitors claims that there are certain ingredients in their product, we can have it tested here on campus; for a fee of course.’
Are there any other things you’re missing on campus?
‘The commercial aggression needed to market something is very important and can sometimes be absent among passionate professionals. I’m speaking mainly from my experiences in Delft, because I studied there myself, and although TU people believe wholeheartedly in the beauty of their products, that is usually not enough to make a real impact. The commercial world is tough. Commercial awareness is clearly evident at StartHub. At StartHub, you could put even more effort into activities like sales training and sharing stories, which you could do, say, with inspirational film nights.’
How do you see the future on campus? Will you be staying?
‘We will definitely be staying on campus! Our aim is to make our own products even more sustainable and, as a market leader, to improve ourselves by driving toxic pesticides from the market, as well as by minimising our own footprint, in terms of our products and transport, for example. Unfortunately, you also have to dispose of our product. On campus we are able to take the cradle-to-cradle concept a step further.
So far, our company has grown by an average of one person per year. On the other hand, sales growing exponentially. Logistics, sales and R&D must be able to keep up with all this. That’s the challenge you face in business.
We have a list of 17 potential products, so there’s still scope for progress. Thanks to these new products (e.g. flies in potted plants [St Mark’s flies], silverfish, house flies, waste container flies and mice) the name Fruit Fly Ninja no longer covers everything. Each product is a ninja designed to control specific pests. The logo with the ninja will remain, as it appeals to our customers. However, the new name for the company will be Super Ninja.’