Life as an entrepreneur - Dimitris Karefyllakis

Plant-based alternatives to dairy are marketed as being just like dairy, but better for you and the environment. However, if you’ve ever tasted oat milk or soy milk, you’ve probably noticed that these products are missing the creaminess of cow’s milk. Dimitris Karefyllakis of Time-travelling Milkman thinks he’s found a solution for those problems.

Dimitris Karefyllakis of Time Travelling Milkman

Dimitris Karefyllakis of Time Travelling Milkman

Plant-based dairy has rapidly gained popularity in a relatively short amount of time. Compared to 2014, plant-based dairy’s share of the Dutch market has doubled. However, this popularity comes at a cost: adding the creamy taste and texture of milk fat to plant-based dairy products is being compensated by the use of vegetable oils like palm and coconut oil.

Harvesting these plants in large quantities can be very damaging for the environment and regional ecosystems. The existence of a monoculture of oil palms can be devastating for locals, because it can take up a lot of land and water, cause a decrease in the number of plant and animal species on plantations, emit greenhouse gases, and affect the local ecosystem. Additionally, transporting these goods to Europe is very unsustainable, because these plantations are located in Asia and South America.

A sustainable solution
That’s where Time-travelling Milkman comes in. Dimitris and his fellow Greek co-founder Costas Nikiforidis saw a gap in the market. They knew each other from Wageningen University: Costas works as an Associate Professor and Dimitris came to Wageningen for a master’s degree and subsequent PhD. Costas has done a lot of research into oleosomes, naturally occurring fat drops in plant seeds that are surrounded by a membrane made of proteins. “Costas is an internationally recognized expert in new plant protein and fat molecules,” says Dimitris.

Where research is Costas’s forte, Dimitris is the entrepreneur. In the summer of 2019, they formed the idea of starting their own business by delivering creamier and more sustainable fat ingredients for plant-based dairy products, putting Costas’s research into practice. Their product extracts natural oil droplets from seeds using the most sustainable process possible – no chemicals, just water – and converts them into usable and creamy fat ingredients. And the extra sustainable part is that the seeds come from European grounds.

Building a startup
At the end of 2019, Dimitris and Costas applied for the StartLife Accelerate program. “StartLife invited us to a number of interviews, but we weren’t selected as participants.” However, Dimitris didn’t consider this a major setback. “You can learn from your own failures. They told us what we should improve in order to be eligible for participation.”

They decided to participate in an incubator program in Amsterdam, which helped them rebuild their startup, and they were able to join the next cohort of StartLife’s accelerator program in the spring of 2020. According to Dimitris, the extensive offer of incubators and accelerators in the Netherlands is a clear advantage for startups and, consequently, also for expats who move to the Netherlands to become an entrepreneur: “There’s a clear framework in place, with accelerators and incubators in different locations and a lot of small-scale funding for startups specifically. That’s how we got some regional and national grants for our startup. The financial side of entrepreneurship is easier in the Netherlands than in other countries, and there’s also less bureaucracy.”

However, not everything ran smoothly these past two years. “Getting our finances in order was very difficult at the start.” While Costas still works at Wageningen University most of the time, Dimitris fully threw himself into their business. Soon after they founded their company, COVID became a global pandemic. “The pandemic brought both pros and cons with it. We didn’t have the opportunity to build up a network, which is an important aspect of being a startup. On the other hand, I had a lot more time to work, because there wasn’t anything else to do,” Dimitri laughs.

Experience as an entrepreneur
In the two years that he’s been fully engaged with Time-travelling Milkman, Dimitris has gained a lot of experience as an entrepreneur. His most important lesson? “You have to be very clear when discussing your expectations with third parties. Make sure you deliver what you promise.” Dwelling on your own achievements was also part of the advice given to him by other starting entrepreneurs. “Don’t forget to celebrate the little things, like we did when we hired our first employee. Or recently, when we got the keys to our own laboratory.”

Dimitris is optimistic about the future. Maybe he’ll want to do something else at some point in his life, but for now he’s busy building his own company. “I’m hoping our product will be seen as a viable fat ingredient for plant-based products and we’ll have a market share of 10 to 15 percent in 5 years.” For the time being, Time-travelling Milkman is still in its startup phase and companies can request samples. If everything goes well, they hope to have production up and running by the end of this year.

StartLife Wageningen
In this blog series, The Life Net and StartLife Wageningen like to show what an attractive region Wageningen is to start and establish as an entrepreneur. It spotlights various internationals or companies that attract internationals. They like to share their inspiring story about how they started and grew with their business. Check StartLife Wageningen for how they help entrepreneurs.