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Meet 3 startups that are Making it in the North

Thinking of creating a startup in the North of the Netherlands? Do you want to get an idea of what’s happening on the ground from the people at the heart of it all?

Make it in the North spoke with 3 different startups about their journey so far, what challenges they faced, and what advice they have for you!

We spoke with Sophia Peterson from Phia, Rahul Gannamani from Ancora, and Richard Rushby from SG Papertronics.

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What’s your startup all about?

Sophia: Phia is a sustainable menstrual product company. Our first product, Phia Cup, is a modern version of the menstrual cup. Eventually, we’re going to sell more products related to the women’s cycle.

Rahul: We were founded with the vision of adding 5 million healthy years to the community within 5 years via digital lifestyle therapeutics. We started out in 2018. I founded Ancora together with a fellow medical student and my godfather who is our CEO. We asked: How can we empower individuals to take ownership of their health?

Richard: SG Papertronics is a tech startup founded in the North of the Netherlands off the back of research conducted at the University of Groningen (RUG). It was established from the idea of 2 PhD students. We want to democratise wet lab testing for small to medium enterprises (SMEs). This is achieved through a device that is sent out to our customers and bespoke test pods that can be tailored to any industry.

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What is your connection to Groningen?

Sophia: I came here to launch Phia in Europe. I wanted to start in Europe because it’s a good market for our product. I came here via the startup visa and linked up with a facilitator that focuses on healthcare and sustainability. It was a good fit.

Rahul: We are a Groningen-based company with our HQ there. Founded in Groningen and the Launch Café were some of the organisations that initially supported us. The local university’s investment board was one of the first investors in Ancora Health. We’ve also received grants and support from the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). We also have significant ties in this region that helped us grow through their network or financial support.

Richard: Both Maciej, the co-founder, and myself studied at the University of Groningen. This gave us access to the VentureLab scheme and we met through one of the VentureLab weekends. We were able to file the patent through the university to protect the intellectual property (IP) generated from that research and have then tied into the different support networks within Groningen. On campus we engage with other businesses via the Campus Groningen and Life Cooperative communities and have also connected via the wider community of Founded in Groningen, Make it in the North, BeStart, and especially the Innolab community. All our investors are specific to the region and our angel investment round came from RUG Ventures and NOM. I’ve found the ecosystem to be so rich that I’ve looked for ways that I can help give back to the Groningen entrepreneurial community and have recently taken a role as a Board member for Founded in Groningen.

How did you overcome your biggest challenge?

Sophia: It’s all about taking things one step at a time. You will inevitably run into problems, but you just have to fix it or pivot. That’s what I’ve always done. When I encounter a problem along the way, I figure out a solution, and then I keep moving forward.

Rahul: By listening to the market. Initially, our challenge was about who was going to adopt our proposition. We learned that there was a demand from employers to offer employee wellbeing, so we pivoted towards business to business. We’re seeing interest from the government and insurance companies, so we’re preparing to launch public health programmes. The biggest challenge in preventative healthcare platforms is: How do you get enough users? Who is going to pay for it? You need to look at your stakeholders, fine-tune your proposition, and address needs.

Richard: Our biggest challenge is ensuring we have the right people. In any business it is critical but especially in a startup because the people you’re hiring early on are your core team and you really want to make sure they’re the best fit possible for the company you’re developing. We put a lot of time into our staff and hiring process to try to make this happen. We have been able to use our network and tools like Make it in the North to find possible candidates and that has really helped.

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What advice do you have for a startup working in your field?

Sophia: Do lots of testing! Find loads of testers, do surveys, figure out what your customers want in your target group. I tested Phia with over 100 women. Through this I figured out ways to improve the design. Ultimately, the product’s quality and innovative features are the most important things. Focus on making a really good product.

Rahul: Dream big! Think about how you can sell the proposition from the beginning. But build that proposition around the person you are serving. Then if you really want to become a fast-growing startup you need to scale up. Personally, since I’m in my 20s I found it important to have mentors and work with an experienced team. If you’re coming to Groningen, identify your key stakeholders which are potentially the university or the medical centre. There are several partners in the ecosystem.

Richard: Don’t give up. The first thing you should do is to get a solid team together as fast as possible. People often think they can do it alone. You will waste most of your time trying to do it solo. There are some successful entrepreneurs running a small business or consultancy and that’s fine. But if you want to build something big you’ll reach a point in which you need other people, even if you can run it on your own initially. Consider what this team will look like, because otherwise, you’re going to face a barrier to your growth.

The conversations were edited for brevity and clarity.

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