“Being proactive instead of reactive is the key.”
GoodHout, a company based in the Netherlands, is producing engineered biocomposite made from coconut waste. The company’s Coconut Husk Board is not a traditional composite product: due to continuing development and innovation, the naturally present glues in the coconut are activated and a 100% natural, engineered wood alternative is produced. It has exceptional properties, and zero added formaldehyde.
Here, Liz Gyekye, Deputy Editor at Bio Market Insights, catches up with Silvia ten Houten, founder of GoodHout.
Liz Gyekye (LG): What’s the story behind your brand?
StH: Essentially, Hout means wood in Dutch, plus my surname is Ten Houten. So GoodHout (@GoodHout) stands for good wood, good sustainable things and making the world a better place.
I have roots in Indonesia, my mother is Indonesian and I have spent some time there when I was a young child before I moved to New Zealand. Later on, I came to study in the Netherlands. Around six years ago, I went back to visit Indonesia after not having been back in over two decades. I wanted to (re-)learn the language, plus find a business concept that would help me to travel to Indonesia more often. I tried finding a product that was cheap in Southeast Asia, but had value in western Europe. Not only that, I also wanted to market a product to western markets while helping Indonesian farmers and their families at the same time.
It just so happened that the trend for coconut water was just starting to take off as a trend in the US, whilst I was visiting Indonesia. I was starting to research coconut water, but a concept based around marketing to consumers with yet another brand just didn’t quite tickle me. I questioned ‘what else is there in this whole value chain?’
There are a couple of generations of biologists in my family; my parents are both biologists and two grandparents were biologists. An uncle was an environmental consultant. I am comfortable with the scientific world, and was brought up with an environmentally conscious way of thinking. So, my initial thoughts on the coconut water situation was ‘what is happening with the waste?’ When I ‘Googled’ this, up popped up the Dutch agricultural university of Wageningen (@WUR) who had been working on precisely that: adding value to coconut waste.
While there has always been interest in their work, no one at the time had taken the coconuts to the next level. So, I thought ‘how about I develop the business side of this concept?’ Essentially, I started the business from a Google search!
Starting with basic technology from the University, we continued to transform coconuts from waste into an engineered biocomposite. This technology came from Holland and was from the very town where my father grew up!
It did help that I could speak the local language, both in the Netherlands where the technology came from, and in Indonesia, one of the largest coconut-producing countries in the world with more than 25% of the global coconuts being grown there. Plus, I was a science nerd, and had an understanding and curiosity about sustainability issues. During this time, I gave myself two years to set this business up, with the idea of if it doesn’t work at least I’ve tried and that’s great.
Of course, when you initially start a business you get all excited and you never have enough money while trying to hit milestones. Overall, it took me three years – a year longer of bootstrapping – to be able to take bigger steps for the business and get the right types of subsidies and team members.
Over the years, we have put a lot of effort in trying to understand the technology, the coconuts, and the supply chain.
We have sourced our coconuts from all Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand. This has to do with understanding the coconuts better and understanding the differences in the supply chain.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing the company?
StH: We don’t have a commercial factory up and running yet. We aim to set up a demo in Southeast Asia soon.
When you start working in Southeast Asia things can get difficult. The communications are difficult, the cultural things are difficult. In Indonesia, for example, the coconuts come from different islands. This puts a lot of pressure on the transport side of things and makes logistics challenging. In Vietnam, we have noticed that most of the coconuts are nearby in a central location, and that could make it a bit easier on logistics.
Another challenge we have is the issue of upscaling. We are doing new things all the time and we are trying to understand the material properly, as well as suitable engineering processes. We are also doing all the product development, market development and business development at the same time.
LG: What’s coming up next for your company?
StH: We hope to set up a demonstration factory in either Vietnam or Indonesia. We also aim to be selling commercially within the next 1-2 years.
We will be excited to commercialise an even larger production facility in four to five years’ time. You need to be patient in this game and we are almost where we want to be.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
StH: LEGO has been trying to bring bio-based material into their products. It’s cool when you get a giant corporate identifying that this is the next big thing. It sets a precedent for other companies to follow. Being proactive instead of reactive is the key. And of course, who didn’t play with LEGO as a child. I did. And that makes this move even more awesome.
Silvia ten Houten will be speaking at the World Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from 2-3 April.
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