Innovation and investments go hand in hand. Yet, not many businesses are known for being disruptive in innovation internally and investing in startups externally. Why would Lely set up an investment branch (Lely Investments N.V.), who are they looking for and, maybe most importantly, why? There’s one man within the Lely parameters who has the answers. Let us introduce you to Lely’s Director of Business Development, Aart van ‘t Land. And, to see if Aart’s adage upholds, we called two entrepreneurs and recipients of Lely’s investment endeavours, Carsten Gieseler of fodjan and Hans-Christian Fristch of Ilmsens.
Let me introduce you to…
Aart started working at Lely in 1997. Never one to linger for too long, he keeps developing and moving – also literally. In 2011 he moved to Israel and has been devoting much of his time to startups ever since. He gets great joy from working with them, explaining: “Meeting ambitious people and exploring new ideas give me energy. Getting closer to retirement myself, sharing my knowledge and to be able to offer a shoulder to cry on to young entrepreneurs, is simply a privilege.”
Carsten Gieseler of fodjan develops digital solutions for more efficient feeding management in livestock farming. Carsten recalls meeting Aart at Eurotier in 2014; the same year the company was founded. Shortly after, he received an email from Aart, inviting fodjan to Maassluis in January 2015. “I remember we had an open conversation from the start. We received a lot of personal attention and were taken seriously.”
Hans-Christian Fritsch of Ilmsens had a similar experience and learned about Lely when he was pitching his company’s idea at an event. Fast forward, Hans-Christian’s company, a developer and manufacturer of leading-edge ultra-wideband sensors, started a collaboration with Lely 2017. “Aart was an important investment consultant. At first, it wasn’t about the potential financial investment at all. Working together with people like Aart who coach you, teach you, and want you to develop your company and put your interests first, was invaluable,” says Hans-Christian. Carsten adds: “Aart was clear from the start: we won’t mingle, we will only advise you. It’s your job to make your company successful. If we say ‘no’ to your decision making, it will only lead to headaches for Lely in the end.”
Playing the long Game
When we ask what kind of investor Lely is, Aart replies: “We are first and foremost a strategic investor. The focus lies on generating new business for the Lely Group and finding innovations that create value for our customers. The investments we do in new companies are based on a long-term strategy. When we invest in a company like Fodjan or Ilmsens, the financial side is just one aspect of the collaboration. Lely offers access to all branches of the company. Whether startups need support in legal matters or have questions about patent issues, we connect them to the respective people within Lely who can help them further.”
Lely sees itself as a diligent and early stage investor who believes the sovereignty and responsibility lies with the startups, preferably having founders as majority shareholders. The sovereign aspect of the collaboration is acknowledged by both Carsten and Hans-Christian. Carsten replies: “We are in no way limited or restricted in doing our business, we have the liberty to start collaborations or sell products to other competitors of Lely when that makes sense for our business growth.”
Finding the Needle in the Haystack
So, what kind of startup is Lely looking for? “If I had to describe the three key qualities I look for they would be: passion, expertise and 100% commitment,” Aart reveals. “Investing in a startup is no guarantee for success. Therefore, I believe it’s more important to look at the type of people and the team who run the business than the product. I even think the apportionment should be approximately 80% team and 20% product. In addition, we want their product or idea to have the potential to add value for our customers, as mentioned before. The relationship between the startup and Lely should be one in which synergy and complementarity rule” Aart concludes.
When Aart is asked if he sees ‘Feed the Future’ as an extension of Lely’s investment strategy he explains:” Absolutely! Finding startups that are unaware of how their technology can be applied to dairy farming is like finding a needle in a haystack. We believe this challenge could make the search a bit easier, and it also gives startups the opportunity to assess if Lely is the right partner for them.”
Advice from the Predecessors
Why do Carsten and Hans-Christian believe startups should consider partnering up with Lely? “They brought so much to Ilmsens,” says Hans-Christian. “Lely has defined themselves as innovators in the dairy business; since we want to innovate our sensors continuously, it was a perfect fit. And Lely is not scared of long-term commitments. They understand that innovation and product development are complicated and long processes. In addition, it’s really easy to get in touch with all their departments. We connected with everyone: from the CEO, Alexander van der Lely, to the HR department and the engineers.” Carsten agrees with the long-term aspect of Lely’s investment strategy and adds: “We have received not only technical but also strategic consultation. For example, Lely has helped us with international contracts. And, not to mention, the benefits you get from having access to Lely’s network with companies like Nestlé.”
So, do they have tips for startups applying to ‘Feed the Future’? Yes, they do. Both emphasise being open and radically honest. “Don’t fear or hold back,” says Hans-Christian. “Tell them everything so they can really understand you and your product. This will enable you to make quicker decisions so you can move faster to the next level. Carsten concludes: “As a startup you will have many opportunities but you have to stay focussed. In agriculture, it’s very difficult to get your end product on the market so you need strategic partners that can invest in long term relations. Focus on the right partner and therefore focus on the right program.”