All posts by Caroline Macdonald

Kraft Heinz Partners With StartLife To Tap Into Startup Innovation

Partnership between Kraft Heinz and StartLifeToday, we welcome The Kraft Heinz Company as the latest strategic partner of StartLife. StartLife will help Kraft Heinz connect with startups and drive innovation to meet consumer expectations for taste, nutrition and the planet. The partnership was announced today at the Future Food Tech event in London.

Although Kraft Heinz already works with startups through various platforms, this partnership marks the first time the company has collaborated with an accelerator program. Miriam Ueberall, VP R&D International at Kraft Heinz, said the company was impressed with StartLife’s ambition, the strength of its network, and its track record in developing successful partnerships in the agrifoodtech sector.

“We maintain and grow skills in our core capabilities, but with our portfolio expanding and as consumer needs become more demanding, startups play a very important role,” she said.

“As we continue to transform Kraft Heinz into an agile, insight-led company with scale, we see startups as key partners in helping us learn, innovate and adopt new technologies or channels even faster, so we can give our consumers and partners the products, flavors and brand experiences they want the most.”

Seeking innovation for taste, health and sustainability

The company is looking for novel technologies to produce healthier, tastier and more sustainable products in areas like clean label ingredients, sugar and salt reduction, waste reduction, as well as new delivery channels and acquisition opportunities. The company also aims to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.Among other key challenges, Kraft Heinz is targeting ways to ensure security of supply, and to tackle cost pressures as raw material prices have increased across the global food industry.

"We see startups as key partners in helping us learn, innovate and adopt new technologies or channels even faster" ~ Miriam Ueberall, Kraft Heinz

“We are looking for solutions across our entire  value chain  to make sure the global population is able to buy healthy, affordable food at an appropriate price point,” Ueberall said. “We need to re-stitch the value chain in new ways, and that’s where we can benefit from the unique approaches and diverse  thinking most startups have.”

Bringing global markets and R&D facilities within reach

Startups also have much to gain from collaboration with Kraft Heinz, including access to its global network, expertise and market intelligence, as well as R&D facilities to test concepts on a pilot scale.

StartLife’s partnership with Kraft Heinz will give startups the tools they need to scale their business, which can be a knowledge-intensive and capital-intensive process,” said StartLife’s Managing Director Jan Meiling.

"Kraft Heinz will give startups the tools they need to scale their business." ~ Jan Meiling, StartLife

“Many startups in foodtech are first-time entrepreneurs trying to navigate a complicated value chain. At some stage in their development, they need an existing player, either for access to raw materials, to the market and their brands, or to certain facilities. Our partnership with Kraft Heinz brings together the world of startups with the corporate world – and we have already shown that we know how to make this formula work.”

StartLife provides significant coaching to around 40 startups a year, but also works with around 400 more each year from all over the world.

Startups interested in partnering with Kraft Heinz should contact StartLife to arrange an introduction.

About The Kraft Heinz Company

We are driving transformation at The Kraft Heinz Company (Nasdaq: KHC), inspired by our Purpose, Let’s Make Life Delicious. Consumers are at the center of everything we do. With 2021 net sales of approximately $26 billion, we are committed to growing our iconic and emerging food and beverage brands on a global scale. We leverage our scale and agility to unleash the full power of Kraft Heinz across a portfolio of six consumer-driven product platforms. As global citizens, we’re dedicated to making a sustainable, ethical impact while helping feed the world in healthy, responsible ways.


p.s. Stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scale-ups and more via StartLife’s Linkedin or Twitter account or via the StartLife newsletter (8x a year).

Signature Partners With StartLife To Advance Precision Farming Tech

Partnership Signature-Startlife

Investment management company Signature has partnered with StartLife to tap into European agricultural innovation, as it aims to optimize natural resources and improve food security in Africa and other regions where the company will expand in the coming years. For impact-driven tech startups, the partnership could provide a route to on-farm validation of novel technologies.

Both Signature and StartLife are based in the Netherlands and support startups from all over the world that aim to build a sustainable food system with novel technologies. Signature is particularly interested in startups with solutions for improved resource management and crop productivity for large-scale farms in Africa and beyond, including those producing fruits, nuts, cereals, grains and alternative proteins.

