13 European agrifood start-ups to keep an eye on
Portfolio companies of the EIT Food Covid-19 Bridge Fund, these businesses have disruptive technology and are fast approaching launch to market
The portfolio companies of the €5.4 million EIT Food Covid-19 Bridge Fund are preparing to hit the market with disruptive solutions to challenges in the food system. These seed and early-stage companies from the UK, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, and Poland were adversely affected by the current coronavirus pandemic, but the funding they received has given them a push to carry on with their commercialisation plans.
Benoit Buntinx, director of business creation at EIT Food, told NutritionInvestor that the selected start-ups cover a range of sectors with the potential to create positive change with alternative protein, sustainable agriculture, personalised nutrition and circular food systems.
Alberts has created the Alberts Smoothie Station, the world’s first smoothie vending machine. Powered by robotics, the machine prepares fresh, personalised smoothie on the spot using 100% natural ingredients: fruit, veggies and water – nothing else.
“Food robotics was already a growing field with lots of potentials, but during Covid-19 it has become even more relevant,” said Glenn Mathijssen, co-founder of Alberts.
Mathijssen said that since last year, the company has been on expansion mode, getting ready to develop a soup vending machine to complement the existing cold offering. “Two days before the lockdown started in Belgium, we were at our production facility shooting a video about the smoothie stations for De Tijd, the financial newspaper in Belgium. But everything changed at a moment’s notice!”
Shops closed and demand from foodservice stopped, but Alberts saw a rise in interest from hospitals and catering. Mathijssen said that having a contactless payment solution did the trick.
“As well as limiting social interaction between staff – the smoothie robot is fully automated – and the promotion of social distancing, our product is available 24/7 while offering a healthy snack full of vitamins. So in that respect, we did get a lot of interest for the smoothie stations,” said Mathijssen, noting that trials are under way at hospitals and the team is in talks with several foodservice providers to discuss potential partnerships in the near future.
Mathijssen said Alberts has gathered a lot of feedback from selling 10,000 smoothies. The company will use the input for technology upgrades on the machines.
“We’re also looking to expand to new European cities. We’re confident we’re going to grow further and are always happy to talk to those who are interested in helping us grow our solution rapidly as well,” Mathijssen concluded.
Dutch company Eatch is revolutionising the cook-at-home experience. The company offers an alternative to home-cooked meals by automating the whole cooking process.
Boris van Hofslot and Jelle Sijm came up with the idea behind Eatch in June 2018 – it was born out of personal frustration, seeing that cooking a healthy meal every day is time-consuming, and people tend not to have the time or energy to spend in the kitchen.
“We learned that many people cook because of a lack of a better alternative. Fast food and ready meals are affordable, but not healthy enough to eat every day. A salad from a hip salad bar is healthy but is just too expensive to eat daily and does not have a large variety. That’s how we came up with the idea of an automated kitchen!”
Eatch works with an app, and customers order a healthy, affordable meal, which is then freshly-prepared to their personal preferences – extra vegetables, or a vegan meat substitute – and the food comes in custom portion sizes. Customers can choose for pick-up or delivery when it suits them.
When Covid-19 hit the Netherlands, Eatch was in the middle of the development phase for the automated kitchen. Sijm explained: “Part of the R&D team that we work with had to continue work from home, which caused some delays in the development of the prototype kitchen. Fortunately, we were not directly impacted by the drop in revenues in the foodservice industry as we are not yet operational.”
Sijm explained that Covid-19 has changed the way we consume food dramatically from on-premise consumption to at-home. “Due to this change, we have put more emphasis on our strategy on ways we can get your meal delivered to wherever you are,” he said.
The funding from the Covid-19 Bridge Fund has allowed Eatch to continue its R&D activities and finish the first full-scale automated kitchen. “After extensive testing, we expect to open our first Eatch location next year,” Sijm concluded.
Epinutra is a start-up based in Wageningen, deemed the heart of the food industry in the Netherlands. It develops natural nutraceuticals based on a robust scientific foundation. Its flagship product is benesco, a clinically evaluated natural nutraceutical supporting sufferers of heartburn, which affects 20% of the general population.
