Aphea.Bio offers farmers prospect of a more sustainable future
Aphea.Bio is committed to the development of less harmful and more organic products in agriculture.
With its Green Deal, Europe is taking action to tackle the problems of climate change. This is fully in line with the mission of Ghent-based Aphea.Bio, which is committed to providing a solution to the demand for less harmful and more organic agricultural products. In an interview with the City of Ghent, CEO Isabel Vercauteren and CTO Steven Vandenabeele talk enthusiastically about the mission and future plans of Aphea.Bio.
What was the driving force behind Aphea.Bio?
Aphea.Bio started out as a spin-off of the VIB and is the result of the drive for innovation within the VIB and existing demand from the agricultural market. Our focus is on limiting chemical pesticides and fertilisers. We look for solutions to the problem and aim to help farmers use fewer chemical, harmful and polluting products. “The agricultural sector is under enormous pressure from Europe and European regulations. Certain products have disappeared from the market. We want to provide farmers with the alternatives they are looking for,” Isabel explains.
What does Aphea.Bio do exactly?
Aphea.Bio is working on two programmes: biostimulants and biological pesticides. Biostimulants promote plant growth. Biological pesticides protect plants from fungal diseases, insect pests and weeds.
Aphea.Bio’s goal is to be the one-stop-shop for sustainable, organic products and to offer solutions for all aspects of crop protection.
Many companies in our sector work with vegetables and greenhouse crops. We opted instead for the large row crops of wheat and maize. This decision brings with it plenty of challenges, but it makes our mission unique.
Why did you decide to work with large row crops?
When starting a company, you of course look for unique aspects that can help you get the funding you need. At the same time, an interesting opportunity presented itself. Steven explains that farmers use a lot of sprays to fight off fungi, insects and weeds. “Non-chemical and therefore less harmful solutions for large row crops are not readily available.”
With Aphea.Bio we aim to make a meaningful contribution to sustainable agriculture, to have a big impact on large row crops. That’s why we took on this challenge.
Ghent aims to play a pioneering role in the climate debate. How does the technology of companies such as Aphea.Bio contribute to a better climate?
Agriculture is one of the major air polluters on our planet. The nitrogen compounds released by mineral and organic fertilisers are one of the biggest causes of global warming.
Aphea.Bio products provide a solution in two areas. On the one hand, our biostimulants ensure the same yield with less fertilisation and therefore fewer nitrogen gases. On the other hand, thanks to our crop protection based on microorganisms, fewer chemicals end up in the groundwater and waterways. “In doing so, we contribute to the green image of farmers and put them in a more positive light,” emphasises Isabel.
It is a perfect match for the Farm-to-Fork strategy, with Aphea.Bio helping Europe to achieve its objectives.
The Farm-to-Fork strategy is a cornerstone of the European Green Deal. How do you react to that as a company?
Our business concept was the Farm-to-Fork strategy before it even existed. Our ambitions and those of Farm-to-Fork overlap perfectly. Just like Europe, we are striving for fewer synthetic fertilisers and fewer chemical crop protection products.
First and foremost, our microorganism-based products are intended to help conventional farmers meet European standards. But our products can also easily be used in organic farming.
It is a perfect match, with Aphea.Bio helping Europe to achieve its objectives. “The Green Deal is hip and we’re riding the European green wave,” adds Steven.
Aphea.Bio raised a lot of capital very quickly. What role did local and European funds play in this?
We have completed two financing rounds and a third is planned for 2023. We deliberately chose to only involve Flemish investors in the A round, with the exception of VIVES from Louvain-la-Neuve. For the B round, we branched out to the rest of Europe with strong players such as Astanor Ventures and ECBF. For the next round we are planning to include a non-European fund.
With the current generation of biologicals we succeed in increasing the yield by 3 to 5 percent. That is how we make a real difference.
What national and international plans does Aphea.Bio have for the future?
In general, and as a one-stop-shop, we aim to be an important player in the biology-based agents market. We want to profile ourselves as a pioneer in relation to the key players around us.
In the meantime, we are also ready to take the international leap. With Europe as the first and the United States as the second target for 2022, we want to establish a global presence for Aphea.Bio. Our alternative solutions can be used worldwide. The focus crops of wheat and maize cover an enormous potential area. With the current generation of biologicals we succeed in increasing the yield by 3 to 5 percent. That is how we make a real difference.
At the moment we are really looking forward to the launch of our first biostimulant in 2023. This will be followed by biofungicides, bioherbicides and bioinsecticides.
Ghent is world famous and a magnet for international interest.
Is it easy to find talent to build a strong team at Aphea.Bio? Does the proximity of Ghent University and other Ghent educational institutions play an important role?
Absolutely. We currently have around 41 employees. Since we always recruit internationally, we have an international team. Steven adds that Ghent and the VIB really attract talent. “Ghent is a good place to recruit both national and international talent. The city is world famous, provides an enormous pool of strong talent and is a magnet for international interest.”
Are there any expats working at Aphea.Bio? And if so, what is their experience of living and working in Ghent?
At Aphea.Bio, we have five expats from Iran, Italy, Spain, France and Germany. They have made the firm decision to create new lives for themselves here. By using English as our working language, we ensure that expats feel welcome here. Single expats often live in the city itself, while families prefer the suburbs around Ghent. As a dynamic, international city, Ghent offers them a strong expat ecosystem of like-minded people.
Ghent has been a worldwide hotspot for agrobiotechnology for decades. How did this come about and how do we maintain it?
Pioneers like Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell played a major role in our current reputation as a pharma and biotech hotspot.
Steven emphasises the importance of the city continuing to focus on high-quality education. “The master’s degree in biotechnology is internationally renowned.”
As a hub of innovation and logistics, Ghent holds a powerful attraction.
The City of Ghent focuses its policy on specific spearheads such as healthtech, biotech, cleantech, digitech and innovation. What assets do you think Ghent already has to grow more into a capital of technology in Europe? And how can the City of Ghent support biotech companies?
As a hub of innovation and logistics, Ghent holds a powerful attraction. We see its geographical location, renowned education, pool of international talent, international atmosphere and energy as an absolute asset.
It was certainly no coincidence that the American company Inari Agriculture NV chose to set up a European branch in Zwijnaarde. The cluster of and around Tech Lane Ghent creates a community that is very interesting for companies.
Despite the many advantages Ghent has to offer, affordable start-up space and housing are an issue.
For entrepreneurs just starting out, it is a big challenge to find a location for their company. There is a real lack of space in terms of infrastructure, offices and labs. “Investors in new companies aim to build value through products, patents, and so on. In the early start-up phase of a business, they prefer not to invest in infrastructure. On top of that, start-up companies don’t have the financial means to buy a property. And rental options are scarce.”