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Circular Innovators: A Chat with Steven Keulemans, Fungi Factory

By Tess Holmgren

How we produce food and handle waste are important topics of today, and Utrecht-based enterprise Fungi Factory is tackling both issues by using spent coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms.

Fungi Factory co-founder Steven Keulemans will lead a workshop at the Green Student Bootcamp Challenge’s session in Utrecht on Friday 17 May, where participants will learn about mycelium and Fungi Factory’s circular solutions for growing mushrooms with waste.

In advance of this session, I connected with Steven to find out what students can expect from his workshop and what he feels is important to have a healthy life in the city.

Please tell us about your organisation, its inspiration and goals.

We were originally inspired by the book ‘The Blue Economy’ by Gunter Pauli, who really inspired people to look at things differently by showing how we can learn from the natural world’s clever ways of handling challenges. One thing he mentions is using coffee waste to grow oyster mushrooms and after chatting to my co-founders Martijn and Erik, we thought that Utrecht needed an initiative like this. So that’s how we started growing oyster mushrooms on coffee waste. Our goal is to use as much coffee waste and grow as many oyster mushrooms as possible. We want to inspire people and companies to look differently at waste, and for waste in Utrecht to be used to make new products.

Without revealing too much about what’s in store, what can we expect from your participation in this year’s Green Student Bootcamp Challenge?

We will be talking a bit about the role of mycelium in nature and how we use mycelium in our business model. We also want to explain how our business model is inspired by the interactions we see in nature, and we want to show everyone how to grow their own oyster mushrooms at home, which is easier than it sounds!

What do you hope participating students will take away from the experience?

We want to inspire students that a lot of good things are happening in businesses at the moment, not only in theory but also in practice – that there are things actually being done that make a difference. We hope to inspire students to see that they can really implement the things they learn during their studies, hopefully some of them will do so by starting their own sustainable business around something they like. Which will inspire others, and themselves, to start making a difference in the world.

How do you see our relationship with nature and with our environment?

That’s a broad question. If by ‘our’ you mean mankind’s then I think we are fitting in less and less. One of the main problems for the way humans look at nature at the moment is that we think we can control nature. We think of nature as our commodity which we can do with as we please, and we are also not looking at the long-term relationship with nature because most of us want to make a short-term profit. There could be a reason for this, for instance to make money to raise our children well but still, even in this situation we are only talking about one generation. In short, I think we are being short-sighted in how we make use of the natural world.

Has your work and/or research changed the way you lead your life? If so, how?

Actually, the way I look at the world and lead my life is the reason I changed my job.  After 12 years working in a bank, I thought I wanted to do something different and I am now a mushroom farmer! It was a slow process and there were a few moments during my twelve-year career where I thought I needed a change and it didn’t happen for one reason or another. After a reshuffling at work I thought it was a good opportunity to force myself to make the change.

What does healthy urban living mean to you?

I think healthy urban living means to be respectful to nature. By that I mean not to look at it as a commodity with which we can do as we please and to recognise that everything in nature serves a purpose. It’s especially important to do so in an urban environment because it isn’t inherently a healthy place. If we take care to this by, for instance, not using too much water, being wise in our energy consumption, or eating healthy I think we can contribute to a liveable city. To me it also means to inspire others and the next generation to take care of themselves and their environment by giving a good example.