Pressing agricultural issues

Head of Investments at Signature, Tsito Raharison, said, “We want to develop the agri sector in general, and have pressing issues in food security and biodiversity that we need to solve. StartLife can introduce us to ground-breaking technologies that will help us achieve this mission.”

"We are investing in ground-breaking precision farming technologies and organic inputs that tackle pressing issues in food security and biodiversity."

Key concerns include tackling pollution, water security and efficiency and soil degradation, as well as ways to make crops more resilient to extreme weather and less reliant on fertilizers, pesticides, and other farming inputs. The organization is looking for precision farming technologies and organic inputs that can help tackle these issues.

Bridging the gap between farms and technology

Photo: Tsito Raharison (Head of Investments, Signature) and Jan Meiling (Managing Director, StartLife)

Investor Relations Manager at StartLife, Lin Zhu, said, “StartLife is a founder-centric organization, so we want to ensure we add value to our startups. Startups often have a gap to reach the farmers and do the validation testing of their product on the farm. Signature is able to offer the insights and could also provide that access.”

The investment company already invests in large-scale farming projects in conjunction with dedicated outgrower schemes in Morocco, Malawi, Zambia, and Nigeria. It provides much more than funding, as it also sees its role as a steward of natural resources and aims to reduce poverty, promoting economic empowerment through worker and community development.

StartLife’s dedication to sustainability, its position at the heart of agrifoodtech, and its strong links with Wageningen University & Research were central to the Signature’s decision to enter the partnership.

United in sustainability goals

“Technology is the catalyst of changes we want to make on those farms,” said Raharison. “StartLife has the same focus and mission as us and gives us access to the best-in-class technologies in agtech and foodtech. In the end, it boiled down to pushing the agenda for a more sustainable agriculture sector.”

Zhu said, “We expect that Signature will become an active player in our ecosystem and help solve pressing issues with our startups, other partners, and Wageningen.”

Startups interested in partnering with Signature should contact StartLife to arrange an introduction.

About Signature Agri Investments

Signature Agri Investments is a leading impact investment boutique which provides nature-based investment solutions to combat food insecurity, create climate resilience, contribute to biodiversity and ecosystem restoration, and transform communities and economies through sustainable and innovative agriculture investments. Signature invests and operates across multiple countries mainly in Africa with a demand-driven value chain approach to build a carbon-negative portfolio of agricultural assets.


p.s. Stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scale-ups and more via StartLife’s Linkedin or Twitter account or via the StartLife newsletter (8x a year).

CJ CheilJedang and StartLife Unite Korean Nutrition and European Foodtech

Partnership CJ CheilJedang - StartLife

Korea’s No.1 food and bio company CJ CheilJedang has partnered with StartLife to benefit from European innovations for the global market, while also expanding the worldwide presence of Korean cuisine and ingredients. For European startups the partnership provides a gateway to Asian markets for their novel food technologies.

Founded in 1953, CJ CheilJedang offers a broad range of foods and beverages in every part of the supermarket. It already exports to more than 100 countries and, with the StartLife partnership, it aims to continue expanding the appeal of Korean food, which has impressive traditions when it comes to cuisine, fermentation and agriculture.

That could include sharing the nation’s long-standing expertise in algae cultivation, for instance, or in producing refined and delicious tastes and textures for meat substitutes.

Korea’s healthy nutrition goes global

“Considering recent export successes, including Squid Game, kimchi and Korean barbecue, the world is clearly ready for Korea,” said Heiko Oertling, R&D Hub Manager at the new CJ Research Centre Europe at Wageningen in the Netherlands, where the company has set up its European branch. “Now is our moment, and we want to seize it.”

"We want to bring Korean food to a broader audience, including all of its health and nutritional benefits."

“Culturally, Korea is unique in terms of cooking and especially fermentation,” Oertling said. “The ambition is to leverage this, and adapt it to local tastes. We want to bring Korean food to a broader audience, including all of its health and nutritional benefits.”

Gateway to Asian markets for European foodtech startups


For StartLife, the partnership brings opportunities for its network of startups looking to access the Asian market, especially those involved in health and nutrition and the protein transition. Areas of interest for CJ CheilJedang extend along the supply chain from feed to finished products, as well as technologies and raw materials for more sustainable food production.

