Incubating innovation: biotope helps biotech startups take root

Biotech startups often end up dissatisfied after regular programs. Ghent-based biotope, an initiative by VIB, is changing that.

VIB has been a leading scientific institute in Ghent's biotech industry for years, and the biotope program focuses on startups in particular. Thanks to a committed manager, Annick Verween, and a hands-on team, selected startups gain access to expertise, resources, support, and an extended network to grow their ventures. For this second cohort, four startups have been selected to participate in the intensive program, which involves 1 year of bespoke support.

The selected startups are immersed in Europe's largest and most innovative agro-biotech hotspot. In Ghent, we’ve already developed a comprehensive biobased ecosystem that combines knowledge and innovation with realization. Since the discovery of the Ti-Plasmid by Marc van Montagu, Jeff Shell, and their colleagues in the 1970s, we’ve been pioneers in biotechnology. It’s our mission to become the best in the industry and put Ghent on the map as the European Technology Capital.


This Ghent-based startup produces various biosurfactants, using almost any kind of bio-based material, including food waste. Surfactants can be found everywhere: from the toothpaste and shower gel you used this morning to the ink in your pen. Sophie Roelants and Bernd Everaert are driving the transition from fossil based surfactants to bio based surfactants. There is a growing demand for sustainable biosurfactants, and the momentum for change is increasing in the industry, fuelled by ambitious commitments from companies such as Unilever and Evonik. The surfactant market is, after the plastics market, one of the largest "bulk chemical market", highlighting the immense potential for new technologies to make a significant impact.

AmphiStar goes a step further than 'standard' biobased surfactants and develops biosurfactant production technologies using food waste from supermarkets. In addition, they use a mild biological production process, using clean, safe, and environmentally friendly technology that is sustainable and scalable. Notably, their biosurfactants are biocompatible: they’re biodegradable and safe for both humans and the environment. Bernd proudly highlights their recent achievement, exclaiming, “we’ve even launched our first consumer product in a limited edition product launched by Ecover!" "It's a cleaning spray for surfaces, like in your kitchen. It's the world's first product to use 100% waste-based biosurfactants!"

This duo also uses fermentation, thanks to yeast and bacterial species. Together with Ghent University and the Bio Base Europe Pilot Plant, they have been exploring the possibilities for almost 20 years. Why in Ghent? Because since the 1970s, we've been a leader in biotechnology, combining knowledge, experience, and talent to attract both international investors and highly educated professionals to our vibrant city.

Sophie and Bernd are extremely grateful to have been selected for this program. "The network itself is very important for us," says Sophie. "Not only do they offer advice when you need to make important choices, they also provide warm introductions to investors, advice on intellectual property, and of course, financial support and access to labs. Participating in this program, forces you to take a critical look at yourself and your company and develop focus. Moreover, we’re provided with a platform, to ask questions that you don't always know who to turn to. For us, this is invaluable!"

PROBITAT (Finland)

Probitat is a Finnish startup that makes plant-based food tastier and healthier through fermentation. They offer ready-to-use starters to partner companies enabling them to create drinks, cheeses, and pastries. Carme Plumed-Ferrer, founder and CEO of the company, says that she has always worked with plant-based materials and bacterial strains responsible for fermentation. "And public interest in plant-based food is rapidly growing. Fermentation can play an important role in the development of these products because it’s a natural solution. One of the major challenges of plant-based food is how difficult it is to match the taste, texture, and nutritional content of traditional animal products. However, thanks to fermentation, you can kill three birds with one stone, as not only the taste and texture are better, but fermented food can also help balance our gut microbiome."

Rather than focusing on developing their own products, they aim to become the go-to technology provider for partners. "We use our knowledge of bacteria to offer fermentation starters to partner companies, enabling them to create the best possible plant-based products." They are currently operational in Europe, but they already secured a client in the US and have ongoing discussions with potential Chinese clients. "But we need the help of the biotope program to further refine the business strategy of the company, gather more evidence about the health benefits of our cultures, and connect with a broader ecosystem to prepare for further funding next year. There are not many startup programs that provide specific support to tech companies, and none as well connected as this one, through VIB."

B'ZEOS (Norway)

This startup uses seaweed to create the next generation of packaging. B'ZEOS is developing a sustainable alternative to conventional fossil-based packaging to help combat the ramifications of plastic. Seaweed can be used as a sustainable biomass to create fully compostable bioplastics. Guy Maurice (SeaEO), and Adriana Kyvik (SeaTO), want to develop a viable solution to address plastic pollution leaking into natural environments, or unsustainable end-of-life scenarios such as landfilling, incineration, and the creation of microplastics.

