How a Holland startup’s tech could ​​revolutionize the greenhouse industry

Della Fetzer is a plant biologist and first-time entrepreneur based in Holland. She’s also the founder of Rebel Cultures, the startup behind a new technology that will help commercial greenhouses to grow thousands of identical, disease-free plants. The company says this technology has the potential to increase profit margins more than any method now available while also revolutionizing the industry.

Fetzer is a member of Lakeshore Advantage’s SURGE program, an entrepreneurial support organization that provides business support, resources, and a shared workspace for product and technology startup companies. The Lakeshore connected with Fetzer for a Q&A about her startup’s new technology, the future of Rebel Cultures and her advice for other entrepreneurs. 

The Lakeshore: Tell me about what you’re currently working on bringing to market.

Della Fetzer: We're developing a new device and method for local, cost-effective plant tissue culture production.  First, we are offering production trials of domestic, traditionally produced plant tissue culture to growers and for conservation projects. We’re scaling this program rapidly because it allows us to add value to the market while developing a library of protocols. Once we have fully developed protocols in place, we will develop a device to support that method. We’re calling that device the plant replicator..

TL: What is the origin story behind Rebel Cultures?

DF: I am a former director of a plant tissue culture laboratory, and the purpose of a plant tissue culture lab is to scale plant production very quickly. So normally, you'd have one seed, an acorn, for example, and you plant the acorn. And the maximum number of plants you can get out of this is, of course, one.

In a lab, though, you can take a piece of that one plant, and you can clean it up. And you can plant it into a small jar, and that little plant can turn into a clump of little plants. Let's say that one plant can turn into a cluster of five plants, you can take that cluster of five plants, cut it apart, and each of those pieces will then, over the next month, grow into another clump. So you very quickly have this exponential multiplication of plants, which can't happen from seed. 

Many, many, many plants can be propagated that way. If you have a houseplant and you cut off a piece of the stem and maybe a couple of leaves and throw that into a pot with soil, or even a vase with water, it'll regrow into another plant. Scientists starting in the early 1900s figured out that you can do that in a lab, but you can provide the plant with very specific hormones and phytonutrients that will stimulate the growth such that you can get exponential multiplication.

Della Fetzer with Rachel VonDestinon, Research Scientist, Rebel Cultures.

As I was working in the lab, I realized two things: one was we couldn’t compete against global labor costs to run the lab, and the second was that 80% of all the costs associated with running the lab were going toward keeping the lab environment clean. I thought: Well, what if the lab didn’t need to be clean Sometimes labs need to be clean, but plants grow well in non-sterile environments. So, I thought, why couldn’t we translate our process to an environment where that level of cleanliness wasn’t required? That would involve us introducing beneficial microbes that are found in nature to imitate those dynamic systems that allow plants outside to grow naturally. 

An early client, and a lot of our focus right now, is in the forestry industry. There are a lot of nonprofits working on tree production and making that more efficient and scalable. Currently, the world is targeting the production of more trees than is possible. We don't have the seeds to even produce a fraction of the trees that conservation agencies, globally, are campaigning to plant.

When we started, I didn't know about the global seed shortage—all I knew was that our process for ornamental horticulture and garden plants was way too slow and way too expensive. Various members of our team said, “Wouldn't it be cool if we could get into other crops, if we could do trees, if we could help with more native plants?” So, the thought for broader applications had been there, but those markets hadn’t been vetted.

TL: What do you appreciate most about being a SURGE member or about being part of the West Michigan Lakeshore’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?

DF: There's this body of knowledge that I have access to that has real people. I can look up any answer to anything I would need on the internet, or with AI, but because there are real people here who get paid to help me solve problems, I can reach out to them and say, “Hey, can you help me solve this?” It's like having a teammate on standby who I can tag in. And that's really helpful. 

Also, it's not the same looking up an answer on the internet. If I ask Amanda Chocko (director of entrepreneurship at Lakeshore Advantage) to help me think through something, I know she will listen to me and not only help me figure out a solution, but she will also restore some humanness to me in that moment. 

Della Fetzer presenting at TEDx Macatawa.

TL: What advice would you give to someone who is considering entrepreneurship?

DF: The only thing you can do for 20 years and not have something significant to show for it is to work for a company or cause that doesn’t deeply move you and allow you to push your potential. Don’t let the fear of failure scare you into accomplishing very little. 

If you’re lucky enough to have a team, work hard to support them – it’s the best way to enrich your community, company, and shared future all at the same time. 

Some of the most solid advice comes from people who are 1) near the end of a successful career and 2) care about you. I was talking with one of these mentors about what opportunities would be worth our time, and the advice they gave me was, “You can’t afford to be nice right now.” It was a good reminder, because we are so programmed to be good employees and to make other people happy. There’s a mindset shift from being a good employee to being a good business owner who's willing to do whatever it takes to turn a vision into reality. 

Don’t do (or not do) anything just because you think, or someone tells you, you “should.” Don’t even listen to this if it's not right for you.

TL: Where does Rebel Cultures stand, and what’s next?

DF: We've figured out what we need to do to test this—like really test it. Now, it’s hitting the gas pedal to fail or succeed as quickly as possible. That's the world of entrepreneurship. We’re learning as much as we can while serving our current clients and positioning ourselves to succeed. We’re in an accelerator program, Centropolis, out of Southfield to help with technology development, and we are seeking partnerships with tree producers, specialty agriculture crop producers of permanent crops such as fruit trees and bushes, native plant groups, and collaboration on any project to produce quality, U.S.-based tissue culture.

Grace Maiullo is part of the Lakeshore Advantage team, where she’s responsible for communications and events management.

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