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Aphea is the latest ag biotech spinout from the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) in Ghent, Belgium. Image credit: VIB

With companies like Aphea Bio & Biotalys, Ghent is Europe’s hidden gem for ag biotech

November 24, 2020

The Belgian city of Ghent owes its medieval splendor to being in the middle of the sheep-filled pastureland of Flanders. In centuries past, this provided plentiful supplies of wool – just as breakthrough textiles technologies took off across Europe. The result was scaled-up production and cathedrals galore.

Nowadays, Ghent draws its wealth and inspiration from the rest of Flanders for reasons other than knitware – though a bit of that still gets flogged to tourists here and there.

Today, the region is one of the world’s densest biotech clusters. Much of this is fostered by local universities and research institutes, but there are also startup accelerators and science parks. The agricultural theme is still there, with many of Flanders’ innovators working on agtech applications.

Within this thriving ecosystem, the Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) is proving particularly adept at creating biological crop protection companies.

One notable spinoff from here is Biotalys, which is developing a platform of biological inputs to prevent fruits like strawberries from fluffing up with fungus. Its process involves designing — and then fermenting — millions of microscopic fragments of naturally occurring antibodies, and then spraying them onto crops to provide a protective shield.

Last week, another VIB offshoot, Aphea.Bio, secured $16.6m funding for its novel approach to biological crop protection.

The Series B round was led by Brussels-based impact investors Astanor Ventures and joined by existing shareholders V-Bio Ventures, the Agri Investment Fund, PMV, Vives Fund, Qbic II and Gemma Frisius Fund, along with VIB itself.

Aphea CEO Isabel Vercauteren told AFN her team will use the capital to advance bio-stimulant and bio-fungicide R&D programs. She’s also planning to set aside cash for the launch of the company’s first products, while expanding research into bio-insecticides and bio-herbicides.

The startup’s platform, when it rolls out, will be significantly different from that of Biotalys. It draws instead on algorithmic discovery of microbes – for example, microbes capable of devouring specific fungi that can blight corn, wheat, or soy crops. This is “not unlike” some of the processes used for developing biopharmaceuticals to boost human microbiome health, according to Vercauteren.

On the bio-stimulant side of things, the Aphea team are busily identifying microbes that could provide optimal conditions for root health and nutrient absorption if sprayed onto soil – effectively a replacement for conventional fertilizers.

The European Green Deal — the EU’s plan to make its economy more sustainable — includes a ‘from farm to fork’ strategy that envisions at least 20% less fertilizers and half the chemical pesticides used by EU farmers by 2030. Astanor partner Hendrik Van Asbroeck told AFN that he thinks Aphea is well placed to help the bloc reach these targets.

Reduction here is “critical, critical,” he stressed, underlining how Aphea fits well with two other companies in the Astanor portfolio targeting chemicals reduction: Switzerland’s Vivent and Ireland’s MagGrow. The former is a sensor system capable of tracking plant responses, useful for deciphering if a plant reacts well to biological treatments like Aphea’s; the latter is an efficient spraying technology, which would mean more judicious usage. Combined, all three drive toward overcoming the traditional barrier for biological inputs – effectiveness and cost.

Elsewhere in the biologicals space, recognition of viability is even coming from major sellers of chemical crop protection. Italian biotech firm Valagro was acquired by agro-chemicals giant Syngenta for an undisclosed sum just last month. It produces bio-stimulants and specialty nutrients for agriculture, gardening, and manufacturing, as well as ingredients for use in food, cosmetics, and animal feed.

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