Technology is all around and so much so, in fact, that most of us are dependent on the internet or our mobile devices to stay connected with the world around us. On the one hand, that’s great – it brings all of us closer together in ways that were previously unthought of. On the other, though, it can also be a source of major distraction. This is what Tim Smits and Jorn Rigter, co-founders of YES!Delft startup Unpluq, realized while at university and they took it upon themselves to create a solution.
Tim and Jorn have always thought that it would be cool to start something together. “While studying Industrial Design Engineering at the TU Delft, we noticed that we were easily distracted by all the apps we had on our smartphones. And that’s a problem that a lot of other students have nowadays, too,” Tim says. The two of them, thus, saw this as an opportunity to create a new type of solution that would make smartphones less of a distraction.
And so, their entrepreneurial journey began.
“We first took part in a six-month program at the university called Build Your Startup and during that time, we interviewed a lot of people on how they interacted with their smartphones and if they found them to be a distraction.” Needless to say, a lot of them did.
The true value of the Build Your Startup program was to help Tim and Jorn validate their idea and understand the depth of the problem they were trying to solve. “Of course, there were already existing solutions to minimize distraction, like setting reminders and limitations on the phone itself,” Tim says. Yet, what they wanted to achieve was a more lasting solution; something that would keep the smartphone and its user away from distraction in a more tangible way.
So, what they came up with was a physical key that would remove distracting apps from the user’s smartphone. In other words, plug in this physical key and you have access to your distracting apps. Take it out and your phone is stripped down to just its “normal” functions.
Important to understand about the concept of Unpluq is that everyone can define for themselves what distracting apps really are. While the team offers a preselection and a list of tips, it is up to each user to decide what these apps are – or should be. That way everyone can judge for themselves what they consider to be taking away from their productive time.
At the end of the program, Tim and Jorn launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising 10,000 euros. They describe it as their “first validation moment”, especially as they reached their target. Most of their customers are millennials and Generation Z users and while most physical keys have been sold within the Netherlands, Unpluq has also had interest from abroad.
Since then, though, their business model has taken a new turn. “While we started out with a hardware solution, we have since moved mostly to software,” Tim says. “Hardware tends to limit growth, software is more scalable. We willmay introduce a mixed model soonlater on, where the Unpluq app is the basis and the hardware product is an add-on that users can choose to buy.”
In order for the software solution to work as well as the physical key, Tim and Jorn have identified, what they call, “distraction barriers” as a key feature. Since all apps – distracting or not – would now be one the user’s phone, there need to be barriers to getting into the distracting apps too easily. By introducing distraction barriers, Unpluq would require users to shake their phone until a meter is filled or scan a QR codemove to have their apps unlocked, to name a few.
“Our physical key was what made us unique and now so are our distraction barriers. They are not the same as simply blocking apps,” Tim says.
To date, the team has raised close to 1400,000 euros and are currently raising another round on leapfunder. After that they are aiming for a larger round of investment, which would help them expand to the US – their next big market, as they see it. That would also allow them to hire their first full-time employee and further grow their team.
Unpluq is also looking to branch out to new customer segments and approach employers with their solutions. “We want to start selling to companies that want to offer our tool as an option to their employees. It is very relevant in the time of remote working when it’s easier to get distracted.”
Tim and Jorn currently have a team of interns who help them in a number of different aspects of the startup’s development. The two co-founders have also benefited from the expert network of YES!Delft and even have fellow entrepreneurs from the community as their advisors. “Having such a strong support network has been very valuable for us starting out,” Tim says.
And it’s only up from here. Going forward, the team will be working towards the iPhone version of Unpluq and further developing their software, diversifying their customer portfolio in the Netherlands and raising funds to expand internationally.
Almost 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute. In one year, that number goes as high as 480 billion. This is what a report found back in 2019 and those numbers are likely to keep increasing in the future. Finding alternatives to single-use plastics, and in particular water bottles, has thus become a priority embraced by governments as well as businesses.
Aquablu, a Dutch startup from the YES!Delft ecosystem, is one of those companies working towards a more plastic-free future. With their smart water purifying technology, the team have set themselves the ambitious goal to eliminate 1 billion bottles by 2030.