“It’s great to have Korea’s leading food company joining our community,“ said Caroline Bijkerk, Global Partnership Manager at StartLife. “Startups can take advantage of this gateway to Korea and other Asian markets and the many potential synergies with CJ CheilJedang, including new product developments and future supplier-customer relationships.”

Food Innovation Hub

“We want to be part of StartLife’s ecosystem and all the innovations that are happening here,” said Oertling. “Wageningen is an ideal location for that. We want to link with innovative startups, partners and companies and then produce new offerings that bring a benefit to consumers, whether for health, convenience or sustainability.”

The research centre is about much more than product development, however. CJ CheilJedang also aims to attract talent in innovation and training, as well as new perspectives on alternative proteins and sustainable food systems.

Startups interested in working with CJ CheilJedang should contact StartLife to arrange an introduction.

About CJ Cheiljedang

CJ CheilJedang is the core subsidiary in charge of the food and bioengineering business sectors of the CJ Group. It has led the development of the Korean food industry for the past 60 years and contributed to the development of the bioengineering industry as the nation’s top food company. Launched in 1953 as a food ingredient company, CJ CheilJedang has expanded its business to processed foods.

CJ CheilJedang has achieved outstanding growth, quantitatively and qualitatively, in food processing and ingredients in the food business, as well as in the bioengineering business sector. CJ CheilJedang is striving to go beyond being the No. 1 in Korea to becoming a global leader in each area. CJ CheilJedang will continue to grow and evolve in the food & bio sectors by practicing the spirit of OnlyOne and develop into a global lifestyle company.


p.s. Stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scale-ups and more via StartLife’s Linkedin or Twitter account or via the StartLife newsletter (8x a year).

Founder Story: Epinutra Targets A Natural Solution To Heartburn

Benesco by Epinutra - a natural solution to heartburn

When the team behind Epinutra first started its research, it was looking for solutions to strengthen the connections between cells in the body. Ten years later, it has developed a natural food supplement that could provide a new way to tackle heartburn – even in vulnerable groups like pregnant women.


Epinutra’s CEO and founder Richard Hampson admits that the company took an unconventional approach, first looking for compounds that strengthen the epithelia – the outer layer of cells that protects many internal organs – before considering possible uses for them.

“From a business perspective, it was the wrong way around,” he said, explaining that he and his team spent a decade inventing the test and screening more than 2,000 molecules to see if they hit their molecular target of interest.

A natural solution to heartburn

“We found roughly five candidates that fit the bill, and two of them were food ingredients. So that meant instead of looking at drug development, we could look at natural food supplements,” he said. “There is often a preference for a natural food supplement rather than a drug, especially for pregnant women for example, who often take a ‘grin and bear it’ approach.”

Man-with-heart-burnEpinutra was set up in the summer of 2019 as an affiliate company of Portugal-based Thelial Technologies, S.A., supported in part by grants from the European Research Council and the EU Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Programme. It is dedicated to the development of benescoTM (check explainer video about benescoTM), a supplement taken as a lozenge to support oesophagus health for people who suffer from heartburn. The product is based on two active ingredients: an antioxidant found in apples called quercetin; and vitamin B2, or riboflavin; as well as the sugar-free sweetener isomalt.

The active ingredients are present at relatively low doses – the quercetin is equivalent to that found in about three apples, just over 30 mg – while the vitamin B2 is about 15% of the recommended daily dose. The company suggests that someone might question why it would be necessary to take a supplement when these nutrients are so readily available in a healthy diet, but the time it takes to consume them is important. Eating apples means the quercetin passes very quickly through the oesophagus tube that links the mouth and stomach, whereas sucking a lozenge  similar to breath-freshening mints takes several minutes, which is crucial for the compound to have an effect, in addition to stimulating saliva production.

So, why the oesophagus?

Epithelial health could refer to any number of tissues in the body, but Hampson and the Epinutra team chose to focus on the oesophagus because it is by far the simplest part of the digestive tract to reach.


“The oesophagus is the simplest for us to address,” he said. “If you want to target anything in the gut you have to pass through the stomach. The oesophagus is much easier.”

