Student - November 4, 2010

Slow and steady does the Wageningen student entrepreneur

Slowly but surely, the entrepreneurial spirit is growing among students in Wageningen. ‘It’s important for me to do my own thing. Both in my life and in my work, I need to have a free hand.’

Pepijn Meddens
'I wouldn't call our students natural entrepreneurs yet. We still have a long way to go, but there are notable improvements.' Anneke Roes is a project coordinator in Dafne, a Wageningen group comprising the university, companies and research institutions. Dafne set out two years ago to stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit among Wageningen students, lecturers and researchers with activities such as training courses and workshops. The two years have enabled the Dafne team to get a good idea of what students are up against. 'Many students think as researchers. They keep asking questions and looking for evidence for their propositions. They have been taught to do so. But to be an entrepreneur, you have to get the show on the road at a certain moment. Don't rely on arguments, but on your gut feeling. That means you have to change your mindset; this could be the most difficult part of all.'
But Roes also acknowledges that a change is happening. 'The interest in entrepreneurship is growing. Not only among students, but also in chair groups which invite us more and more to organize workshops or information meetings for their students and PhD candidates.'
As such, the time is ripe for StartLife, says Roes. This is a new organization of Wageningen-UR and its community partners for providing assistance to start-ups. Dafne will come under its purview from 2012. If things go smoothly, the start of StartLife can already be publicized this month.
Roes' major mission remains convincing students that entrepreneurship is not just about making money whatsoever. 'What students don't always realize is that they can also be in business in the areas of sustainability or nature. They can do that with an eye to profit, but also not-for-profit if they feel more comfortable that way. In short, going into business can be an extension of the motivation to study here.' Resource found five student entrepreneurs who have started their own companies with exactly this philosophy in mind.
'A hundred other people also have your idea'
Pepijn Meddens.
Study: Company and Consumer Sciences. Company: Miscellaneous
'In the United States, they would call me a serial entrepreneur. That means that I have set up several businesses. Hence, not just one idea and one company, but one after the other. I would set up something because I believe in it and I would then see if it works. If it can't, I would stop doing it, and if it gets too big, I would sell it. In other words, I won't always be the one who continues carrying out a good idea.
In secondary four, I sold socks. I ordered about 500 socks via the internet and sold them to friends, and paid for my own socks with the profit. Subsequently, I started different businesses related to IT. Currently, I have various websites, but I am still searching for a new business concept for expansion.
Last year, I won the Kaufmann Foundation entrepreneur scholarship. The prize entailed a six-month attachment to the best universities in the United States - Harvard, MIT and Stanford - where I got lessons on the ins and outs of setting up your own company. A fantastic experience which will certainly come in handy in the future. There are courses in Wageningen for students who are thinking of starting a business. But many do not take the next step. That's a pity. I would like to see some place where people who have made that step can share their experiences with one another. You can also close the gap between scientists and entrepreneurs by talking about ideas. While they talk about ideas openly in the U.S., the Dutch are afraid of plagiarism. In fact, this would enable you to gain new insights and find the right people. It's important for an entrepreneur to get a good team together; you cannot do it on your own. Having a good idea is not enough to make it work. Perhaps a hundred other people in the world also have the same idea. Working out and implementing the idea is more important that the idea itself.'

