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Nicolas Hartmann and vly: the reinvention of milk

published by Karen Esser

Nicolas Hartmann and the vly team offer a milk derived from pea proteins. Thanks to a TV program, they became known throughout Germany. What few people know: In order to build up their start-up, they received valuable support from Potsdam Transfer at the University of Potsdam: their EXIST-Gründerstipendium. The story of a start-up with the ambition to make the world a better place.

They have a creamy consistency, are full of nutrients and are suitable for baking and for flavouring coffee: the vegan dairy alternative made from pea proteins from vly. As far as the popularity of their products is concerned, the startup is one of the secret stars in the field of milk alternatives. This was made possible in part by a spectacular appearance in the start-up pitch programme “The Lion’s Den,” which was broadcast at the beginning of September. Although the founders Nicolas Hartmann, Moritz Braunwarth and Niklas Katter did not close a deal, the programme ensured that sales of their milk alternatives made from pea proteins rose steeply.

The media portrayed the founders and became interested in their vegan products. What few people know: As an important part of their ascent, the founders received valuable support from the Potsdam Transfer team at the University of Potsdam.

How it all began: from the idea of making the world a bit better with vegan alternatives

Nicolas Hartmann knew the path to founding a start-up would be difficult. But even he was surprised how much effort it requires to create new momentum with the help of research. The former professional basketball player and his friends Moritz Braunwarth (food technologist) and Niklas Katter (lawyer) had a simple idea: they wanted to offer an alternative to milk: a plant-based product, full of healthy nutrients, which is also sustainable. The dairy industry appeared to be something that needed to be made better: “Across all levels: from the perspective of the animals and what is injected into them, to agricultural practices in Germany, and also from the point of view of sustainability, I thought: all this needs to be changed and made better,” says Nicolas Hartmann.

And that’s how they came to split pea, which consumers may not be aware of, but contains many nutrients. It has other advantages too: As a legume, like soya, it is well suited to the production of a dairy alternative. According to vly, the yellow split pea is the “gold standard among vegan athletes” because it is high in protein, easily digestible and completely allergen-free. It can also be grown in Germany and gives the vegetable milk products a creamy consistency.

The idea for startup vly was born. But to turn a legume into a tasty drink, they had to do some research. A lot of research.

EXIST funding for a successful start

It took two years to finally find the recipe for their milk made from pea protein. During their time researching at the Technical University of Berlin, the founders were part of NutriAct, the Nutrition Research Competence Cluster Berlin-Potsdam. Through the competence cluster they encountered the Potsdam Transfer team. Potsdam Transfer is the central institution for start-ups, innovation, knowledge and technology transfer at the University of Potsdam.

Founders at the Potsdam Science Park and other university locations are supported in developing and successfully implementing their ideas. Here Nicolas Hartmann, Moritz Braunwarth and Niklas Katter applied for an EXIST start-up grant, were able to impress and received a funding commitment for one year. The EXIST scholarship contained fixed monthly installments that guaranteed their livelihood as well as funds that could be used for material expenses for the founding.

Breakthrough and future plans

The rest is a success story: vly products have been on supermarket shelves since 2018. Currently, their dairy alternative range can be found in over 5,500 shops, and the trend is rising. In terms of sales, they proudly state on their website that they have already sold 721,432 liters of their creamy milk alternative (as of 10.11.2020). The team is very confident that there is still a lot of potential in terms of sales: “In Germany, plant-based products account for only 5% of the market, whereas in the USA this share is closer to 15%,” says Nicolas Hartmann. His dream, he says, is to replace all animal protein with plant protein at some point.

The founder believes everyone would benefit from this, because nutrition would be healthier and more sustainable. According to vly, they need 13 times less water, 15 times less CO2 and five times less land to produce their products than is needed for milk production. vly currently employs eight full-time employees: all highly motivated to work for a better world. In the future, the company will continue to grow; the founders want to employ more people and offer their products outside Germany. One day, they’d like to market their products worldwide.

They are still in contact with Potsdam Transfer, exchange information regularly and look forward to conferences taking place in the Potsdam Science Park. Their conclusion: “The Potsdam Science Park is a highly modern and attractive place for innovation,” says Nicolas Hartmann. In general, he recommends all founders who need knowledge from research to maintain close contact with universities or research institutes. “We deliberately seek exchange with research institutions because we believe that there are a lot of bright minds and ideas, especially at German universities. This is where institutions such as Potsdam Transfer are important, as they facilitate the flow of knowledge between research and business and give start-ups the necessary boost,” explains Nicolas Hartmann.

This blog is funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.

Photo 1: Nicolas Hartmann © Nicolas Hartmann