Heartburn and indigestion are incredibly common, but few remedies are available, and often come with side effects. There are over-the-counter antacids, which work by either capping stomach acid, preventing reflux into the oesophagus, or by neutralising acids with an alkali compound.

It is an enormous market: the global antacids market alone is worth about $10 billion a year, according to the World Health Organization.

The other option is proton pump inhibitors, which suppress stomach acid production, but over time, they can cause headaches, gastrointestinal complaints, and even interfere with the absorption of some nutrients and prescription drugs.

Licensing opportunity

“There are options, but they all target stomach acid and reducing stomach acid, which we don’t,” said Hampson. “…It is a crowded market, but with solutions that have been around for a long time. Our principal competitors are protein pump inhibitors. They are effective, but have side effects in the long term. And beyond that, they have gone off patent.”

This is part of the reasoning behind the company’s fundamental strategy to license its technology to someone else, rather than developing and marketing its own product; manufacturers are likely to have an appetite for new options (and potential revenue streams) for tackling heartburn in this highly competitive market.

“We just received our first prototypes of benescoTM and we are launching for ourselves with a distribution partner in the Netherlands,” said Hampson. “In the longer term we are certainly looking to license it to a larger player.”

At this stage, however, he says the project is still in an early phase and needs more development before the product will be ready for licensing.

Working with StartLife

The company’s founders already had connections with clinical partners based in Amsterdam, and this sparked their interest in the Netherlands, but Epinutra was established there after contacting StartLife at the beginning of 2019. It was accepted onto the StartLife Accelerate program, and launched just a few months later.

“We don’t come from a strong food background,” said Hampson. “StartLife fitted exactly with what we needed, which was that they saw the innovation that we had and they had experts and connections in the food industry. StartLife has really been a gateway to the food industry in the Netherlands. They can be credited with why we set up a Dutch company.”

He added that having the backing of the StartLife brand and Wageningen University has been a helpful seal of approval with its partners, and StartLife clearly was important financially as the company’s initial investors.

Less than a year after it was founded, Epinutra has just closed a funding round led by Rabobank, and has built its Netherlands-based presence from a small, scientific-focused team to one that includes a variety of experts, including marketing professionals.

After launching the product this year, the company plans to seek equity investors to develop other targeted nutraceuticals. If you are interested in this opportunity please contact Richard Hampson directly:


p.s. You can also follow StartLife on LinkedinTwitter or stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scaleups and more via the StartLife newsletter.

Founder Story of Verdify: Better Health Through AI And Personalized Nutrition

Image Verdify - 600x400

Healthy eating should be easy for everyone – including those with chronic medical conditions and specific dietary needs, according to the founder and CEO of personalized nutrition platform Verdify.

Launched in November 2019, Verdify is an artificial intelligence platform that links food retailers’ recipe databases with consumers who have special dietary requirements. Users can choose recipes they like on the retailer’s website, with ingredients that can be modified to fit their requirements and, if they wish, these are added to an online shopping list. Currently, the platform caters to those on low salt or low carbohydrate diets, pregnant women, and those with gut health problems, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease.


The company’s CEO, Jochem Bossenbroek, has an MBA and a background in biotechnology and life sciences. He said Verdify stemmed from his frustration with health

providers’ overwhelming focus on treating symptoms rather than preventing them from developing in the first place.

“I got more and more frustrated to see how much money was going towards medicine for symptom relief rather than prevention,” he said. “At the same time, I was working with researchers who were studying the links between nutrition and health…Very little of this knowledge is used in practice, so that was really the spark to start this company, Verdify.”

An individual approach

The potential is enormous, considering how many people suffer from long-term health conditions that need to be controlled through diet. IBS alone is thought to affect as many as one in seven people in the world, and an estimated 1.1 billion people have hypertension, requiring a low-salt diet to reduce their risk of heart disease and stroke. The low-FODMAP diet recommended for IBS sufferers excludes about 100 ingredients, so automating the process of adjusting recipes is particularly welcome.

People with health conditions often are given recipe ideas and dietary plans to follow, but what makes this platform different is that it takes into account everything from medical information to allergies and personal food preferences and then adapts to fit the individual. The company has a dietitian and recipe developer on its team – along with a medical doctor – whose expertise fed into the platform’s development, a process that took about two years.

