Summer is always a particularly exciting period for the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge. With the long list of 25 inspiring start-ups now announced, the team is already preparing for the next phase of the competition. On hand to make sure everything goes to plan is project leader, David van der Leij. Here, he takes time out from his busy schedule to discuss his role, how sustainable start-ups have professionalised - and why finalists’ week is his personal highlight of the challenge!

Please introduce yourself and your role at Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge

Sure! I’ve been with Green Challenge for eight years. In the beginning, I was responsible for taking care of finalists - coordinating communications, wining and dining them while they were here in Amsterdam, but also making sure they were prepared to perform on stage. I was like their host for the week. Then five years ago, I started as the overall project leader for the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge. Now, I’m responsible for coordinating the team here in the Netherlands, and making sure the competition runs smoothly and seamlessly.

What does that entail exactly?

It’s essentially coordination of the team working on the Green Challenge and maintaining oversight of the project. I’m here to make sure everyone knows what to do at what time, and that it’s being done in the right way so we reach our goals. We have colleagues working on scouting and reach-out, communications, an events department, as well as televisual who are responsible for the coverage. I also coordinate the jury and their logistics. It’s always a joint effort!

How has the competition evolved since you started working on this project?

Sustainable entrepreneurship has grown immensely. In the first couple of years, we had to look quite closely to find the right entrants. Now, they’re coming to us in great numbers - we had 1,167 in total this year! It’s not only the number that’s increased, the level has also gone up: sustainable start-up businesses have really professionalised. In the past, a lot of the entries came from one or maybe two person teams, oftentimes on a handwritten letter. Now, teams are much bigger, they may have someone working on HR, communications - it seems they’re accelerating faster. I think that also has to do with the fact that there are now more means available for sustainable start-ups: When we started, we were pretty much the only ones to offer such a significant prize. Since then, different competitions have come up, so there are more options for sustainable start-ups to find the money.

The process on our side has also evolved over the years. At first we used to work within an event called PICNIC - but organising an event within an event is extremely difficult. So six years ago we decided to do it alone, and organise the event by ourselves. That's made a big difference.

Do you see the format evolving further in coming years?

There’s room to grow. For example, it would be nice to have more students attend the event because, ultimately, it’s their future. We do invite high schoolers, and it’s wonderful to see how enthusiastic they are: they whistle and scream, and ask really smart questions in perfect English.

Through our partnership with organisations like Rockstart, The Next Web, Get in the Ring and others, we’re already reaching a more emerging audience. That’s where we’re trying to go, and there’s more we could do. A particular challenge will be that of numbers: we’ve gone from a couple of hundred entries when we started, to over 1,100 in 2019. To narrow down to five is almost impossible, and if our colleagues working in other countries continue to do such a great job in the coming years, the number will only grow. I’d almost rather us have 50 or 100 really fantastic entries, than have to discard so many right away. It’s very broad right now, and difficult to compare, say, solar solutions, for example, with reducing single-use plastics. One way to go could be categories or teams. We’ll see.

What's your favourite phase of the competition?

That's easy - it's always the week that the finalists are here. It’s inspiring to spend time with these entrepreneurs: in a lot of office settings, there’s always a lot of “yes, maybe” or “no, but” in our day to day. But the finalists are always striving to find solutions - they’re more, “that's a great idea!”, “perhaps you could talk to this person” - they’re always thinking in terms of opportunities and how to develop something. That gives me a lot of energy, as does the genuine camaraderie between the finalists - they're always so nice together, even though they're competing. It's a heavy but rewarding week - I always make sure I go on holiday right after!

Sounds intense!

It can be quite stressful, but we have a solid team in place and everybody knows exactly what to do. It's the period when everything comes together, a little like a pressure cooker - especially for the finalists. They have training, evening programmes, dinners, technical rehearsals, one-on-one sessions with the jury, camera crews… It’s intense, but they’re really on a high.

In the years you’ve been working on Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge, do you have a favourite edition or finalist?

Honestly, I’m not sure there’s a particular one. Even after all these years, as soon as the winner is announced, I become a bit emotional because we’ve all shared this experience with them. And I always feel bad for the ones who don’t win, because I know what they’ve done to get here. It’s inspiring to work with people who want to do the right thing for the world; that’s why I’m still working on this project. Eight years is a long time - but it’s always given me more energy than it costs.