Seaweed looks set to become an increasingly important foodstuff in the future. It grows quickly and without pesticides. Moreover, it grows in the sea so it does not require any scarce land or freshwater. On top of that, it is highly nutritious; packed with minerals and fiber. “Seaweed is delicious as well. It’s a true flavor enhancer for both sweet and savory flavors,” explains Mendelt Tillema, founder of UmaMeats. Tillema came across seaweed and its promising applications during his courses in plant sciences at Wageningen University & Research. “The idea kept bouncing around in my head,” he says. This is how his start-up UmaMeats gradually began to grow. He uses seaweed as a meat enhancer in this.
UmaMeats’ meat products are made up of a unique combination of beef and seaweed. Less fat and salt are needed thanks to the flavors of the seaweed. This makes the burgers and sausages healthier and more sustainable. “My goal is to make the responsible choice also the logical choice,” states Tillema. That seems to be working. UmaMeats’ latest burgers earn an A in the Nutri-Score, while most meat products score a C or D.
The Nutri-Score was introduced to allow consumers to quickly see if a product is healthy or not. Consumers can then use the score to conveniently compare products with each other. In the calculation of the score, protein and fiber are seen as positive ingredients. Salt, fat and sugar are deemed unhealthy ingredients. This results in a score on a scale from A to E.
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“It is actually a kind of scale for nutritional ingredients. The score quickly gives consumers a general idea of the nutritional value of a product,” says Tillema. “This method in itself is not perfect. It is also important to take a look at the ingredients in a product. The rule of thumb is that good products contain few different ingredients. If a product has five to six ingredients without any frivolous names, it is usually good. The ingredients will then naturally have a good mix of nutrients.”
He sees the Nutri-Score as a tool to raise awareness about what people are eating. Being more aware of what is in the food you eat is very important to Tillema. “Half of the population is overweight, and the vast majority of that is due to the food that is on offer,” he says. In addition to developing sustainable meat products, the student entrepreneur also started looking at the psychological aspect of eating. “When we shop, we make a lot of unconscious choices,” he explains. “Subconsciously, we often choose on the basis of taste. That’s why I’m convinced that healthy and sustainable food should be especially delicious. Then people will automatically choose what is better.”
Step by step
In this respect, meat products, such as hamburgers and sausages, are ideal to start with: Lots of people like to eat these. Replacing part of the meat with seaweed already has a huge positive impact on the environment. “That’s how we move forward step by step,” Tillema states. Wageningen University & Research is the leading university in the Netherlands when it comes to food and agriculture.
“Many students have a strong sense of wanting to improve the world,” says Tim Daalderop, incubation manager at StartHub. This organization helps students set up and run a business. Students can take courses and workshops on entrepreneurship at StartHub, and they also get personal guidance. “For example, students come up with ideas during their studies that they want to take further; we can support them with that,” Daalderop continues. “Mendelt Tillema is just such a student. He has completed a bachelor’s degree, but is not really cut out for the science world. He’s keen to do things. Then it’s a logical step to go into business.”
In the old days, all students at a university were trained exclusively as scientists; that has not been the case for a long time now. Daalderop: “At the university, and certainly in business, everyone works in teams. Solution-oriented work is paramount. It is important that students gain experience in this, for example through entrepreneurship.” Besides, it’s also just a lot of fun. A StartHub community has been created, made up of participating students and coaches, who organize a barbecue in the summer, for instance. Then everyone gets to enjoy Tillema’s creations there one more time. “It’s a lot of fun when we all get together and taste things at times like that,” he laughs.
UmaMeats’ meat products have been available at the wholesaler Sligro since 2018. Apart from that, various caterers and chefs serve the enhanced meat in hotels, hospitals and restaurants. “These products are highly versatile because they offer added value in several ways,” says Tillema. Except that, due to the corona crisis, this sector is at a complete standstill at the moment. “That’s why we are taking the time now to keep on developing,” he adds. The entrepreneur is working on new recipes and a new concept for supermarkets.
On the supermarket shelves, the start-up is up against large companies that can produce meat very cheaply and have gigantic marketing budgets at their disposal. “Those companies know exactly how to tap into the subconscious of consumers through marketing and, for example, packaging materials,” he says. And the meat is often relatively cheap as well. “Marketing meat as cheap as possible is not our goal. We want to offer an alternative that is not only appetizing, but that also boasts a high nutritional value.” The student entrepreneur believes that the Nutri-Score does help with that. “It provides consumers with a clear point of reference to compare products, in addition to price and packaging.”
When it comes to developing the business, Tillema can still rely on support from StartHub, such as from coaches. “Through StartHub, we also have access to a large network, both inside and outside the university,” the student points out. “For example, we can quickly liaise with scientists on substantive matters. Also, there is currently a student who is doing his graduate research on the new concept that we are developing. That’s a cool interrelationship with the university.” It is also important for the university to mentor students and staff in entrepreneurship. Daalderop: “It is one of the ways to transfer knowledge from the university to society. That is one of our important tasks.”
What’s more, according to the incubation manager, large organizations like universities can also learn something from resilient young entrepreneurs. “Most universities are historically unwieldy organizations that move slowly, but entrepreneurs can adapt and change quickly. Entrepreneurs have little use for lengthy policy processes; they need prompt support for specific questions,” Daalderop says. “That gets universities out of a rut and provides new insights.”
Over the coming period, Tillema will focus on further developing his business. For instance, in addition to the present range of sausages and hamburgers, other meat products are expected to come onto the market in the next few months. He will also continue to research seaweed, partly in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research, with the aim of making food tastier and healthier. Tillema: “It would be really cool if we can put seaweed as a functional ingredient on the map in Western Europe within the next ten years.
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