Biology and technology define the future of food

The Growcoon: An award winning invention.

The success of the Growcoon has been the result of joint forces of Maan Biobased Products: inventor and producer of the Growcoon, and Klasmann Deilmann: leading supplier of growing media/substrate for horticulture, who has made it possible for the whole world to benefit from the many advantages that the Growcoon has to offer.

In this interview we talk to innovation manager Sjors Beijer (Klasmann Deilmann) and partner manager Patrick Alferink (Maan Biobased Products) on their award-winning innovation. But we also dive into their companies’ histories and vision on the future of the horticulture sector. 

Sjors, Klasmann-Deilmann is a leading supplier of growing media/substrate for professional horticulture. Can you tell us a bit about your own history at the company and what you do as innovation manager?
Sjors Beijer from Klasmann Deilmann
Sjors Beijer

Klasmann-Deilmann is indeed a renowned name in horticulture, a major international substrate supplier (we call it growing media). Looking at the nature of our business, we want to become more resource use efficient when it comes to the production and sales of peat based substrates. That’s why Klasmann-Deilmann set up an innovation team already 6 years ago, and that’s how I came to work at the company as innovation manager, now heading a growing team of 7 colleagues.

This innovation team was launched to specifically look at alternative business models, in different directions than our traditional model that is about peat extraction for growing media. How can we diversify our business model and portfolio of services and product towards our clients and reduce or even minimize the use of peat? And that’s how we came in touch with Maan Biobased Products.

Indeed, and this cooperation focused on the Growcoon, right?

Yes, the Growcoon is the result of many years of innovation, development and testing. The first steps were already made back in 2008. Some six years ago, when Klasmann-Deilmann and Maan Biobased Products joined forces, we were able to actually make the Growcoon a success.
Nowadays, we’re able to produce 500 million Growcoons a year, moving towards 1 billion in 2025!

Patrick, you’re partner manager at Maan Biobased Products, part of the Maan Group. Can you give a brief intro on Maan?
Patrick Alferink from Maan Group - Growcoon developers
Patrick Alferink

Maan Group can be best described as a company of inventors and innovators. The Group consists of 3 divisions: Maan Engineering, Maan Special Products and Maan Biobased Products. Together, we possess the skills, the intellect and the equipment to translate innovative ideas into sustainable, marketable products.

I am partner manager at Maan Biobased products and we focus on the manufacturing of biodegradable products for the horticultural sector. Growcoon is our greatest success story and has attracted quite some attention, also outside the horticultural domain. This year we were awarded the prestigious business award ‘Koning Willem l Award’ for SME’s, a great honor and reward for our efforts. 

So, what exactly is the Growcoon?

The Growcoon is a small knitted net, made of biopolymers (fully biodegradable materials). This net can be put around young plant plugs and allows the plant to grow and develop healthy roots and makes it easily transplantable. These biopolymers can be compared to the material that is used for medical stitches. Stitches degrade in the human body without leaving any trace or harmful materials, and the Growcoon does the same in the soil.

How do you both see the future of the Growcoon developing? What are your goals and vision regarding this innovative product? And what’s next when it comes to your collaboration?

Patrick: ‘We have already developed different sizes and compositions of the Growcoon. Next step is to make a Growcoon tailored for tissue culture propagation in laboratories and larger sizes to replace plastic pots (when producing herbs in pots for example).’

Sjors: ‘Building on the success of the Growcoon, we’re also working together to develop a substrate made of biodegradable polymers to be used in vertical farms and hydroponics, but also for young plants. The goal is to launch this new product, ready for commercial applications, at the international horticultural fair GreenTech in Amsterdam in June 2023.’

Patrick: ‘Yes, and at the same time, the technical division of Maan Group is working on the machines that actually make this material and our vision is that in this way we can bring growing media production right to the grower’s greenhouse. We believe that in the future growers can manufacture their growing media in house and exactly according to their needs. Compare it if you like with your own 3-D printer for growing media. In this way we can save on waste, but also on costs (and CO2 emissions) for transport, distribution and storage, making everything way more efficient and resilient.’

Sjors: ‘If this becomes a reality it would be a really disruptive innovation that changes the horticultural sector, we believe!’

Growcoon dispenser
Growcoon dispenser
Sjors, does that mean that you think we won’t need any peat for growing plants in the coming years?

Hah, that’s a good question and not an easy one to answer. I still think we’ll need peat for the coming years, just because supply from other sustainable resources does not meet the current, increasing demand. I do see the need and urgency to change our mind about peat and its use, and Europe takes a leading role in developing alternatives and phasing out the use of peat, especially on a consumer level. When you look at professional use of peat, I do hope that in 50 years from now we have reduced the need for it to an absolute minimum and have increased the use of biodegradable and sustainable alternatives to the max. This can be achieve through innovation in our substrate itself, and even more so through cultivation system innovations like hydroponics and vertical farming that allow to grow more produce with less input – including less use of substrate.

Sjors, with EatThis. we strive to connect the horticultural sector closer to society and to other sectors as well. We feel horticultural companies have great stories to tell, but people often don’t know about them.

I agree that cross-sectoral cooperation and innovation is key when you want real change. That’s exactly the reason why Klasmann-Deilmann decided to look at other sectors and companies when they started their innovation team 6 years ago.

In my opinion horticultural companies often think or want to find innovation within their own field or sector, while I think there’s so much to learn from others; people that know nothing about plants or growing plants and look at our challenges with a pair of fresh eyes. I genuinely believe that the next generation can make a difference in this respect.

What effectively happened is that Klasmann-Deilmann hired a bunch of young, motivated and talented people for their innovation team with different backgrounds and set them up in the Netherlands, close to customers. The company gave the team the freedom and support to come up with ideas and concepts, not at all linked to horticulture. Consequently, it also meant that Klasmann-Deilmann at times had to step out its comfort zone and take decisions on processes they were not at all familiar with. So far this worked well.

In our strategy there was a clear demand and also pressure to come up with new ideas, a new vision to change our own company future and business model. This awareness of course helped to take the necessary steps towards cross-sectoral collaboration. In Maan Biobased Products we found an innovative partner with a product that added well to the existing portfolio and customer base. Through the established worldwide sales network and company footprint, we were able to bring the Growcoon to the market very quickly and turn this into a success.  

Patrick, how do you regard the innovation potential of the horticultural sector and how do you foresee the sector can make its mark in the future?

I reckon that the horticultural sector, especially in the Netherlands, could focus much more on how to get in touch with its final consumer and in addition, communicate with this final consumer about food. Once you know the end user of your product, you can work on innovations and improvements of your product.

As I said before, Maan Group is a company of inventors, we like to bring our markets forward and develop solutions for often complicated problems. But at the same time, storytelling is also important and shouldn’t be underestimated. I agree with Sjors that the sector can extend its influence when working with parties from outside the horticultural sector. If you look at the current state of our world, our food production and supply that seems more important than ever before.

This interview is part of our Inside Out series of in-depth interviews with our contributors. Follow us on Instagram or Twitter for updates!