Developing a (big) can of worms

Grimy worms upcycling organic waste into fertiliser seems to be the way of the future – at least it won the hearts (and pockets) of venture capitalists at a recent student entrepreneur competition.

In a Dragon’s Den-esque showdown at the annual AUT Venture Fund competition, a startup using vermicasting – the process of making worm poo fertiliser from old food (and other organic waste) – won the alumni division, and $5000 in prize money.

The company, Carbon Grow, was founded by business graduate Helgaard Theunissen (pictured) and engineer Ernst Jordaan. The two graduated in mid-2013 and decided to get down and dirty with earthworms when they realised New Zealand was missing out on commercial vermiculture – an organic way to up-cycle waste material into valuable fertiliser.

While commercial-scale worm farms are common overseas (there’s a 40-acre facility in California, for example), they argued that in New Zealand, vermiculture has largely been the realm of “ma-and-pa” DIY backyard adventures. That’s a shame, Theunissen says, because vermicast – the concentrated liquid, paste or soillike end product of composting using earthworms – is apparently a godsend to the farming industry, “providing many benefits to soil, including increased ability to retain moisture, better nutrient-holding capacity, better soil structure, and higher levels of microbial activity.”

Considering the world is going to hell, as polar ice caps melt and resources dwindle, you might think it was the company's green credentials which impressed the judges.

But it wasn't the environmental, or even the tech side of Carbon Grow that won Theunissen and Jordaan the award, says judge and entrepreneur Tony Falkenstein, CEO of Just Water. It was the business plan they presented.

“In terms of venture fund criteria, they just ticked all the boxes. It was a good commercial proposition, and combination of skills.” Theunissen left AUT with a degree in accounting and hospitality management, while Jordaan graduated in industrial engineering. They are newbies to the start-up business, but Theunissen says they worked hard on the research and the business case.

“Getting an idea is the easy part. It’s putting everything together which is hard. A lot of people have good ideas, and can make it work, but they can’t present it in a professional way.” And professionalism is key, Falkenstein says. Having done the door-knocking, market research, and all other required homework beforehand, Theunissen and Jordaan presented something investors would be more than happy to put money into, he says.

“We’re venture capitalists. They needed to have everything together. These guys did. “It’s ‘hey, we’re here to get some money, and we’re going to tell you why we should get it and not some guy next door.’

"I think they did that well.” With the $5000 prize, the pair will be able to purchase machinery that helps with the separation of worm-and-worm-dung. But there are snags in their operation.

Still working at full time jobs, Theunissen admits that time (or the lack of it) is the partnership’s most ardent adversary. It’s one step at a time, he says. “The next 12 to 24 months we’ll be learning as much as we can, building contacts, and slowly growing our business. And after that? Who knows?”