He is the inventor of the first vacuum cleaner that you can completely incorporate into your kitchen worktop. It will be on the market in a few months. Courtesy of some very patient investors. Erik Spelt, director of Quva: "With innovation, you really have to think breakthrough and dare to get out of your comfort zone."
Yes, finally. The cord, the pull cord, it worked. That was quite a joyous moment last year, says Erik Spelt, inventor and director of Quva, a vacuum cleaner that you can tuck into your countertop. "You attach that cord to a bag or container of food you want to vacuum. After use, you disconnect that and have to give it a little pull, and then, like the cord of a vacuum cleaner, it automatically falls back into place." Too often that didn't happen. "At times I really thought we were not going to make it with the funding, so close to the finish line." He also knew: then just begging for money again. "That's part of the deal of entrepreneurship, that things sometimes backfire. Fortunately, I had shareholders who continued to believe in the product."
Introducing: Erik Spelt. Grew up in the West Frisian town of Grootebroek where his father had a general practice. Surfing, he lives at the IJsselmeer, that is what he likes best. All those fairs -throwing twenty crates of beer from one house to another at the age of fifteen- no, he is not originally from the region and then you experience local traditions a little differently. Besides, the train to Amsterdam beckons. That is where he is going to study. Economics. A study in which numerous studies merge. History, sociology, anthropology, mathematics, statistics, psychology: "That banking crisis had more to do with it than just money."
After his studies, he ended up at Philips in Groningen, where the headquarters of Domestic Appliances & Customer Care is located. Product manager two-head shavers he is there. "25 years I was, yeah, who are you. To go and tell techies with more than 50 years of experience what to make." Two days a week he is at the razor factory in Drachten. He wants to learn more about shaver technology. Spelt: "Otherwise you can't think along. Understand what those men are talking about. I really got a better understanding of technology and respect for technical skills during that time."
Sonos and Tesla
He knows, that super-sophisticated factory in Drachten still exists. Spelt: "Philips is really unrivaled in the field of shavers and electric toothbrushes. That is also a type of business that is difficult to penetrate from the outside. Their market position and industrial base is so strong there." Consumer electronics such as televisions and audio equipment Philips no longer makes its own. That market is extremely competitive and Philips has not been able to differentiate itself enough there. Spelt: "I firmly believe in innovation. You really have to think breakthrough instead of in small bits. Daring to get out of your comfort zone. Those self-driving cars from Tesla or those Sonos sound speakers, that's fantastic. With innovations, you have to make people's lives better. They have to be really meaningful."
Step out of your bubble
That experience, he saves it all. Before he leaves Philips after 17 years, "I still worked for the company in France and Belgium. Within the sales organization in France and as business manager accessories." He takes away another important lesson from his Philips days: "As a product manager, you think your shaver or toothbrush is the center of the world. Everyone around you is doing that. That's why it's so important that you regularly step out of that bubble. To see how you can adapt that product to communication and consumer trends. Your product can be as good as it is, but if you don't have a good story or a strong message to go with it, if it doesn't really solve a problem for people, yes, it doesn't really make much sense."
Pop-up power strip
He joins Quooker as a marketing and sales manager. Talk about a breakthrough product. A small company, less consultative structures, less politics. "Within a smaller setting, you have more impact," Spelt says. And then he gets an idea. More or less put on the track by Quooker. For those not in the know, that's a faucet from which boiling water flows, from a water reservoir hidden under the kitchen sink. When he visits kitchen manufacturers, he sees something new: kitchen blocks equipped with a hidden power block, with multiple outlets, also called a built-in power module, that you can pop out with a small handshake.
Super convenient, and it also gets rid of all those pesky cables. And then suddenly that inventor's light goes on at Spelt.
He sees a pop-up socket and suddenly thinks of vacuum and vacuum-making machines.
Devices that have been around for a few years. Often clunky boxes and sealers that take up considerable space on the countertop or in a cabinet, and therefore are always in the way. These machines are becoming increasingly popular with the rise of sous-vide cooking, which literally means "under vacuum. In it, you cook vacuumed food at a constant relatively low temperature in an ample amount of water. "Vacuum machine, socket and Quooker: when you add those three together, you have a pop-up vacuum cleaner tucked away under the kitchen worktop."
With such a vacuum cleaner, you solve both a question and a problem. People like to keep their food fresh for longer. So they don't have to throw it away. Because that is a problem: every household throws away an average of 1300 euros worth of food every year. 33% of all the food we buy worldwide ends up in the dustbin. And yes, that's terrible. "That doesn't make me happy either." Earlier, he helped an inventor market a kind of smart breadbox. That got him thinking even more about food waste. "A billion people could be fed for a year by all the food they throw away in America alone." So yes, Spelt thinks. Out of the box, check. Breakthrough, check. Problem-solving, check. Meaningful, check. He gets to work.
In innovation, you really have to think breakthrough and dare to get out of your comfort zone
Spelt knows from his Philips days that a development project costs a lot of money. Especially since his idea also touches on food safety. He neatly goes through the list of what to do. The first step: early-stage funding (VFF). That succeeds, and so he keeps moving forward. "At each subsequent stage, you need a little more funding," he says. A matter of considerable persistence: he really has to design and keep testing everything. The pop-up system, roll-up mechanism and illuminated buttons must still work even after hundreds of operations. The trays must not implode under high pressure. And yes, that darn cord. "A total of 4,500 hours went into the design phase. From the technical designers of the Groningen agency Pezy and his own team of developers. That slurps up money and patience. And requires a lot of trust from your investors".
The biggest risks are behind us early this year. Everything is ready to start production. Spelt is organizing a crowdfunding campaign through the American sales site Kickstarter. To raise money for the production of his vacuum piston. At 30,000 euros, the counter stops. Everyone reacts very enthusiastically, they loved it, he says, but when interested parties find out that they have to install the vacuum machine, their enthusiasm drops. Because suddenly Quva is no longer an impulse buy. Spelt: "The goal of the action was a ton. Actually, we needed more. But investors said they were going to help us further if we raised that amount through Kickstarter. Through that platform you get a good idea of how the market reacts to your product. But yes, so we didn't get that amount together."
He hangs as he says in the ropes, and yes, then someone must want to pull you up, because yes, shit happens. Or someone comes along and wants to knock you out for good. To run off with your ideas. That doesn't happen. Another final injection follows. Production in China can then also begin. The vacuum cleaner will be available from May at Mandemakers Kitchens, among other places. With matching reusable trays and bags, and a vacuum-sucking wine cork. "That's the beauty of entrepreneurship," says Spelt. "You have a picture beforehand, a puzzle to put together. But that picture changes as you add more puzzle pieces. Because sometimes things turn out slightly differently, and so you have to switch gears, and yes, that's nice, that entrepreneurship is not a well-defined path.
NOM is one of the investors through the Innovation Fund North Netherlands
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