It is biodegradable, holds water well and gives roots space. Startup Foamplant is making a substrate plug that may well change the
nursery world for good. Smit Nurseries is already working with it.
A frothy cone it is, with cuts at the bottom and a cavity at the top. Call it an out-of-place earplug. What Foamplant makes - Growfoam - is going to offer growers many benefits. And with it, retailers and ultimately consumers. Just a growing lesson. Cuttings are normally planted in a battery of trays containing substrate. That is usually peat, coco or
rockwool. And precisely that substrate is what makes Foamplant redundant. 'The cutting goes into the plug, where it grows while the roots find their way at the bottom,' says ceo Martin Tietema.
This makes the process easier and more uniform for the grower. Moreover, it benefits hygiene. Tietema: "Around the whole growing process, everything is pure. Seed, cuttings, everything is totally controlled. The substrate is the only part that can still contain impurities. And with Growfoam we have now overcome that. That's a big improvement for growers, who have to deal with very strict hygiene rules if they want to export. Retail requirements in that area are also becoming more and more stringent.'
Tietema does not mention the example of lettuce growers by accident. It is precisely in that niche that there are opportunities. Hydroponically grown lettuce is on the rise. The lettuce grows in pots on a kind of conveyor belt, with the roots suspended in oxygenated water. In the store, you can recognize lettuce grown this way by the perfectly round root ball still underneath the crop. Tietema: "That clod still consists of peat. Replace that substrate with a plug from us and not only do you have even better hygiene under control, people at home are no longer bothered by black mess when they take the lettuce out of the bag.'
Good for the planet and the grower: Growfoam dissolves in the soil after a few months. So plugs that are transferred to larger pots automatically lose their initial coating. 'Our product is made from bioplastic and is completely biodegradable by microorganisms.' Foamplant has now mastered the production process to the point where it can make various modifications to its Growfoam. The substrate plugs for lettuce growers have different properties than those for flower growers. 'We make our plugs customer-specific. We test ourselves what works best and do the same in the nursery itself whenever possible.' The product, totally new in the nursery world, is slowly but surely gaining notoriety. Every week Tietema makes a tour of the Westland to show potential customers his product. 'It is striking how open the growers are. Most would like to do a trial with Growfoam, because the advantages are obvious.'
The startup Foamplant is a spin-off of biobased tech company KNN. In 2015, Tietema took on the challenge of making semi-finished products from bioplastics in that spinoff. 'At some point we were thinking of biodegradable foam to make earplugs. Ideal for festivals where a lot of those things are left behind after the event. Gradually we discovered that biodegradable foam was virgin territory, while the potential demand turned out to be great.'
The process devised by Foamplant is the blacksmith's secret. Like a true startup, the search for the right products to make from that foam began for Foamplant's team. The business model changed a few times, the focus moved with it. Until an intern, charged with exploring the market, came up with the idea of substrates. Says Tietema, "That is now the focus, although of course we see that with our biodegradable foam there are more possibilities. The added
value we can offer to the world of growers is so great that we now want to capitalize on those opportunities.'
Starting perhaps with Smit Nurseries in Sappemeer. That is the first company that started testing Foamplant plugs seriously. Director Kees Pingen: 'I see a lot of potential especially because of the strict export regulations. For example, we sell many plants to the United States. There, no soil or peat is allowed between the roots at all. If Growfoam solves that problem, it will bring a lot of opportunities to our sector.'
Very nice to see two companies from our portfolio finding each other, working together and developing together!
Chantal Leijendekker, Investment Manager NOM
Now Foamplant and Smit are testing different types of Growfoam on different types of plants. Pingen: 'Especially with the pancake plant, the preliminary results are beautiful, but we are also testing on other plants. It will take some time before we can draw definitive conclusions. Internally, the plugs from Growfoam don't change that much. The biggest gain is that our products become more attractive to buyers, because Growfoam is cleaner than muddy substrate. And that's worth a lot.