If anything is made clear by the global pandemic, it’s that the world can change in a minute. Technology has proven its crucial role in enabling systems, markets and human behavior to change with it. We work from home. We host global conferences virtually. We log into an app and our dinner, groceries and transportation arrives on our doorstep. Our collective dependence on a functioning global food chain has catapulted agri-foodtech to “essential” status. Entrepreneurs and investors have grown agri-food technology into a $20 billion venture capital sector worldwide in 2019, which represents a nearly 10-fold expansion from the $2.4 billion invested just five years ago. Much more innovation, and venture capital to support it, is needed.
“Agrifood technology cannot solve the Covid-19 crisis, but by investing in innovation that’s supporting the base industries in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can use venture capital and innovation as a platform to build a more robust and resilient society,” wrote venture investor AgFunder’s Rob Leclerc, who will be speaking at F&A Next’s virtual summit this week.
Alongside Leclerc and representatives of Rabobank, Temasek, Unilever and other companies, eight agri-foodtech companies will participate in the virtual summit, pitching their novel technologies. Their solutions, which address improved crop treatments, food traceability, personalized meals and even farmer finance, represent the latest innovation wave reshaping the future of food and agriculture. Here’s a look at what they’re doing.
COGZ. Between 30% and 40% of food produced worldwide is wasted. UK-based COGZ is among a growing number of startups trying to combat food waste by ensuring that farmers can sell their fruits, vegetables and other crops—even the ones too “ugly,” damaged or over-ripe for markets and grocery stores. COGZ operates a marketplace that allows food and drink manufacturers and processers to buy “wonky or surplus produce” directly from UK farmers and growers. Its platform gives farmer’s an income boost, food processors a cost-effective supply of goods, and cuts waste in the food chain.
“The food supply chain is traditional and relationship-led, which makes it difficult for farmers to find new routes to sell their excess produce, as well as for manufacturers and processors to find the right produce at the right time,” explains Sean O’Keefe, COGZ’s founder.
“Showing the value of surplus produce will hopefully change the notion that this is waste,” says O’Keefe.
In response to Covid-19, the company stepped up to support improved food chain logistics. It waived fees for customers for a limited time, and rolled out “vegetable boxes” to get more fresh goods to businesses that would use them. “We are giving this produce the best possible opportunity to get back into the supply chain and away from landfill,” says O’Keefe.
FUMI Ingredients. The Netherlands-based ingredients company is part of the hot alternative proteins market, which has seen explosive growth in the past year. FUMI’s found a niche far out of the mainstream spotlight: animal-free ingredients—specifically, chicken-less eggs, marketed to food companies as a base ingredient rather than as a consumer product.
“Egg-white is used a lot as a binding agent in meat replacers, emulsifier in sauces or a foaming agent in bakery products. However, egg-white has a rather large environmental burden and for that reason there is a strong need for finding alternatives to that,” say FUMI CEO Corjan van den Berg.
The company has developed an egg-white alternative made from non-GMO microbes, such as yeast or micro-algae. FUMI’s founders came up with the idea working at the bioprocess engineering department of Wageningen University and Research. “We were researching on how to extract proteins from micro-algae and saw the potential and scalability of this process,” explains van den Berg. “After lab validation we decided to incorporate FUMI and try to move this to industrial scale as fast as possible.”
FUMI’s spot in the “alternatives” market is lucrative; the company estimates that egg-whites are a $30 billion market worldwide. It touts its initial product, which should be ready for small-batch daily production next year, as both an economical and more sustainable alternative to traditional egg farming and processing.
Last year, FUMI completed the StartLife accelerator program and won the Rabobank Sustainable Innovation prize.
Connecting Food. A majority of consumers in the U.S. and Europe want better information about the food they’re eating, from the quality and source of ingredients to food’s environmental impact. “The current system of auditing food products is no longer sufficient. Food scandals, product recalls and opaque supply chains have damaged consumer trust in brands and retailers,” asserts France-based Connecting Food.
The company is working to boost consumer trust in the food system by using blockchain to improve transparency in the food chain. Its platform allows food companies to trace products batch-by-batch and audit them in real time as they move through the food chain.
Connecting Food’s platform is being used across 10 food verticals in Europe and North America. Clients include Mondelez, Herta (Nestlé) and Axéréal.
The company recognizes that it’s solution isn’t a cure-all for the entire global food chain’s traceability problems, given how complex food chains are today. But by aggregating data from different sources via an open and tamper-proof blockchain, Connecting Food is able to help the food industry plug and validate critical information gaps, explains Coline Laurent, spokeswoman for Connecting Foods. “If brands could prove consumers that total traceability was ensured, and that 100% of production was getting audited in real time, they should be able to rebuild consumer trust.”