“What we did was try to copy her brain into the software, her way of thinking about how to adjust a recipe to meet dietary challenges, and that’s why it took a lot longer than anticipated,” Bossenbroek said.

“It is not only about replacing ingredients, but also about changing the cooking instructions, which is even more challenging…We wanted to make it as easy as possible to follow a complex diet.”

Tapping into existing databases

Verdify partnership with Supermarket Albert Heijn

Originally, the plan was to build a consumer-driven platform, but the team soon realized they could achieve much more by working directly with businesses.

“Food retailers have a large online collection of recipes and they are used a lot,” he explained. “Some of the Dutch retailers have more than a million visitors a month just looking at these recipes.”

Verdify’s first step toward this business-to-business approach was sparked after it linked its consumer platform with the supermarket chain Albert Heijn. Members could see recipes that matched their personalized profile, and after selection, they could connect with the supermarket for delivery or pick up of the ingredients.

“We then got calls from other supermarkets who were interested in how we adapted and personalized these recipes,” he said. “…Then we realized we could reach a much bigger audience by implementing our technology on the recipe websites of retailers so that all their visitors were directly reached.”

“We are now working with a team that specializes in artificial intelligence to automate any steps that we are still doing manually at this time,” he added.

Apart from licensing its technology to supermarkets, the company also is targeting home meal delivery companies and even kitchen appliance manufacturers, which supply recipe ideas to inspire their customers.

Shifting ambitions

The shift from its initial consumer-focused approach to a business-to-business one has allowed the company to do more with less marketing investment, Bossenbroek said, but it also has required a change in mindset.

“We started with the ambition to focus mainly on the people with a chronic condition, and now of course we are talking with retailers whose consumers are more about the mass market and diet options, people who want to stay healthy or do more sports,” he said. “That’s a little bit of a shift in the mentality – in our mentality mainly.”

Broader applications

Verdify Personalized Food Pill imageStill, the idea is to adapt the platform to a wider range of medical conditions. Preparing people for chemotherapy is one area that particularly interests Bossenbroek, helping cancer patients to start treatment as well-nourished as possible, and to tackle common side-effects during therapy, such as a sensitive mouth and weight loss. In addition, he would like the company to help bridge the substantial gap that exists between life sciences and personalized nutrition, by linking results from DNA tests, blood tests and stool analysis with users’ personalized profiles.

The company also is making its technology available for use in clinical trials on a not-for-profit basis, and it is already working with researchers at Wageningen University on dietary interventions for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Study participants are guided in their meal decisions with Verdify.

“We would like to contribute to clinical trials that want to test dietary interventions,” he said. “I think there is a big need for randomized controlled trials to find out what the impact is on a large scale…We do want to take this internationally and expand the functionality to all kinds of medical conditions.”

Working with StartLife

Bossenbroek first came across StartLife at a conference, where he met one of the coaches and decided to apply to the programme. For him, working with StartLife brings three main advantages.

“Firstly, they are a good sounding board,” he said. “If we have any strategic issues, they can provide relevant advice…Later on, they could provide funding of course.”

Finally, he says being affiliated with StartLife provides a seal of excellence in itself.

“When we go to conferences, people recognize that we are part of StartLife and see that as a positive, that we are a serious company,” he said.

F&A Next - Next Heroes in Food- And AgTech 2020

Verdify already has received widespread recognition for its innovative platform. It was selected by F&A Next and Foodbytes! by Rabobank as one of eight Next Heroes in Food- & AgTech 2020, and on June 11, the company will showcase its technology in the finals of the Blue Tulip Awards.



p.s. You can also follow StartLife on Linkedin, Twitter or stay up to date with the latest news about and for agrifood startups, scaleups and more via the StartLife newsletter.


Founder Story of Ellipsis: Using Satellite Data and AI To Build A Better World

Satellites constantly monitor every part of our planet’s surface, but until now, only the most technically-minded have been able to access the relevant data. Ellipsis Drive wants to change that, bringing automated analysis of satellite imagery to the mainstream.

