Editor’s Note: Cal Foulner is co-founder of beanstalk AgTech, supporting agricultural technology commercialisation, adoption and investment with a focus on Australian and APAC markets.
String Bio, from Bangalore India, took top honours at Asia’s first agrifood technology pitch competition, the Future Food Asia Award (FFAA).
The startup converts methane, a waste gas responsible for much of livestock production’s greenhouse gas emissions, into proteins that can be used in animal feed,
The finals of the pitch competition event were the culmination of an extensive and surprisingly manual six month search for the most promising startups in agricultural and food technology from around the Asian region. The eight finalist startups, from Taiwan, Korea, China, Singapore, Israel and India, went head-to-head for the chance to win a $100k cheque and distinguish themself as a leading, emerging startup in the APAC region.
An important milestone for Asian AgriFood tech
FFAA marks a milestone in the the fledgling Asian agrifood tech industry as it was the first competition of its kind showcasing the region’s top startups in the sector.
The event was organised by Singapore-based boutique investment firm ID Capital after founder and CEO Isabelle Decitre realized there was an “appetite for agtech and food tech venture investments from industry and financial players, as well as a critical need for money for entrepreneurs, especially at the Series A and Series B stage.” FFAA was Decitre’s model to scale up what she was already doing at ID Capital, but “in a more inclusive manner than raising a VC fund.”
As a country with no arable land, at first glance Singapore may seem like a strange choice of location for an agtech and food tech competition, however Decitre begs to differ. She is bullish that Singapore’s startup ecosystem is conducive to innovation, with a sizeable talent pool, particularly in IoT and artificial intelligence. Singapore has a history as a world leader in biotransformation, a segment of research for which Singapore is the hub of ambitious global programs. Last but not least, Dectire believes that, based on the small size of the country, people easily embrace the benefits of open innovation and cross-border collaborations — a model that has worked so well for Israel, but without the luxury of being in the middle of Asia.
The potential for the Asian agrifood tech industry to have a meaningful positive social and environmental impact across the region was a key theme at the inaugural FFAA. Set against the background of the fastest growing region in the world, there was a theme that investing in technologies that support a sustainable and regenerative agriculture system makes a pretty compelling investment thesis. This message was delivered eloquently by Jason Clay, senior vice president for markets and food at the World Wildlife Fund, who, when making his keynote speech, emphasized that “if there is no Asian answer to the challenge of the future of food, there is simply no answer at all.”
Strong competition for the award
FFAA received nearly 200 applications from 19 countries across Asia, with over 100 eligible to compete for the Asian agrifood tech prize based on the competition criteria:
- Technology beyond proof of concept
- Existing operations in the Asia Pacific region
- Team has good English proficiency
- Preparing to raise Series A
- Capital invested to date at least $100k
- Main activities within FFAA’s 4 sectors
Around 60% of applications were “deep science” startups, which immediately competed with innovations from around the world. For these startups, the ability to secure IP protection for the technology plays a significant role in their value proposition. The remaining 40% of applications were technology-enabled platforms or business models that are more relevant in a local context. When they originate from large countries like China, India and Indonesia, their addressable market is often a true competitive advantage, and in that case, the pace of development and quality of execution are of paramount importance.
String Bio’s CEO, Ezhil Subbian, flew in from Bangalore to present at the finals of FFAA. Subbian won over the judges to win the Asian agrifood tech pitch competition by presenting String Bio’s patented platform that leverages synthetic biology and fermentation for a scalable, cost-effective, traceable, and sustainable source of protein for animal feed.
With a growing gap in global protein supply, companies worldwide are looking for alternative sources of protein for animal feed. String Bio claims to be the only company in Asia with proven technology to convert methane into protein using a biological process. If the technology is as scalable as Subbian and her team believe it is, then it will be a proposition worth watching. The current global protein animal feed ingredient market is valued at approximately $50 billion USD and is projected to increase 70% by 2050, with a generous portion of that growth expected to come from Asia.
Subbian co-founded String Bio in 2013 and has over 12 years experience working on scale ups of various bio-based products, including in Silicon Valley, with all three successfully reaching IPO. Her depth of experience showed as she answered pointed questions from judges and audience members with grace.
String Bio (currently pre-revenue) is now focused on completing customer validation studies for the synthetic protein animal feed, as well as raising a Series A funding round. The startup will use the $100k prize from FFAA, as well the Series A capital, to scale up its processing facility in Bangalore to pre-commercial scale. Once in commercial production, String Bio plans to operate facilities with strategic partners and generate revenue through product sales with the goal of building its supply capabilities. The next challenge with the real payoff will be to “establish the demand for a significant share of the Asian animal feed market”, says Subbian.
At its core, String Bio and its team have a social mission to support a circular economy by capturing a potent greenhouse gas – methane — in proteins and chemicals to enable a cleaner and sustainable way to source animal feed protein. Further, there is no mention of it on their website, but String Bio also runs a program called the Biotech Impact Program. This program brings together select undergraduates from leading colleges in Bangalore to undertake an 8 or 16 week active industrial learning course with the String Bio team, giving them hugely valuable industry experience in the biotech space; a rare opportunity in India.
Lots of potential but pitches need work
The pitches were diverse and showed great potential, but highlighted a shortfall that is consistent across the region: a lack of experience in communicating a value proposition in the language of the investors and potential partners in the room. If Asian agrifood tech startups are going to be able to find the funding and support they need to grow, the responsibility is on them to educate investors and partners about the nuances of the emerging world of agtech and food tech. There need to be less slides with molecule diagrams and more clearly communicated information about the road to revenue for investors and details about the return on investment for potential technology adopters.
Decitre says she is committed to fostering the growth of Asian agrifood tech in the Asia region and deemed the first edition of the Award “a real success”, intending to “keep the competition running on a yearly basis and engage some selected countries deeper in this process.”
Roll on next year!
More info on FFAA
The other finalists were:
- Agrint, Israel, has built a solution aimed against the Red Palm Weevil, the most harmful and undetectable pest to Palm and Coconut trees.
- Bethesda Scientific, Taiwan, uses a microencapsulation technology to protect rice seedlings from pests without generating negative impacts on the ecosystem.
- Biologiht, Korea, develops and manufactures medical devices that enhance the immunity of animals, including livestock.
- Doux Matok, Israel, has developed a flavor delivery technology that provides enhanced sweetness or saltiness sensation.
- Eruvaka Technologies, India, is an aquaculture IoT company.
- Farm Friend, China, describes itself as the Uber of agricultural drone services.
- Smart Animal Husbandry Care, Singapore, provides e-traceability capabilities for pig farmers.
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