Brooklyn-based synthetic biology startup Carverr closed a $1.9 million seed funding led by Draper Associates with other investors including SOSV, Kabir Misra of RPS Ventures, and Alex Chung, the CEO of GIPHY. This brings total funding to roughly $2.5 million. Most of the investors in the seed round are existing investors, founder and CEO Vishaal Bhuyan told AFN.
Carverr is using microbes to create a traceability product where specific combinations of microbes are placed on an agricultural product to act as a microscopic barcode throughout the products’ supply chain journey.
The new funding will help the company make some key hires including adding the former head of R&D for the recently bankrupt UBiome to the team. Currently, in the prototype phase, the company is gearing up for a group of pilot projects to launch in 2020.
Microbes are a hot space in the agrifood tech world, with much of their potential and possible applications likely still unknown. Although he’s seen investment appetite cool in the broader startup world, investors appear to be hungry for bugs. Microbes are being applied to a range of applications in the food space including bio-based crop input alternatives, foodborne illness prevention, animal-free collagen, and even dairy alternatives.
“We are focusing on tracing products through the supply chain by using combinations of microbes and pairing them with rapid readout systems. It could be anything from palm oil leaving a plantation to a shipment of grain,” he explains. “We specialize in first and second mile logistics, which means the beginning of the supply chain where it’s typically the most complicated to collect data.”
It’s also claimed to have found a way to overcome some of the sensitivity and stabilization challenges that come hand-in-hand with using living microbes in applications involving fluctuating temperatures, UV light, and other potentially fatal factors.
Traceability is a trendy topic in the food space especially when it comes to agrifood companies that want to make specific sourcing claims such as fair trade, ethically raised, or sustainably grown. Although companies are seeking out Carverr to learn more about its potential offering, according to Bhuyan, there is still work to be done when it comes to making traceability in general an industry standard.
“Everybody loves traceability but nobody wants to pay for it. Traceability is nice to have, but it’s not a must-have,” Bhuyan says. “There are real economic pain points to traceability whether its sourcing something grown with specific practices like no-till, insurance coverage, or identifying the source of a foodborne illness outbreak.”
To elevate the traceability offering from a nice-to-have to a must-have, Carverr is selecting microbes that can provide secondary benefits to each shipment such as anti-fungal properties. The company is keeping mum for now about examples of how these secondary benefits may operate pending additional R&D.
The delivery mechanism is also promising. Another challenge facing traceability has to do with the physical way that products are shipped upstream, which rarely includes neatly packed boxes or containers that can be affixed with a simple barcode or RFID tag. Carverr’s solution is to dust the agricultural products with a specific combination of microbes that are unique to each shipment or group of goods.
Next to industry views on traceability, regulatory roadblocks and social license for genetic engineering technology are challenges that the startup is trying to navigate. Bhuyan says they do not use CRISPR and was unable to disclose the specific methods that Carverr uses.
“The biggest challenge for us is people’s view of microbes and genetic engineering. We have a non-GMO version of our product but we think genetic modification will have to become more mainstream from a regulatory standpoint,” he says. “The way we use them they are so faint and the edits we make are inert, which means they don’t actually do anything. We use software to screen to make sure that the edit doesn’t do anything.”