Nature hasn’t graced these small, slimy, smelly creatures with many endearing qualities. But if there’s one thing a stink worm can do well, it’s break down waste.
In the English language these large earthworms are commonly known as dung or stink worms, as they sometimes give off a bad smell. But the German name, meaning “compost worm,” chooses to focus on their positive quality – their remarkable capacity to digest almost any organic material.
It’s a skill two German businesswomen, Nadine Antic and Seda Erkus, intend to harness. The waste disposal consultants plan to put an army of the hungry critters to work day and night, chomping their way through organic waste and excreting valuable fertilizer.
“We not only want to make money with the fertilizer we produce, but also by relieving companies of their organic waste.”
Ms. Antic and Ms. Erkus are now building a worm-powered composting plant in the Swabian Alps in southern Germany.
The endeavor, called Albfertil, a reference to the Alb region of southwestern Germany including the Black Forest, is a side project of their consulting firm Globalflow, which the two 30-year-olds founded three years ago.
Globalflow advises companies on how to reduce or eliminate waste – or even better, how to exploit it for profit.
After graduating high school, the schoolmates decided to study energy and resources management.
“The idea was we wanted to advise companies how to bring waste back into the recycling loop and make money at the same time,” Ms. Antic told Handelsblatt during an interview at the Globalflow office near Stuttgart.
One of their first commissions was from the University of Tübingen.
The university wanted to know what they could do with litter generated by animals used in experiments – such as tiny wood shavings soiled with rat droppings.
“Naturally, it was totally amazing that such a huge customer like the university would hire us,” Ms. Antic said. “But at first, we really had no idea what we should do.”
The waste management consultants got to work. Ms. Antic says it wasn’t by chance that she was the one to come up with the idea to get compost worms to do the work.
“Of the two of us, I’m the one with the big mouth who always flutters off somewhere and tries out something new,” Ms. Antic said.
She has the ideas, and Ms. Erkus is responsible for organization and project development. But when Ms. Antic approached her co-manager with the worm idea, she thought she was nuts.
“Seda almost fell over at first,” said Ms. Antic. “We have a serious consultancy and you come along with worms!’ ” she said, remembering her partner’s reaction to the scheme.
But Ms. Antic wasn’t put off that easily. After months of testing, she still found herself on her balcony at home, feeding worms in wooden boxes.
“I fed the worms with different materials and tested which processes worked best with the university’s wood shavings,” Ms. Antic said.
To her surprise, she found the worms could process virtually all organic waste. Moreover, when dried, their excrement made excellent fertilizer.
‘Hey, presto!’ thought Ms. Antic – a brand new line of business for the fledgling company. It turned out to be an award-winning idea.
Ms. Antic and Ms. Erkus were given the €50,000 ($56,332) Darboven Sponsorship Prize for young women who found start-ups. In turn, the prize meant the worms caught the eye of an investor.
“The worm project fits just perfectly into our portfolio,” said Wolfgang Kowalczyk, a management board member of Korn Recycling.
The company, from Albstadt-Ebingen in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, was at the time on the hunt for better ways of disposing of organic waste from food production.
With a workforce of 100 and an annual turnover of €18 million, the firm specializes in all kinds of waste disposal.
“We came to know Nadine Antic and Seda Erkus as tough, determined businesswomen – and their idea won us over,” Mr. Kowalczyk said.
Convinced, Korn Recycling bought a 50 percent share in Albfertil – the Globalflow subsidiary now building the unique worm plant.
After investing around €300,000 ($338,000) in the plant, the consultants hope it will process 150 tons of waste a year at first, with a view to ramping up to 10,000 tons a year within five years.
“By then, we not only want to make money with the fertilizer we produce but also by relieving companies of their organic waste,” said Ms. Antic. The fertilizer will be marketed professionally too.
Until then, the women are sticking to their main business of corporate consulting.
Over the past three years, Globalflow has gone from strength to strength and now has an impressive client list, including the Red Cross, chocolate maker Ritter and outdoor outfitter Vaude.
Sales in 2014 hit €150,000 and are expected to reach €200,000 by the end of this year.
The partners put their success down to staying “dynamic and full of ideas,” qualities they first developed five years ago when they were working as student trainees – one at Daimler, the other at Bosch.
“And we both learned the same thing. When you’re an employee, you get as good as nowhere with your ideas,” Ms. Antic said. “As a consultant, you can make more happen.”
In other words, at Daimler or Bosch, the stink worm idea would probably never have seen the light of day.
Video: Find out more about these wonderful worms.
Benjamin Wagener specializes in new businesses and the start-up economy for Handelsblatt. To contact: email@example.com