Rising Star | Sevan Holemans, Le Champignon de Bruxelles

Why did you set up your company?

The idea of starting our company came while I was a Blue Book trainee at the European Commission. I was living with my best friend, Hadrien, who studied economics with me, and was looking for his first job. One day, he came back home with a new book: “The Blue Economy” by Gunter Pauli. He read it overnight and woke me up in the morning, saying he had found what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. As I was very curious, he gave me the book and I started reading about biomimicry, circular economy and the thousands of business ideas Gunter Pauli had gathered to trigger local entrepreneurship.

 

While studying economics, I had always considered myself more of an entrepreneur than an economist. I wanted to get hands-on experience, be my own boss and apply the theories I had learned. More specifically, I had a profound interest for the issues of waste management and mobility in urban areas. By that time, I was also very much inspired by the first renewable energy cooperatives, which were able to divert private savings into the real economy.

 

Did you have a ‘lightbulb moment’ (i.e. which led to you starting your business, or which triggered a change in the way you did things)?

Our first idea was to grow mushrooms on coffee waste. Not the standard white mushrooms – which account for more than 85% of the consumption in Belgium – but Asian mushrooms, such as the Shiitake, the Maitake, or the Nameko, which have high nutritive properties as well as very unique tastes and textures.

 

However, we rapidly found out that these mushrooms couldn’t grow well on coffee waste.

For a period of more than two years, we decided to test mushroom growth on the various organic wastes that we could find locally in Brussels. We set up a laboratory in our first production space and hired a biologist as well as a few students in bioengineering to carry these researches.

 

Eventually, we found out the best substrate to grow Shiitake mushrooms was the brewery spent grain that we were collecting in the microbreweries around our farm.

 

The lightbulb moment happened then: what if we could grow organic mushrooms in the middle of Brussels using the spent grain of some of the most famous breweries around the world? And what if, meanwhile, we could replace the mushroom industry’s traditional need for wood with organic waste that is otherwise incinerated in urban areas?

 

Were there any EU, national, regional or local business support services, programmes or funding initiatives that helped you set up or grow?

When we started our project in 2014, neither I nor Hadrien had any personal savings. Moreover, not much public support for urban agriculture existed in Brussels, and not many investors would have taken the risk to jump in so early. We started with two microcredits of 5 and 6 thousand euros (with an interest rate of 9%). We then collected around 10 thousand euros through crowdfunding, which helped us launch the production, get our first clients, and build a laboratory. In 2016, we restructured our project into a cooperative, got our first loan from a public bank (50 thousand euros at 4% interest rate and no guarantees), and raised an additional 350 thousand euros of capital, welcoming on board around 40 new cooperators. From this moment, we received a lot of public support from the region of Brussels. We won the BeCircular project call of the Region for businesses active in the circular economy twice, as well as the GoodFood project call for urban agriculture initiatives.

More recently, we participated in a European consortium for a H2020 project call on urban agriculture. The project was coordinated by Wageningen University and gathered more than 15 partners from both universities and businesses in 5 different countries. Unfortunately, we didn’t win the call, which would have allowed us the finance a major part of our 3-year R&D roadmap.

 

How would you describe your progress so far? Are there any significant challenges you have had to overcome?

 

We now have a core team of 8 people in the team and recently integrated a young start-up, ECLO, which produces microgreens. The microgreens market is booming and we are still just a few actors in Europe. Moreover, there are multiple synergies between microgreens in terms of production (they can be grown on the mushrooms’ substrate, need the same temperature to grow than in the mushroom incubation phase, and need the CO2 that the mushrooms produce) as well as in term of sales (the mushrooms’ season runs from September to March while the microgreens sales are the highest between April and October).

 

After more than 4 years of activity, the business is not yet profitable (without subsidies). Our main challenge is therefore a financial one, which is unfortunately the case for all urban agriculture businesses over the world.

 

We have started working on entering a very niche market: the organic retailers (such as Färm, Sequoia, Marché des Tanneurs, The Barn, etc.) and gourmet restaurants in Belgium. However, this market represents a mere 5% of the mushroom market, and we can’t sustain or grow our business on these 5%. Our major challenge today is therefore to reduce our production costs and expand our commercial network to bigger players.

 

What do you see as the key trends/disruptors for 2018 relevant to entrepreneurs?

This is not (yet) much related to Le Champignon de Bruxelles, but I follow very closely with a lot of curiosity the development of Blockchain and its various applications in the real economy.

There is in fact a relation between Le Champignon de Bruxelles and Blockchain. The link is called GOVERNANCE. For the last 4 years, we have built a decentralised governance structure in which each of our employees is empowered with the full responsibility of his defined and allocated tasks. The rules behind this new decision-making process are key to understanding this decentralisation of power, as it is the case with the White Papers behind any Blockchain project. Some of these White Papers are revolutionary in the sense that they profoundly reinvent the way decisions are being made.

I believe these tools could play a major role in re-inventing our democracies (including democracy in our companies).

Rapid fire round

Which is a better guarantee for success: persistence or integrity?

Integrity.

Pineapple on pizza: yes or no?

Yes.

Which one do you say more: yes or no?

Yes.

Football or rugby?

Climbing.

MBA or start work?

Start work and then go for an MBA.

London or New York?

Brussels is the new New York.


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