'I need to have a free hand'
Sacha Bol (23). Company: Sells food supplements through the internet. Study: Health and Society
'I am an independent entrepreneur within a standardized concept. I sell food supplements for Wellness International Network (WIN) through the internet. Besides, I look for people who want to set up similar franchises under me. Within two years, I have assembled a team of 25 people from six different countries, each with their own franchises. These youngsters are not employed by me, but I get income through them. My aim in life is to enable people to become healthier - physically, mentally and financially. This company enables me to cover all these grounds.'
'It is very important for me to be able to do my own thing. Both in my life and in my work, I need to have a free hand. I don't want to first study for five years and then marry and have children. After my Bachelor's degree, which I hope to obtain this year, I will stop studying and devote myself to my company fulltime. I learn more from it than from studying; I learn about myself, cultures, humankind and what it takes to run a company.
'Luckily, I get help from other co-workers, including my parents who are also engaged fulltime in WIN. I am free to manage this company in my spare time, alongside my studies. After all, I am also a normal fulltime student. Even though I miss lectures now and then because of trainings I have to attend and business trips.
'Since I'm always on the lookout for young people who, just like me, want to set up their own franchises with this concept, I started Generation Next. Through it, I give presentations and teach young people how to make extra money right away by having their own company. My work entails networking and that keeps me on my toes 24 hours a day. In every conversation, I'll be thinking: can this become a team mate?
'I have enough time left for other things'
Sander Onsman (21). Company: Study: Biology
'I sell seeds through my website. Especially seeds of tropical plants or unknown winter hardy plants which do well in gardens in the Netherlands. Many of these can only be bought from me.
'In secondary school, I looked for seeds to plant for myself. In so doing, I got the idea to buy seeds in bulk and to sell them. Since then, I have developed contacts with breeders from all over the world. By buying in bulk from these people, the costs for my customers go down.
'I was just beginning with a website when the university in Groningen placed a big order for a digital seed atlas. That brought me and my company into prominence. Since then, I keep growing. I am now translating the site so that I can also go into the international market. In addition, a good friend has put me on the path to trade fairs. The winter is unfortunately not the season to start doing this, but I'll be gearing up for the spring. I'll be at Christmas markets soon and in spring, you'll find me at garden shows.
'The seeds are stored at my parents' home. This is convenient as my father can help with packing and mailing the seeds while I'm in Wageningen during the weekdays. From Wageningen, I can manage the digital part of the shop myself. Of course, you need to spend time in such a company, but I still have enough time for other things. I'm active in a student society, organize the university open days and still do my usual studies in Biology.
The nicest thing about having your own company is getting in touch with all sorts of pleasant people. Besides, my customers mail me regularly with photos and stories about how their plants are doing. It's great to read about how much joy people are getting from the seeds I sold. I also get a lot of nice feedback at marketing events. Such moments make me realize that I really like this work, and the money earned is a nice bonus.'

'My ideal: expand and employ'
Kees van Bochove (19). Company: Van Bochove ecological research. Study: Biology
'My company is involved in ecological research, especially under assignment from project developers. Before you can make changes to an area in the Netherlands, you are required to consider its flora and fauna. For example, if you want to seal up a ditch, you first need to know what kinds of fishes are in it. If protected species are present, they sometimes need to be caught and transferred to somewhere else. I do the research and the transfer. Many plant and animal species fall under the protection of the flora and fauna law. Identifying and taking stock of them require a lot of experience in the nature. In Gouda, where I grew up, there is a nature education centre where I spent a lot of time in and I had taken part in many excursions. It's a small world and I got to know experts pretty soon and learned a lot from. When I finally started to work for a salary in a company which does ecological research, I saw that I could begin my own too. My company is doing well, and I could have gone on fulltime with it after secondary school, but I have purposely chosen to continue studying. I like to learn and I want to explore new issues. That's why I'm afraid that my company would not offer me sufficient challenges in the future. You often get to do similar studies. Besides, it's nicer to do research which is not commissioned by a project developer. For example, I have looked into longhorn beetles which can spread a mould indirectly. My ideal is to expand my current company in the future and to employ people who can do the research commissioned by project developers. With the money earned, I want to finance other types of research. But for the time being, I still have more than three years of studying, so we'll just have to wait and see how things go.'

'A flower to go with your beer'
Loet Rammelsberg (21). Study: Tropical Agriculture. Business idea: Indian Edible Flowers
'Students at Van Hall Larenstein have to undergo a compulsory entrepreneurship semester. During this period, three friends and I developed a business plan to sell nasturtiums. I worked this idea out further last spring and it won me the Kaufmann Scholarship. The nasturtium has edible flowers and is a nice plant to look at. Restaurant owners could use the plant on tables to liven up the place and also for garnishing their food. In addition, the flowers can be served as healthy snacks and replace bitter balls. The leaves of the plant taste a little sharp and the flowers are a bit like that too. My aim is to replace the present table plants in restaurants with mini edible plants.
At this moment, I'm not doing much with the plants. They grow only in summer and I want to concentrate on my studies. But after the stint in America, I plan to develop this idea further and start a company.
'The entrepreneurship semester lasted for half a year. We did a pilot project during that period. That involved going to the bank to apply for funding and producing 3000 plants and selling them. We also let people try the plant in the Wageningen market. This successful pilot project showed us that people are very interested because the nasturtium can be used in so many different ways. Its prospects are promising. In a few years' time, everyone will be eating a flower with his beer.'