A few years back, co-founder Marnix Stokvis was on a trip to South Africa when he got the idea for what is now known as Aquablu. “I was in Cape Town, surfing, when I encountered the plastic problem South Africa was facing,” he says. “Plastic pollution was very evident there, and especially so in the water. It got me thinking about water accessibility and what could be done to minimize the use of plastic bottles.”
Marnix reached out to his friend and soon to be fellow co-founder Marc van Zuylen and the two turned his initial idea into a business concept. They founded Aquablu at the end of 2016 and started developing their first water purification system. Yet, their ambition went way beyond a single product.
“We came together around one core mission and that was to enable a plastic-free world,” Marc says.
In working towards that mission, Marc and Marnix knew that their solution would also be an ambitious one. They set off to develop a smart purification system that would not only provide clean drinking water, but also feed its users a wide range of data about the quality of the water and the technical status of the system, among others. In the spirit of personalization, it also makes it possible for users to quantify their positive impact on the environment by knowing just how much water they have purified with their Aquablu system.
The smart technology behind the solution plays another important role, too. The fact that their technology can monitor how much water is being purified with their systems enables them to make very specific promises.
“Together with the Made Blue Foundation, an entrepreneurial charity in the Netherlands, we offer the Liter for Liter promise. That means for every liter of water that is purified with our systems, a liter of clean drinking water is donated to places where it is a scarcity,” Marnix says.
And while Aquablu has a global mission, the team has made the conscious choice to start at home before they expand far and wide. “Our initial idea was to sell internationally – and we did that. We delivered our system to 13 different countries,” Marc says. But with time, he and Marnix kept talking to people around them and realized that even in the Netherlands, where there is access to clean drinking tap water, many still buy single-use plastic bottles. “We decided to tackle the issue at home first.”
Since then, they have tweaked their business approach and are mostly focusing on the local B2B market with their Aquablu Refill solution, which transforms “ordinary tap water into purified mineral water.” Large offices and commercial buildings have been among their key customers. As of recently, they are also running a pilot project with supermarket chain Jumbo.
“We currently have our system at a Jumbo supermarket in Amsterdam, where customers can either refill their own bottle or buy an Aquablu bottle with purified water,” Marnix says. The goal for the future is to expand their offering to more supermarkets and become a feasible alternative to bottled water.
While already having its own revenue flow, the startup is still dependent on external funding – so far made available by family and an investor – in order to scale its R&D and production. Once they are well established in the Netherlands, the team will look to expand to the rest of Benelux, Germany and then further into Europe.
“In up to three years, we are aiming at total domination in Europe,” Marc and Marnix laugh but they sure mean it. “After Europe, we will expand towards either the US or Asia. It depends where the need is greater and where we find reliable partners first.”
The plan ahead of the two co-founders and their team is big but after all, their goal is to eliminate 1 billion bottles by 2030. Ambitious as they are, “we think we can even exceed it.”
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Kubota Innovation Center Europe and YES!Delft have signed a partnership agreement. The main purpose of the cooperation is to accelerate innovation in the Kubota organisation further. As a first step, YES!Delft will map relevant technologies and startups in the AgriTech field.
Since the start in 1890, in Japan, Kubota has developed farm and industrial machinery, industrial systems and environmental technology as its principal business sectors. To further extend its AgriTech innovation opportunities, Kubota has initiated a partnership with YES!Delft. The cooperation entails various research phases focused on identifying key players and initiatives in the AgriTech sector. As a first step, relevant breakthrough technologies in AgriTech will be mapped.
YES!Delft is one of the leading tech incubators in the world and has extensive experience in mapping and analysing startups. “The experience that we have built in the past fourteen years makes us the ideal partner to assist Kubota in their search for new, innovative technologies and startups in the various agritech areas. We are proud to act as a partner on their behalf”, says Evert Jaap Lugt, Managing Director YES!Delft.