Founded in April 2018, Ellipsis Drive has developed a self-teaching system that gives a clear picture of environmental changes as they happen, helping businesses make the best use of data to manage their resources, without the need for specialist know-how. It focuses on working with organizations and companies that have very specific information requirements, whether in an agrifood setting or for engineering projects, for instance.

“We started out with the idea of making sure that more people – not only those that are very technical – are able to leverage all the information that is being put out there,” said CEO Rosalie van der Maas. “The world we are living in is under increasing pressure to make better use of resources.”

Beneficial technology

Rosalie van der Maas - CEO of EllipsisVan der Maas has an academic background that spans social and environmental sciences, as well as a strong interest in data analysis, while the company’s co-founders bring expertise in mathematics, physics and IT. She was working on her Master’s degree when they had the idea of creating a company that used data science for a good cause.

“We landed on using satellite data for this,” she said. “It brought everything together in terms of expertise and inherent interest. Call it the disease of millennials: You try to use technology for good – and we felt that we had found something that allowed us to do that.”

The idea is to provide accurate, automatically updated information on diverse landscape conditions, minimising the need for companies to conduct field visits. It can be used to analyse the scale of deforestation, natural grassland, erosion or land subsidence, for example. However, the system can go into much greater detail when required, allowing assessment of specific types of trees, the state of riverbeds, or even whether land on a particular farm is being used for grazing.

Targeted analysis

This case-by-case approach – and its self-teaching IT infrastructure – sets it apart from other analysis systems, which van der Maas says may go into more detail than any particular user requires. Instead, clients can specify the exact area they want to analyse and the methods they want to use to assess what is happening on the ground. The company charges by the square kilometer, with economies of scale for large areas of interest.

“We saw that the pipeline that we built could be leveraged for a whole host of uses,” she said.

Van der Maas notes that other companies carry out similar analysis in nearly every situation that the Ellipsis system monitors, but they tend to be more expensive.

“Because we have focused on infrastructure instead of on use case, we can price everyone out of the market,” she said.

You have a bunch of companies that monitor for deforestation, and sometimes they almost do too much. It should be a little bit more lightweight and cheaper.”

She said many people suggested they should focus on one area to get to know a specific market segment – and that approach has some logic to it – but she recognized that the system could be used more broadly.

Automated and shareable

In addition, because the company’s unique value comes from its custom-made IT structure, it is happy to share its methods, models and data with clients – something that she says worries competitors.

“For example, on cases like land subsidence, companies are very much focused on how to do that and are relying on technologies that are open sourced,” she said. “They are focused on doing that manually. Our system is automated.

“The reason that we compete is that we are operating in a framework that has elements that can be changed…We always share our model with our clients, because it is not the model, but the data infrastructure is where the value is.

Identifying risk

Ellipsis WWF Project

The company is now working on a wide range of projects, including with NGOs like Solidaridad, ECO and WWF. One of the most innovative is a monitoring programme to check the authenticity of claims related to pasture-raised cattle.

“Big dairy companies have a big issue with verifying that their cows actually go outside to graze,” she said. “Together with them, we have developed a method to define a risk fingerprint.”

In practice, this means that low-resolution satellite imagery monitors patterns in how farmers mow their fields. If this data reveals that a farmer is mowing a large proportion of their land at once, it might suggest that cattle are being held indoors. At that point, more detailed, higher resolution analysis can reveal what is really happening.

“It’s such high resolution you can actually see the cows in the field,” she said.

StartLife benefits

Van der Maas said she was already spending many hours working on the initial Ellipsis  concept during her Master’s degree when she made her first bid for funding. The project didn’t win at that time, but the jury of assessors included representatives from StartLife, who encouraged her to apply to the StartLife Accelerate program.

“We were at a relatively early stage,” she said. “I believe you can benefit a lot from organizations that have seen this kind of structure before.”

StartLife provided a business coach, which van der Maas said was particularly useful in helping her define her own role in the company, and the program was directly responsible for linking the startup with its main financer, Eindhoven-based IT company Itility.

When it comes to working with the agrifood sector, she said it is still a big challenge getting companies to take action.

“It is getting harder and harder to ignore calls for sustainable production,” she said. “At first everyone talks about how it should be better, but we now are helping organisations actually act it out. There used to be a lot of focus on corporate social responsibility and then it started to become clear that sustainability was also good for the bottom line.”

