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FanSea: Michelle Nierop, Vera van Laarhoven, Jasper Luijendijk

Who: Michelle Nierop (1996), Vera van Laarhoven (1994) and Jasper Luijendijk (1998) 
What: FanSea, eco-friendly straws.
Studied: Jasper is studying Built Environment (Architecture specialisation) at the AUAS, Michelle is taking the Bachelor's in Future Planet Studies at the UvA and Vera recently completed a Bachelor's in Communication Science at the UvA.
First job: Jasper: archival work; Michelle: a newspaper route; and Vera: in a café.
Favourite place at the UvA: Jasper: on the embankment at Crea, on Roeterseiland. Michelle: Science Park. Vera: the Oudemanhuispoort.
Essential: each other, our own motivation and our shared mission

How they met

Vera: 'I was doing a Bachelor's in Communication Science and decided to take the minor in Entrepreneurship. I thought it would be a good way to express my creative side. We were given an assignment to set up a small business in a field of our choice. I met Michelle during the minor. She's studying Future Planet Studies and wanted to set up a profitable company with a social impact. Jasper is a great salesman who knows how to deliver a sales pitch. He's also good with finance, so we asked him to join our team.'

Jasper: 'I've been an entrepreneur from an early age, and I run two companies. I've launched products on the European market through one, and do freelance architectural drawing work through the other. The Built Environment curriculum includes a mandatory minor. I wanted to do something I really believed in, and ended up choosing the minor in Entrepreneurship where I met Vera and Michelle. They had developed a sustainable idea that appealed to me, and we ended up joining forces. We stuck together after the minor ended as well.'

Vera: 'The minor in Entrepreneurship seemed like a great opportunity to express my creative side.'

Driven to make a difference

Michelle: 'I was already driven to make a difference in the world before I started on Future Planet Studies. I'd been on two long trips and kept noticing all the rubbish washed up on beaches. It really annoyed me and I wondered why no one was doing anything about it. Eventually, I realised I could actually take action myself. That experience inspired me to enrol in Future Planet Studies. Although it's an active programme, I already started missing real-world experiences in my first year and decided to take the minor in Entrepreneurship in year two. I realised it would be hard to combine a minor with a full programme like Future Planet Studies, but I wanted to try and see how far I would get. Looking back, I think it's the best decision I ever made. The minor allowed me to apply the knowledge I'd acquired in practice. I couldn't wait to get started and set up a business.'

FanSea

Vera: 'I was working in the catering industry at the time, and we'd just replaced plastic straws with paper ones. We got a lot of complaints from customers. The paper tends to get soggy quite fast and the 

straws aren't as easy to drink from as their plastic counterparts. That's obviously annoying, but we can't just keep ignoring the plastic soup in our seas. We decided we wanted to develop straws made from a sustainable plastic substitute that's more user-friendly than paper. We considered metal straws at first, but market research showed they weren't really suitable for catering outlets. If you're running a busy bar, there's no time to clean every straw with a brush – you simply have to use disposable products. Suddenly, the idea hit us: how cool would it be if we could fight plastic pollution using an ocean-based product? We'd already learned about the potential of seaweed during a visit to Wageningen University, and decided to focus on that. That is pretty much how FanSea was born.' 

Seaweed straws

Jasper: 'Straws are definitely a useful product, but they're bad for the environment. The catering industry isn't the only sector to rely on plastic products. Hospitals and care institutions, for instance, do the same. Hygiene is obviously crucial, so they can't use steel straws. On the other hand, they can't stop using straws altogether either. If you're going to replace plastic, you need a good product that's durable and clean. Seaweed offers the best potential in that regard.'

Michelle: 'Using seaweed offers lots of benefits. It's cheap and doesn't put pressure on the food supply chain, because you don't need arable land to produce it. Seaweed grows quickly, so there's always enough supply. It also grows in the sea, so there's no carbon footprint. We're fine-tuning the material right now. We need to optimise the mixture to make sure the product is sturdy enough. At the same time, it also has to be easily biodegradable in order to compost in the ocean. Optimising the material is a really intricate process. We still have a ways to go, but things are heading in the right direction.'

Jasper: 'I wanted to do a minor I really believed in.'

A new start after the minor

Jasper: 'We've been spending quite a lot of time on FanSea for the last year or so. I've put my other businesses on hold for the time being. I believe FanSea is unique. If I didn't focus all my energy on it during this phase, I believe I would really regret it ten years down the line. Everyone around me thinks it's a great idea. Lots of people ask me when the product will be on the market and ready for people to use. I hope we get there soon.'

Michelle: 'The market side of things is already going well. Several wholesalers have let us know they'll be buying the product as soon as it becomes available. They regularly call us to check how far along we are. It's great to get positive feedback, and it's reassuring to know there's demand for our idea. That gives us the confidence we need to keep going. It's going to be a lot of hard work, but I think I'll manage to combine this with my studies. I plan to link FanSea to my thesis next year.' 

Sponsorship

Vera: 'We've funded everything ourselves so far. We're trying to secure grants and are taking part in competitions with cash prizes for start-up development, such as the Amsterdam Science Innovation Award. We previously won the audience award during the pitch day at the end of the minor, and took part in the Business Model Challenge organised by Impact Hub Amsterdam. We ended up in second place, which is quite promising in terms of future competitions.'

Michelle: 'The UvA doesn't currently offer any funds for enterprising students. I discussed potential sponsorships with the university, but they couldn't make it happen, unfortunately. That's not to say the UvA isn't helping out. They gave us room to experiment in a lab at Science Park and several professors are helping us develop our idea.'

Jasper: 'The UvA recently invited us to speak at the official opening of the Academic Year in September, which is quite an honour. We'll be explaining what we're doing and conducting an interactive test. We're still working out the details, but we'll probably hold a blindfold test to show people our product is just as good as plastic."

Michelle: 'Interacting with all the different students at the Entrepreneurship minor helped me break out of my bubble.'

Everyone is unique

Vera: 'I've always enjoyed my time at the UvA and felt at home here. The minor in Entrepreneurship was especially memorable, and not just because FanSea started there. The minor brings together people from different disciplines, which makes it interesting.' 

Michelle: 'The students in the Entrepreneurship minor are extremely diverse. That was really good for me, because it helped me break out of my bubble. Almost everyone at Future Planet Studies and Science Park is focused on nature and sustainability. That's quite a contrast with the minor, where only 2 of the 12 start-ups centred on sustainability. I was quite surprised to find there were people with a totally different mindset than the students I see at Science Park every day.'

Jasper: 'Hardly anyone at the minor knew one another; there were students from pretty much every degree programme. That dynamic is good for start-ups, as it teaches you to approach things from different angles. You learn a lot from all those different perspectives. As we learned during the minor in Entrepreneurship, UvA students don't have any one defining characteristic.'

Michelle: 'Everyone is unique, and that might be the one thing UvA students have in common.'

Asking for help

Vera: 'We came up with the slogan: "For every plastic disposable a FanSea alternative." That's our goal – we want to expand beyond just straws. Ultimately, our material should be suitable for every disposable plastic product. A product this innovative obviously takes time to develop. We're aware of and have accepted that. It's an entirely new product, so there were no ready-made solutions to rely on. We had to test prototypes and develop machines to produce large batches of our disposable products. It's all a bit of a gamble, but you'll never get anything done if you don't try. To our credit, we've never been afraid to ask for help. That includes CEOs of major companies; you can always try.'