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
They met in the Entrepreneurship minor and, in an effort to combat plastic pollution, started a business together. That company, FanSea, produces convenient and sustainable drinking straws made from seaweed. Today, still hard at work on development and nearly finished with their degree programmes, they are already fielding constant calls from wholesalers wondering when their straws will finally hit the market.
Seaweed straws: how do you come up with something like that?
‘It comes from the drive to make a difference in the world. 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. 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.’
How cool would it be if we could fight plastic pollution using an ocean-based product?
Having an idea for innovative drinking straws is one thing. Bringing them to market is another. How do you plan to do that?
'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. Unfortunately, the UvA doesn't currently offer any funds for enterprising students. 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. The UvA also 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.'
You'll never get anything done if you don't try.
Do you have any advice for potential entrepreneurs?
‘You should never be afraid to ask for help. That includes CEOs of major companies; you can always try. And always think ahead. 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, which we are aware of and have accepted. 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.’
What makes your Entrepreneurship minor so special? Is there anything that really stands out?
'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. The minor brings together people from different disciplines, which makes it interesting. As we learned during the minor in Entrepreneurship, UvA students don't have any one defining characteristic. Everyone is unique, and that might be the one thing UvA students have in common.'