The VU has more than 100,000 alumni. Where did they end up after their studies? In this section, we feature three alumni with start-ups who have joined the recently opened VU StartHub.
Valentijn Vroom (30) studied Environment and Resource Management and is founder of Spullenbaas.
Your company, Spullenbaas, offers house clearances. What exactly do you do?
„There’s a lot more involved than you think when a house needs to be emptied, particularly when it concerns a death. We make sure that the home is handed over as clean as a whistle within a few days and that all contents are given a second lease of life, where possible. And if there are valuable objects in a home, we offer a discount on the clearance. And it’s not just about deaths. We also clear houses of people who are down-sizing, expats who are returning to their own country or Airbnb accommodation that needs to be sold."
How did you come up with the idea for Spullenbaas?
„Trading has always been a hobby of mine. For example, I had a shed full of refrigerators and chairs and bought a batch of wine to sell on. When my father died a few years ago, I was faced with a huge task on my own: the whole house needed to be cleared and I sold his belongings through auction houses, dealers and channels like Marktplaats. I’d never realised how much work was involved and all that while you’re going through such a difficult period. I’d also had enough of my job as a consultant. I wanted more contact with people instead of writing reports at the computer all day. The idea for Spullenbaas emerged at the start of the Covid pandemic when job vacancies stopped being posted."
House clearance is a traditional service. How is Spullenbaas different from the competition?
„The main thing is that we have a personal approach. I know what it’s like if you have to clear and sell a house and divide up an inheritance while you’re grieving. I make sure we listen to people, that we support them during their period of grief or during a chaotic period such as a relocation. It’s not just about the practicalities of clearing a house."
How does VU StartHub help you in this?
„My main challenge is scaling up the company. I currently do an average of two clearances a week. How should I go about doing say ten clearances? How do I make sure I can still offer customers a personal service? I need to identify the steps to take for this."
„The Startup Launch has helped a lot. It’s a ten-week workshop in which you produce a business plan. It’s labour intensive but those deadlines help me not just work in my company but also on it. I want to move from ‘Valentijn with Spullenbaas’ to Spullenbaas as autonomous company. In the end I’d like to operate internationally. Clearing castles in France is something I’d like to do."
Jozien Boersma (41) studied Business Administration and is co-founder of Vini Mini.
Tell me more, what is Vini Mini exactly?
„The number of children with a food allergy has doubled over the past ten years. Vini Mini products allow parents to start and continue giving their baby peanuts in a safe, healthy and reliable way. This reduces the risk of a peanut allergy. By giving our products you can also check whether an allergy has already developed."
Why has the number of children with a food allergy doubled over the past ten years?
„There are lots of theories about this. What’s important in any event is that many more children are suffering from eczema because we’re living increasingly cleaner lives. This makes babies’ skin vulnerable to allergens in products such as egg, peanuts and nuts, which can enter the skin via the air. When a baby starts eating those products later in life, the body thinks, something’s not right here, and an allergic reaction may occur. So it’s important that the first contact with these allergens takes place via food."
You started the company with your friend Laurie. How did you come up with the idea?
„Laurie gave her son a piece of egg when he was still a baby. He then went into anaphylactic shock and had to be taken to hospital by ambulance. Once there, they found he was also developing an allergy to peanuts and nuts. Fortunately, he turned out fine, and by slowly introducing him to nuts and peanuts he didn’t become allergic to them. But it was, of course, a traumatic event."
„Laurie really wanted to tell young parents about the importance of early allergen introduction so that they wouldn’t find themselves in the same situation. I’ve known Laurie since we were studying and, as I was working in infant nutrition at Danone, I thought: we can inform parents about this. But finding a way to do that isn’t easy. So Laurie again started grinding 26 walnuts for smoothies or crumbling 84 hazelnuts to make biscuits. That’s why we decided to develop products that are easy, reliable and healthy. We opted for peanuts, because scientific research had already been conducted on these, but we have products for egg and other nuts in the pipeline."
So is getting used to egg or peanut not in the GGD (municipal health service) guidelines?
„They are in the guidelines, but things still often go wrong. If something else comes up during such a conversation at the consultatiebureau (child health clinic) that seems more important, allergy information is still sometimes forgotten, even though the consequences can be huge. And ideally, if your baby has eczema and you visit your GP, he or she will tell you to start giving allergens earlier than with a baby without eczema."
Why can’t parents grind peanuts themselves?
„If parents want to do that, that’s fine. But it seems crazy to me for parents to spend time and energy on this. If what we’re doing motivates them to do this, that’s great. However, we test every batch of peanuts to see how many allergens the peanuts contain. Peanuts also generally contain heavy metals. Our products use ‘baby quality’ peanuts."
It seems that your start-up is quite advanced already and you’re developing products. How can the VU StartHub support you?
„We’d like to obtain funding and are currently seeking Angel Investors (people who invest their own money, ed.). Hans Drenth and Marike Oostveen from the Hub help us whenever we get stuck. We also aim to have our products known outside the Netherlands. Last week, we were voted the most promising, innovative European start-up by EIT FOOD, a European project. So, we’re hoping that we’ll soon be on the shelves in Dutch stores or foreign supermarkets."
Daan Verhorst (27) studied political sciences and is co-founder of Blooming Buildings.
You studied political sciences and you’re now getting your hands dirty: why the switch?
„My father worked in forestry and my mother is a landscape gardener. I always thought, you two keep on planting but I’m off to the city to enter politics. Things didn’t work out quite that way though. In the third year of my study programme, I was able to go on an exchange to Singapore. It’s such a special city; so green and modern. I saw there how greenery can be a development strategy component to make the city a more pleasant place. That planted the seed."
The seed for Blooming Buildings: what exactly do you do?
„We try to create more greenery in the world through our unique way of planting greenery in spaces and buildings. This includes city offices where special climbing plants hang from high ceilings. We also use a range of plants and flowers to create, for instance, a green entrance to a hospital that looks different every season: it’s something long-term patients really appreciate. Some companies hire us to make their offices more attractive, others because being green and sustainable is a match for their corporate culture and others because they want to help build a greener environment."
City temperatures can rise quickly during the summer. A whopping 55.5 degrees Celsius was recorded as ground temperature last summer at the Jaarbeursplein next to Utrecht Central station. What do you think when you read that?
„It’s terrible, of course. I regularly speak with designers and builders who think that cities should be urbanised and city-like and consider plants just as decoration. Then I think, you just don’t get it. Without change, cities will be horrible places by the time I’m eighty. Fortunately, that extreme heat and drought last summer is helping people realise that we’re not going to survive if we continue like this."
„The government is actually keen on making places greener. It’s just that they previously focused mainly on citizen participation and not on activating companies or property owners. It’s now slowly dawning on governments and businesses that greenery is an investment that pays off on multiple levels. That’s why it’s important that it’s not just considered an expense, but a vital part of your development or project."
How is VU StartHub helping you?
„With its fantastic space and community, VU StartHub is just what we needed. As starting entrepreneurs, we’re all going through the same process and it’s really good fun too. Hans and his team also really help us with our general questions about keeping a company on track, structuring business processes, addressing marketing and social media and scaling up. They offer short sessions about the different facets of doing business every Thursday. So it’s a really valuable place for us. It’s also great that Blooming Buildings was asked to provide the greenery for the StartHub courtyard."