The first two editions of the national Business Innovation Program Food* turned out so well that the third edition will start after the summer. What makes this program valuable? We asked two northern Dutch participants - Syklus and WeedAway - and Gijs van de Molengraft, one of the trainers.
From the Regional Development Companies (ROMs), Gijs observes that the necessity of adding value to green waste streams is being increasingly recognized. And there are plenty of ideas,' he observes, 'but finding a revenue model is the big challenge. Society looks expectantly at entrepreneurs, but a circular economy only runs if it benefits all parties. The core of the Business Innovation Program Food is therefore making initiatives around food value profitable. We help entrepreneurs build their business case successfully.'
Eye for the market
How much impact is the ten-week intensive program having? 'The entrepreneurs are responding enthusiastically and several participants are already making great strides,' says Gijs. 'It is still too early to demonstrate the impact in hard figures, but we are going to measure this structurally. Moreover, we are further sharpening the program based on the first editions. For example, market adoption turned out to be a theme that requires extra attention. To achieve consistent growth, it is important to work in line with where the market stands and needs. If you get too far ahead or focus too one-sidedly on product development, you will miss the connection. It turned out that many entrepreneurs are not yet sufficiently aware of the phase the market is in and how they are responding to it.'
Market adoption is exactly where the entrepreneurs behind WeedAway in Roden had a lot to gain. René Bultje and Gert Maneschijn attended the Business Innovation Program Food in the spring to gain momentum for their innovative agro-robot for tackling weeds on grass and cropland. 'Critical questions revealed that we did not yet have our market clear enough,' says the duo. 'The homework was clear: just start calling farmers to gauge their needs. What turned out: they all suffer from weeds and would like to tackle that as smartly as possible, but it shouldn't cost too much. To quickly recoup the investment, the robot must be usable throughout the season. That is why we are now focusing mainly on contract workers: they work at different agricultural companies and can use the robot much more intensively.'
Research and testing
Jacco Kooistra and Christian Visser of Syklus also entered into a more active dialogue with customers through the Business Innovation Program Food, in order to properly understand their questions and needs. Whereas WeedAway focuses on a more environmentally friendly production process in the agribusiness with smart farming, Syklus focuses on the processing of green residual streams: using black soldier flies, among other things, vegetable and fruit waste is processed into various products for the animal feed industry. 'Because we already have the necessary trade due to high market demand, we were mainly focused on short-term production,' says Jacco. 'We discovered in this program that for long-term development we also need to continue research. To find out where the needs of customers are and to do more testing.
'At the start of the program, I was somewhat skeptical,' Jacco says honestly. 'It seemed as if we were going to repeat the process we had already gone through with Syklus itself, when we were already looking for investors. Still, we were able to sharpen our value proposition considerably thanks to the assignments and critical questions. Our time commitment has also changed, now that we are focusing through this program
on the longer term. Insect farming can really make a big impact towards the future, provided we build it well. The guidance of NOM and Flinc during this process was therefore also valuable. They have a wealth of experience and in contacts with investors they protect you from making mistakes by letting you think carefully about the approach.
Driving the process
Gert and René of WeedAway were also happy to be sawed through from the sidelines by the NOM coaches. 'Their points of interest were no revelation to us, but they particularly drive the process of further development very well, which provides focus and focus. The trainers of the Business Innovation Program Food didn't make it easy for us either. It was an intensive program, where you really have to get to work and that is exactly what helps us move forward. Because of the practical assignments you immediately link theory to taking concrete steps. It was a pity that the joint sessions were online because of the lockdown, because otherwise we would have had more long after-meetings. As entrepreneurs, there was a lot of mutual recognition about the challenges you face. That exchange is also worth a lot.
'Indeed, we see that participants also learn a lot from each other,' Gijs adds. Every business case is different and has its own dynamics and yet at its core there are similar challenges. That basis is what we pay attention to in the program and what we ourselves continue to develop in terms of what we offer. We are very satisfied with the first two editions, although we continue to make deliberate steps, because food value is so important. We are gathering evidence that we are making a real impact with this program, whereby entrepreneurs combat waste in an economically successful way. The will is certainly there: the enthusiasm we see among participants is great. We are converting that enthusiasm with our program into realistic goals and concrete steps.'
According to Gijs, the behavior of entrepreneurs is an important success factor: 'How flexible are they in their thinking and how easily do they move with what is needed?' For Jacco, moving with Syklus comes quite naturally. 'I started this company after my studies, have nothing to lose and am open to learn by doing. The market potential is huge and we are sharing all our knowledge now, because many more players are needed if we really want to make a difference with insect farming.' At WeedAway, the entrepreneurs - in addition to further market validation - also focus on practical testing in the field. 'Contractors want to see how well the robot works,' Gert and René tell us. 'We already have potential customers who are willing to buy our product, but only if they are convinced it works. Demonstrating that is the highest priority, then we can go further into the market.'
*Business Innovation Program Food
The national Business Innovation Program Food was set up by all Regional Development Companies (ROMs) in cooperation with the Foundation Together Against Food Waste, Invest-NL and Rabobank. The aim is to support entrepreneurs in working on food value. This can be done both through efficiency on the production side - such as smart farming and smart processing - and by developing new revenue models for residual streams and surpluses.
A total of 22 entrepreneurs participated in the first two editions of the innovation program - fall 2020 and spring 2021. They were given the opportunity to build a profitable business case around green raw materials in ten weeks. After this summer, the third edition will start, where a new group of entrepreneurs will sharpen their plans considerably in ten modules full of theory and practical assignments. In addition to training, advice and national exchange, participants will receive guidance from the ROM in their own region.
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