Heartburn is a burning sensation in the chest area that is caused by acid flowing back from the stomach into the oesophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach, leading to irritation and pain.
Richard Hampson, Epinutra chief executive, explained that at the beginning of 2019, commercial and business development was at the earliest stages, embryonic even. “What we had were the key scientific discovery plus granted patent, first patient data and a leading clinical research partner firmly supporting us.”
The commercial development of benesco started during the spring 2019 incarnation of the StartLife Wageningen programme when Epinutra was incorporated with a firm focus on developing and launching the natural nutraceutical Benesco this year.
“Covid-19 hit when we were in the middle of raising our seed funding,” said Hampson. “With this seed funding, we aimed to roll-out our product and further build the clinical foundation of Benesco. The pandemic meant that, understandably, potential funding sources focused on supporting established investments. [Covid-19] put our plans at serious risk during a critical business development stage.”
With the funding from the EIT Food Covid-19 Bridge Fund, Epinutra’s plans to launch, test and grow the business are in motion. “This funding is a vote of confidence that will accelerate development even above our original plans,” said Hampson. “We will build consumer and clinical data, aiming to raise the next funding round at the beginning of 2021,” he concluded.
Spanish start-up Feltwood has developed technologies to produce ecological industrial materials using vegetable fibres and agricultural waste. Feltwood products enter the market as a real alternative to plastic, wood and chipboard with multiple applications, with the added bonus of being completely biodegradable, recyclable and compostable.
Arancha Yáñez, chief executive of Feltwood, explained that up to this year, the company has performed testing on many types of vegetal waste. “All types of vegetal were first tested in lab conditions and later on in a prototype production line. This line was itself tested to ensure a steady and replicable continuous process.”
After having developed a successful laboratory process and found its first customers, Feltwood was ready for industrial expansion. The company worked together with potential clients (food producers) on small production lots using their vegetal waste and moulding the raw material in given specifications such as shape and physical properties to fit the requirements of manufacturers.
“These companies, interested in our waste technology and potential sales of our products, are looking forward to confirming the industrial scalability of the process to either invest, license or eventually acquire our technology,” said Yáñez.
Yáñez explained that developing new materials and taking them from the laboratory to industrial production requires time and resources and that due to Covid-19, the industrial tests that were planned were suspended. “It has been a very complicated stage although we are recovering,” she said.
When Covid-19 hit Spain, Feltwood was preparing a fundraising round, which was put on hold until the global situation improves.
“The Bridge Fund is allowing us to carry out our planned industrial tests and develop products and customers,” said Yáñez. “In this sense, the industrial validation of the demonstrative plant will allow us to replicate the revenue model on a scalable basis.”
Feltwood has also managed to continue R&D work to expand its target markets, improve the characteristics of the material, and obtain the certifications of material features to support commercialisation for some applications.
“For us, it is a great opportunity to achieve our goal by offering biodegradable industrial materials and reducing the use of plastics,” she concluded.
Food Sourcing Specialists
Founded in 2014, Food Sourcing Specialists has been tapping into the food supply chain and has developed an international distribution of packaging and sports nutrition products that respect the human body and the environment.
Françoise de Valera, co-founder and chief executive of this Spanish start-up, explained that the distribution of third-party products is a low-margin endeavour, and that the company has been working on an idea for a revolutionary packaging since 2016.
She explained that by early 2019, the company was armed with prototypes of the world’s first home compostable packaging for long-life semi-liquid products and with samples of our elite performance sports energy gels. The project was accepted in the Horizon 2020 Phase 2 subsidy, and the company received €1.9 million, financing 70% of the total €2.7 million needed for the project.
In late January, Food Sourcing Specialists started an €800,000 investment round to finance the remaining 30% of the project. “The response from investors was overwhelmingly positive, and the round was progressing extremely well when Covid-19 hit,” said de Valera.