Verdify. Another hot consumer trend: personalized food. Verdify, based in the Netherlands, believes that giving consumers more information and control over how to design foods that align to their dietary needs is about more than consumer convenience.
“Personalized nutrition is regarded a particularly useful concept for facilitating healthy eating styles,” says Verdify’s founder and CEO Jochem Bossenbroek. “However, the food industry is struggling to implement personalized nutrition principles.”
There are two challenges in particular, he notes: shifting from mass production to meeting the needs of individual consumers, and dealing with customer privacy, since many customers are reluctant to share personal (medical) data with food companies.
The team at Verdify is working to overcome those obstacles through a platform that uses artificial intelligence to help individuals identify and tailor recipes that suit their dietary needs and restrictions, like food allergies or vegan and vegetarian diets. Users can link the app to online grocery shopping.
Verdify’s platform went live last September. The ambition is to empower national and global companies active in food, nutrition and cooking to incorporate Verdify technology and facilitate their customers to make personally healthy and sustainable food choices,” says Bossenbroek.
Edete. Bees and other pollinators are critical to the global food supply (and biodiversity generally), but they’re threatened by climate change and other negative impacts on their natural habitats, like excessive agri-chemical use. No startup can independently take on those challenges. But Edete wants to alleviate the impacts of dwindling pollinator populations on growers by dealing with what Keren Mimran, Edete’s VP of business development and market describes as “the absurdity of our food dependency on insects.”
The Israel-based company has developed a technological solution to the problem: “Artificial Pollination-as-a-Service.” The company, led by mechanical engineer Eylam Ran, is developing a method of harvesting and storing pollen from plants, then synchronizing pollination. Edete would then bring its mechanical pollinizer to growers in the field.
The company sees technology-based pollination changing the way plant-based foods are grown “much as artificial insemination has changed the livestock breeding,” says Mimran.
Its first target market is almond growers—a $5.5 billion market in the US alone—followed by fruits like apples, pears, plums and cherries, and other crops like cotton, canola seed and pistachios. Edete expects to start generating revenues by 2022 for paid pilot programs and take its service to market in 2023.
Evologic Technologies. Austria-based Evologic is among a growing number of startups trying to crack the biological agricultural inputs market. Biologicals, while undoubtedly better for the environment, have struggled to gain widespread traction and replace synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers because their performance can be unpredictable. Evologic’s solution is to leverage an organism already known to have positive impacts on plant growth: a symbiotic fungus known as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) that supplies nutrients like salts to host plants.
Evologic is developing an AMF-derived biological product to boost yields in conventional agriculture by enabling crops to increase fertilizer and water efficiency in agriculture. That would allow growers to minimize the use of both chemicals and water.
The company, a spin-off from the Technical University of Vienna, hopes to become the leading provider for microbial bio-actives for agriculture, says Wieland Reichelt, Evologic’s CEO.
FarmRaise. US-based FarmRaise is unique among the cohort of startups selected to pitch during the F&A Next virtual summit: it’s more of a fintech company, than a food and agtech venture. Amid an aging farmer population worldwide, FarmRaise is trying to make it easier for farmers to invest in their businesses while setting up the next generation of farmers.
“When farmers invest in their natural resource assets (including soil health and clean water), their operations are more sustainable and profitable. Still, only a small subset of farmers use these best practices because they require upfront costs,” explains Sami Tellatin, co-founder of FarmRaise. While there are financing programs designed to help, like government grants and cost-share programs, funds are limited and the application processes are often confusing and funding, she adds.
FarmRaise is a platform to help farmers identify potential sources of loan and grant funding, and then streamlines the application process.
One area in particular FarmRaise wants to support is the shift to sustainable farming practices. “Our mission is to scale soil health practices over more than half of U.S. farmland by 2030,” says Tellatin. “As we help producers invest in soil health, our platform will also unlock funding for complementary projects.” That could include financing for renewable energy and water efficiency systems, Organic or Grass-Fed-certification, and purchasing new acreage or equipment.
“We are committed to building vital rural communities across the U.S. through equipping producers with the capital they need to invest in their operations for the next generation,” Tellatin adds.
While FarmRaise’s intent is the enable farmers to grow and plan long-term for their business needs, it is also responding to short term needs of the pandemic, like helping farmers navigate the process of applying for Economic Injury Disaster Loans through the US Small Business Administration.
The company aims to take its platform live this summer.
Pebble Labs. As the global population tackles a virus impacting human health, US-based Pebble Labs is developing solutions to address plant and animal viruses and pests that threaten the global food supply—like the brown rugose fruit virus that destroys fruit plants, or sea lice, which infect farmed fish. Pebble Labs makes “Directed Biotics,” leveraging natural biologicals in plants and animals immune system to quickly produce tailored disease and pest treatments.
The company says its mission is to “increase the global food supply without harming the environment.”