In this series we speak to start-ups, businesses and others based on the campus about their work and why they chose the Wageningen Campus. This time it’s Mendelt Tillema of UmaMeats: “A visit to a seaweed farm sparked the idea to use seaweed to enrich meat. I want to tempt consumers with versions of their favourite products that taste even better and, as a bonus, are compatible with a healthy and sustainable diet. And we can do that with seaweed.” Now, around three years on, UmaMeats has an UmaBurger and an UmaWorst (sausage) on the market, with 40% less added salt than standard meat products.
What exactly does Umameats do, and who for?
We hope that UmaMeats will make a positive impact by tempting people to make healthier choices. That’s why we make tasty, juicy meat products, such as hamburgers and sausages, enriched with seaweed. Adding seaweed gives the beef a flavour known as umami [the fifth main taste after sweet, sour, salty and bitter]. Umami goes well with the natural flavour of meat, and makes it richer. This means the UmaBurger delivers more flavour with less salt.
The seaweed also makes the meat juicy, which means we can use lean beef. Meat from Dutch dairy cows is lean and perfect for our products. The great thing is that chefs have noticed this too. When the UmaBurger sells out they ask us if we can supply it to them directly. There are lots of different hamburgers available from wholesalers, but these chefs want the Umaburger because it stays juicy when you cook it.
How did you come up with the idea?
When I was studying Plant Sciences at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) we visited a seaweed farm. I was inspired by the idea of growing food without the use of fresh water, pesticides or even soil. Also, back in my home village my mother is involved in a community project that encourages lifestyle changes to improve people’s overall quality of life. Our ideas reinforce each other.
Changing the way we eat is an important pillar of lifestyle change. Seaweed contains exactly the right nutrients to achieve this. When better food is available, people tend to choose to eat more healthily. Wageningen is a hub of innovation around food and nutrition. It’s really interesting to be able to discuss and debate the direction of that innovation with the students, researchers and lecturers here. The sense of community on campus is perfect for this. That’s also why it’s useful to have an office on campus.
How many people do you work with?
We’ve had varying numbers of people in the team over the past few years. The corona situation led to us losing a large share of our customers, and it’s inefficient to have people working for us with a permanent contract. But that has also shown me how helpful it is to work with other companies rather than trying to do everything in-house. This means people can continue to work in the structure they’re used to, which in turn means cooperation is very efficient.
Speaking of which, how are you getting through the corona crisis?
I’ve scrutinised all my costs and looked at what I get in return, and the associated time scales. That enabled me to reduce many running costs. That doesn’t mean I’m hibernating now. I’m currently working on concept development. Seaweed has a whole range of positive nutritional effects. There’s a lot to learn about it. That knowledge will help me improve the quality of the products even further.
Hasn’t UmaMeats already won a number of awards?
Yes, that happened quite early on. It’s good to know that the concept appeals to people. The idea was born in 2017, by the end of that year it had been made concrete, and in 2018 UmaMeats already was the Startup of 2018. In 2019 UmaMeats was named one of that year’s Young Talents by the Financieel Dagblad newspaper. In the spring of this year, the trendwatcher at Internorga – the influential food service and hospitality trade fair – chose us as an innovation not to miss. But that event didn’t happen due to corona.
These occasions are really great and you need to celebrate them, because they give you a lot of energy. They also give us the perfect opportunity to talk about our special burger to a lot of people we wouldn’t otherwise meet on an ordinary day.
What are the benefits of having a spot on Wageningen Campus?
Wageningen Campus is the epicentre of food and nutritional development. You couldn’t be any closer to the action. Ordinarily you’d have thousands of people here all working on ideas related to improving food and nutrition. It’s good to be part of such an ecosystem. It’s fun and useful to establish relationships with people who share your passion. The network is fed by entities like Starthub and StartLife, which keep the ecosystem going.
The expertise available here for facilitating start-ups gives you a real kick-start. That includes food-related expertise, but also legal and financial expertise and administrative support. The student population is useful for recruiting interns and new employees. We can brainstorm about the challenges we all face with other start-ups in our building. We’re not competing with each other, we’re all working on different concepts, but we can bounce ideas off each other. As early-stage enterprises we’re all in the same boat, after all.
Does UmaMeats make use of the facilities/equipment on campus?
Not so much the equipment. But we do draw on the expertise of professors or students working on a particular challenge.
Is there anything you feel is lacking on campus?
Lacking is overstating it, but I think marketing is an area we could still develop a lot more. At WUR we learn how to think in a technical way, but as a start-up you need to consider at an early stage how you're going to position yourself in a heavily saturated food production sector. WUR itself is very good at that, and has developed a powerful brand position over the past few years. I’m sure that as start-ups we could benefit from that.
How do you see the future of UmaMeats, and will it be on campus?
I was able to make a flying start with Starthub on campus. There’s a valuable mix of passion and experience here around global food issues. That keeps you focused and really energised. Basically, I’m really happy there and it’s also great being in the new building, Plus Ultra II.
Even though I do miss the employees at the reception desk and the cleaners of the Atlas building. As far as the future of UmaMeats is concerned, I want to be totally focused on improving the nutritional quality of processed foods. I think we can still make products much tastier, more nutritious, and more sustainable. Doing that with a relatively unfamiliar ingredient like seaweed makes it interesting too. It’s so much fun surprising people by making their favourite food even tastier with seaweed. And it's still so exciting. Seaweed has so many great characteristics, and continues to surprise me.