The revenue of the distribution business was also hit by the Covid-19 lockdown, especially in regards to hotels, restaurants and catering clients. De Valera decided to extend the investment round deadline and to tap into additional opportunities and investor groups, which led him to the EIT Food COVID-19 Bridge Fund and also to present at the Spanish Keiretsu Forum. Food Sourcing Specialists was successful in both pitches.
“We are continuing discussions with the potential investors who have maintained their interest in the project despite Covid-19 and with new potential investors from the Keiretsu Forum session in July. We will close the round on 30 September,” she said.
Today, Food Sourcing Specialists continues to work apace on the compostable packaging project despite the economic downturn. The company has initiated a series of R&D projects designed to build on its existing home compostable packaging innovation. In-house researchers are investigating new compounds that can be used to add further resilience to the packaging, as well as looking at additional applications for the existing innovations.
“We are also working to develop additional products for our healthy sports nutrition range in compostable packaging, to complement the sports energy gels, which form part of the Horizon 2020 project,” said de Valera.
Food Sourcing Specialists is gearing up for launching the new packaging solutions next year.
Biotech company NapiFeryn is based in Poland, and it has developed and patented a technology to obtain food-grade proteins from rapeseed, canola, and other oilseeds.
Magdalena Kozłowska, chief executive of NapiFeryn BioTech, said the company is scaling up the technology and delivering samples of rapeseed proteins to prospective partners. “Business-wise, we are [approaching] commercial break-through, forming strategic alliances with partners from the value chain, including rapeseed processors, food ingredient distributors and food formulators.”
Kozłowska said Covid-19 has negatively impacted the business development. “We had a series of face-to-face meetings scheduled with prospective business partners that required travelling and site visits at different locations with all parties involved. Most of the meetings were cancelled and replaced by [virtual meetings]. That slowed down the process of forming the strategic alliances,” she said, noting that the decision-making process on prospective partners has significantly slowed down.
Following support from the EIT Food Covid-19 Bridge Fund, NapiFeryn has moved forward, realising its plan to speed up the pre-commercialisation activities related to technology development and to close the strategic partnerships.
Israeli Phytolon is a portfolio company of The Trendlines. The start-up was founded by Halim Jubran in December 2018, and has developed a fermentation-based technology that uses the quality and benefits of betalains, a class of pigments found in plants, to create reliable and cost-effective production of a wide range of natural colours.
“In January, and following our progress in product development, we started to establish pilot projects with our potential clients and strategic partners,” said Jubran, noting that Phytolon had initiated fundraising activities to take the company towards product launch in 2022.
Phytolon’s fundraising activities were dramatically affected by the Covid-19 crisis, as most of the conversation with potential investors were paused. The lockdown also affected the company’s ability to reach its corresponding R&D milestones.
Despite the challenging climate, the company moved on. It has completed the ongoing strategic pilot projects, and the funding round – the company raised $4.1 million. The capital will allow Phytolon to fund the scale-up and commercialisation plans.
Tel Aviv-based Agritask has created a single platform to manage agriculture operations, from A to Z, turning fact-based data into actionable insights. The company was – and still is – scaling up fast and gaining significant traction with industry leaders across key customer segments, including growers, food companies, governments and NGOs, and insurers when the Covid-19 hit the market.
Ofir Ardon, Agritask chief executive, said the company was in active discussions with several investors to raise funds in Q3 this year to significantly upgrade its technology infrastructure, remote sensing solutions and market outreach capabilities.
“We see a positive commercial impact from Covid-19 as the need for digitalisation and remote operations have never been more obvious to potential clients. We received many more enquiries in Q3 as the world gets used to the new normal,” said Ardon.
The list of 13 start-ups in the EIT Food Covid-19 Bridge Fund is complete with four early-stages companies from Spain, France and the UK.
French Antofenol has an eco-friendly method of botanical extraction. Spanish Sencrop operates a digital platform for farmers, and Consentio a fruit & veg e-commerce platform. And UK’s Mimica is commercialising a temperature-sensitive indicator for food freshness.
Benoit Buntinx, told NutritionInvestor that the success of the initiative has fuelled a growing idea at EIT Food to continue investing in more companies next year. “We’ll find the way to make that happen via a new fund,” Buntinx concluded.