Fun guy cultivates a delicious business

December 16, 2005

A former PhD student has raised £175,000 for his company cultivating truffles after pitching the business idea on the BBC programme Dragons' Den earlier this year.

Paul Thomas turned down money offered on the show to develop his idea, but he still plans to establish plantations to grow the delicacy in South Africa and South America as well as in France and Italy.

"I initially intended to follow a career in academia but found it difficult to find the funds. I then entered a business competition at Sheffield University and won," Dr Thomas said.

Dr Thomas, who completed his plant sciences PhD in June, features next week in a special Dragons' Den that looks at what happened to the few successful candidates on the show, which allows aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch for investment from a team of "dragons", or venture capitalists.

Convinced by the idea's potential, Simon Woodruffe offered him £75,000 start-up investment.

Dr Thomas said: "I was chuffed to receive Simon's offer of money, but I didn't totally agree with his plans for producing T-shirts, books and paraphernalia. I wanted to grow plantations and produce black truffles as a foodstuff only. After the programme I received numerous additional offers, and I am entering into partnerships with landowners around the world."

Foraging for fungi has been a fascination for Dr Thomas since his childhood in the Peak District.

Black truffles are so rare that their value peaked at £2,000 per kilogram last year. They are found underground on the roots of trees that thrive in specific soils and climates. He said: "It took an in-depth scientific understanding of the growth conditions, lots of patience and hard work through a lengthy process of trial and error to cultivate the optimum conditions for growth."

The truffles take at least four years to grow. The trees, whose roots are coated in the young fungi, are in a nursery in Manchester. "We are planning to plant these trees soon," Dr Thomas said.

Dr Thomas's company Mycorrhizal Systems plans to sell the truffles for £1,000 a kilogram.

Dragons' Den , BBC Two, 7pm, December 21

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