Marjolein Helder, StartupDelta Advisor & CEO Plant-e: Sustainable Energy from Living Plants

Imagine if living plants became your battery? You could charge your mobile phone with living plants and power your house with your thriving green roof. Your lawn could charge your electric car, and you could use existing wetlands as your power plant! Marjolein Helder (32) CEO of the start-up Plant-e, a spin-off company of Wageningen University, proved that this can be done. She and her team have introduced a revolutionary new possibility in the world of sustainable energy: electricity from living plants.

Grow Your Rice and Produce Electricity 

As the world population grows there is an increasing demand for new energy sources. How are we going to produce enough energy without destroying nature? We already have solar energy, wind energy and hydropower, “But they all have their limitations,” Marjolein says: “Solar panels do not produce a lot of electricity on a rainy day and wind turbines only run when there is wind. Hydropower has negative environmental and social effects; look at the Amazon where whole communities were forced to move due to the construction of a dam. We need renewable and socially acceptable energy resources. One source that we do not use enough is biomass. With the technology we developed we can generate energy from living plants.” How does this amazing technology work? A plant uses photosynthesis to produce organic matter to grow. It uses only part of the organic matter, the rest is released into the soil. Bacteria in the soil break down this organic matter and by doing so electrons are released. Marjolein and her team have developed a technology that can harvest the electrons and generate electricity directly from the living plant without harming the plant and the environment. “You can even combine food production with electricity production,” Marjolein says. “If you implement the technology in existing rice-paddies, you can grow your rice and produce your electricity in the same field. In this way even the poorest rice farmers in rural areas can get access to electricity!”

The New Google

“I was flabbergasted when I heard the news last summer, that Plant-e had received the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers Award 2015.” Past recipients of this award have been companies like Google, Dropbox , AirBnb and Twitter. “My team and I were over the moon! Winning the award was a confirmation that we are on the right track. Everybody is enthusiastic about our product. They understand it is costly and get over this, but then they wonder why others have not bought it yet. People tend to avoid risks. However, now the World Economic Forum has given Plant-e the same pioneer status as Google! People look at us now through different eyes and this is helpful because as a start-up we do not have the market’s trust yet. ”

Government as Launching Customer

 “Our technology is sexy, so the media like us and we get a lot of attention.  People are interested in our product, but many are still hesitant to buy it.” Nine provinces contacted Plant-e because they were interested in buying the product. The province of South Holland dared to believe in Plant-e’s technology and it was the first province that agreed to start a pilot with Plant-e. Hopefully other provinces will soon follow South Holland’s example. “As a start-up you need pioneers to show the world that you have a great product. You need people at a top level (in our case the director of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, Louise Vet) who believe in your product, buy your product and tell others to do the same. And you also need people within the province, who believe in your product and convince their organizations to buy it.”

Outside the Box

Finding funding for Plant-e’s revolutionary technology is a challenge. “When we apply for innovation subsidies at the Ministry, civil servants struggle to understand our technology. Our technology is so innovative that it does not fit in any box. So, it is easier for big companies that are improving existing products (e.g. solar panels) to receive this subsidy than it is for us, a start-up with disruptive innovation. Civil servants use their own perspective to determine if an application is good enough to receive a subsidy, but they are not entrepreneurs and tend to avoid taking risks. It would be better if entrepreneurs were actively involved in the decision making,” Marjolein says. “Rules should be adjusted to give innovative start-ups a chance,” she argues. “I do get to speak to the right people, but I can’t change the system. And we, as start-ups, do not have the time to organize ourselves to lobby and be heard. Neelie Kroes is the right woman to give us a voice.” Despite these challenges Marjolein and her team prefer to stay in the Netherlands: “It is the excellent expertise at Wageningen University that keeps us here. In general the level of education is very high in the Netherlands and this gives us the opportunity to work with highly skilled experts.

Dream

 “Like all other technologies we are going through the first stages of the technology curve and we are now at the point of showing that our technology works. One m2 of plants can light one LED. In the future we hope that one hectare of plants can generate enough electricity for eighty households.” Plant-e’s dream is to make sustainable energy available for everyone in the world: “Fifteen percent of the global wetlands could generate all the electricity we need worldwide!” she says. The company wants to develop a product based on sales in the western world and to make it cheaply available for people in developing countries who can’t afford it. “We want to teach them how to build the technology themselves. To make our technology available for people who need it most and to make the world a little greener, that’s our dream! ”