The genesis of B'ZEOS occurred when the founder, Guy, was served a plastic straw in his "organic" drink in New York City. It was the proverbial final drop, and that drop soon grew into a full-fledged concept. "Now, we’re creating biobased packaging that doesn't take hundreds of years to break down, especially for items that are only being used once, and then discarded," says Adriana.

Seaweed can easily be cultivated, and in many ways, is considered as a more sustainable and scalable alternative compared to other bioplastics. "Seaweed doesn't require land, fresh water, or chemicals to grow," says Guy. "Moreover, it grows incredibly fast, making it a sustainable source that can also be used for large-scale production. Many other bioplastics are usually produced using polysaccharides from agricultural crops (such as corn or sugarcane), which means they also require a lot of land,  fresh water, fertilizers, and pesticides."

The duo has substantial expertise in material science. "We formulate the base materials: the pellets that can be converted into packaging with a manufacturing partner,” says Adriana. “Currently, we are developing a bioplastic film for fresh produce. It's quite a challenge because it needs to breathe; otherwise, you retain moisture and increase the rate of product decay. Within the biotope program, we hope to further perfect our product and build new partnerships. We see that at biotope, they know and understand what we are working on-- on a deep scientific level-- and that’s a real relief."

ELOGIUM (Latvia)

This startup from Latvia aims to improve animals' health and enhance our feedstock. Karlis Udris, Katarina Simunovic, and their team are developing a probiotic agent that can be added to the feed of broiler chickens. Their agent contains beneficial bacteria that can combat the harmful bacteria, known as Campylobacter, which can affect chicken farmings. And just in time, because the EU has decided to tighten regulations by setting a lower threshold for acceptable levels of this bacterium in broiler chickens by 30% in 2025. This measure is vital to safeguarding human health as consumption of raw, contaminated chicken meat, can lead to nausea and diarrhoea, or, in some extreme cases, even death. "There is also a second advantage," Katarina emphasises. "Historically, farmers have relied on antibiotics for their animals, as efficient growth promoters, increasing the animals' body weight. However, this habit becomes problematic because it leads to widespread antibiotic resistance in both animals and humans. As our probiotic agent acts as a growth promoter as well, our solution effectively tackles two challenges simultaneously."

"The bar will be set very high this year," admits Karlis. "We will do extra research and prepare our product for authorization by the EFSA. Thanks to biotope, we’re already in contact with a number of potential partner institutions that can help us with the production and further testing of the product. And in Europe, of course, we have a particularly large market, with 10 billion chickens produced. Annick has already introduced us to ILVO, where we will be conducting multiple independent in vivo tests in the coming months. Personally, I’m really happy about that, because Ghent is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to!”

"And the knowledge and experiences we’re acquiring through this program are invaluable," says Katarina. "The great thing about this program is that you not only gain valuable insights as an entrepreneur, but also make scientific leaps. It's a real dedicated science incubator. Annick once told me that scientists are used to doing things in a certain way and avoid the paths we don't know anything about. However, this program has been a game-changer, even during the basecamp beforehand, I can learn so much from colleagues and see things from different perspectives."


  • You need to join biotope to get a very quick validation of your biotech company, by experts. Biotope is a whole ecosystem, we're a network that can bring you forward.

    Annick Verween, biotope manager

Biotope is a pre-seed incubator-program for biotech talent, more specifically in agriculture and food. Innovation has always been a driving force in the field of biotechnology. And now, thanks to this team of dedicated individuals, we’re seeing a new wave of innovations poised to take the world by storm. 

Over the following year, these startups are in for a treat, receiving significant support to take their ideas to the next level. This involves pre-seed funding, access to valuable mentorship, and critical proof-of-concept development. With such resources at their disposal, these teams are bound to turn their cutting-edge ideas into authentic and meaningful solutions. And it’s these innovative technologies that will pave the way for profound environmental and social changes, leading us towards a brighter and more sustainable future.

These efforts are a perfect example of what can be achieved when a group of like-minded people, with a common set of goals, joins forces and unleashes their full potential. That’s why we’ve also invested in this program, through our Spearheadfund. We share the same goal: helping the next generation of biotech leaders, shaping our European Capital of Technology.