“Kubota’s approach to open innovation through its regional Innovation Centers matches perfectly with the YES!Delft incubation approach. The large startup eco-system and technological know-how in different industrial sectors offer a great opportunity for collaboration and challenge solving thinking beyond our traditional industry borders of AgriTech. We have already identified startups that can help us to broaden the future product portfolio”, says Peter van der Vlugt, General Manager & CTO Kubota Innovation Center Europe.
YES!Delft, founded in 2005, has become one of the most successful startup incubators in the world. With the concept of incubator 4.0, YES!Delft offers tech startups comprehensive services that cover all facets of entrepreneurship. Over 200 startups have access to the unique YES!Delft ecosystem of mentors, experts, investors and corporate partners. YES!Delft offers eight focus areas, including aviation, cleantech, robotics and medtech. The startups in the office in The Hague focus on digital technology, in particular, artificial intelligence and blockchain. More information on YES!Delft is available on www.yesdelft.com.
Kubota Corporation has been a leading manufacturer of agricultural, turf, hay and construction equipment and Industrial Engines since 1890. With world Headquarters in Osaka Japan, and offices in more than 110 countries throughout North America, Europe and Asia, Kubota achieved revenues in 2018 of $ 17 Billion. Although agricultural equipment is Kubota’s primary line of products, Kubota also produces a diverse portfolio of other products including city-wide water filtration systems, irrigation, piping, roofing, housing and large underground valves. Its mission, “For Earth, For Life,” speaks of Kubota’s commitment to the preservation of the earth’s natural environment while aiding the production of food and water supplies that are vital to societal needs as our world population continues to grow. For more information on Kubota, please visit www.kubota-global.net or www.kubota-eu.com.
Tech incubator YES!Delft has, again, secured a spot in the top 5 of the UBI Global ranking of the world’s best university incubators. YES!Delft sees this as recognition for the excellent work it does for startups and scaleups. Earlier this year, YES!Delft introduced the incubator 4.0: a new concept to provide startups with everything they need in their lifecycle.
The new YES!Delft incubator 4.0 supports tech startups in all phases of their business and consists of four parts. Through YES!Talents entrepreneurs find a co-founder or talented team members. For suitable financing and advice to keep their startup financially healthy, they can use the YES!Funded service. WithYES!Programs YES!Delft also offers customised expertise and knowledge from experts and practitioners in areas such as market validation, sales, corporate finance, marketing, intellectual property and personal and professional development. Finally, the incubator 4.0 programme offers access to the YES!Delft ecosystem consisting of corporate partners, fieldlabs, investors and launching customers.
Evert Jaap Lugt, Managing Director at YES!Delft is excited about the incubator 4.0 concept: “This new development is in line with our mission to build an ecosystem that allows tech startups to become the leading companies of the future. Our growing network of companies that are joining that ecosystem is an important part of the development.”
In addition to the incubator 4.0, YES!Delft started a new initiative this year to solve problems of corporates by using startup and validation methodologies: Innocubes. Innocubes has everything it takes to enable companies to rapidly find innovative solutions to their challenges: from formulating an innovation strategy to developing and implementing customised technologies. The first collaborations between corporates and startups have been established. For example, Tata Steel has started a pilot with YES!Delft startup WarpVR. Together they develop virtual reality training courses that are able to train groups of up to 2000 employees.
Lugt: “Innocubes offers tech startups a unique way to test their technology on a large scale in real life. By continuing our development, we keep our quality high. This spot in the top 5 of the UBI Global ranking is a clear international recognition of that quality.”
UBI Global is a Swedish-based intelligence company and community, known for high-quality intelligence, assessment and mapping of business incubation. The top lists of business incubators as assessed in their World Benchmark Study 2019-2020 were released at the World Incubation Summit in Qatar.
About YES!Delft – building tomorrow’s leading firms
YES!Delft, founded in 2005, has become one of the most successful startup incubators in the world. With the concept of incubator 4.0, YES!Delft offers tech startups comprehensive services that cover all facets of entrepreneurship. Over 200 startups have access to the unique YES!Delft ecosystem of mentors, experts, investors and corporate partners. YES!Delft offers eight focus areas, including aviation, cleantech, robotics and medtech. The startups in the office in The Hague focus on digital technology, in particular artificial intelligence and blockchain.