She added: “We are most proud of having people who are not tech savvy using resources in a more sustainable way. That is what it all comes down to.”


Founder Story Sundew | targeting ‘huge unmet need’ for aquaculture

Fish farming has become an increasingly important part of the food supply – but there are major flaws with the range of treatments available for aquatic pests and diseases. Now, a team of biotech entrepreneurs is taking a radical new approach to solve one of industry’s biggest problems. Sundew is an early-stage biotech company that aims to provide safe alternatives to treat waterborne pests and diseases, especially those that affect aquaculture.

The company was founded about two years ago, after its chair and co-founder Neil Goldsmith came across an intriguing biological technology to control the common fish parasite ich – also known as white spot disease – on the Danish IP Fair website. A few months later, he and three other high-profile biotech entrepreneurs formed Sundew, and gained a worldwide exclusive licence to commercialize the technology.

Sundew - Company Visual

“There’s nothing fundamentally novel about treating diseases in water, but we are finding a different way of doing it,” said co-founder Andy Gardiner. “That is the huge unmet need – doing it better.”

Indeed, there is an enormous need for chemical-free solutions, and Sundew claims its technology provides just that: a natural compound that eliminates risk for industry and consumers alike.

With more than 20 years’ experience in launching biotech startups, Gardiner comes from a financial and commercial background, rather than a life sciences one. In early 2018, he and Goldsmith had set up a company called Double Bio. Goldsmith had recently stepped down after 13 years as CEO of the specialty health and nutrition biotech firm Evolva, and they were looking for a biotechnology venture they could help bring to market. This was it.

The technology platform is a naturally occurring bacterium produced via fermentation to control ich (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) in freshwater fish. Developed by researchers at the University of Copenhagen and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), it needed some business savvy and a significant cash injection to introduce on an industrial scale.

“We had already talked about setting up a business that could deal with environmental diseases,” Gardiner said. “This gave us a focus.”

The problem

Aquaculture has been growing at about 6-7% a year for the past 30-40 years, according to FAO figures, far outpacing growth in other food production sectors. The value of world trade in fish and fish products has grown from $8 billion in 1976 to $143 billion in 2016. However, there are challenges that come with such rapid growth, and safe, effective disease control is one of them.

“The solutions that are currently on the market are not ideal in many ways,” Gardiner said. Some treatments for controlling ich on food fish, such as malachite green, are only approved for use with ornamental fish as they pose risks to human health. At the moment, Formalin (made with formaldehyde) is one of the only widely approved treatments, but it is hazardous to handle and not easy to apply.

“It’s technically banned in Denmark , but the industry still has a special licence to keep using it because there’s no other option,” said Gardiner.

In May 2019, Gardiner attended the F&A Next event in Wageningen where he spoke with StartLife’s Program Director Loet Rammelsberg. Rammelsberg encouraged him to apply for the StartLife Accelerate program, and in September, Sundew was selected. So far it has secured €35,000 under the scheme, with a further €50,000 in the pipeline. In addition, it was awarded a grant of €780,000, under the Danish government’s Green Development and Demonstration Programme (GUDP).

Scaling up

For now, Sundew is far from commercial scale, still working at petri dish level, but it is working to bring production up to at least kilogram-scale so it can provide quantities suitable for industry testing.

“We need to get to tonne-scale before getting this on the market,” said Gardiner. “There is a very high degree of confidence that we can get the product up to where we need it to be over the next three years.”

But controlling this one parasite is only the very beginning.

“We have a single molecule at the moment that we know works on more than one disease,” he said. “Our first thing is to screen that molecule against other similar parasites and see where else we might have an effect. Apart from that, there are a whole lot of other, smaller molecules that could treat things in a similar way.”

Further down the line, the team intends to tackle some of the problems that affect conventional agriculture, and even human health, also using biological approaches.

“Beyond aquaculture, in terms of diseases carried in water, there’s human diseases like cholera and malaria, nematodes, which are a problem for cattle, and red tides [algal blooms that release harmful toxins].

“There’s currently no good solution for that, and possibly we could find things that work.”

For any application, the product will need to be environmentally benign, scalable and reasonably cheap.

Asian aspirations

Apart from the company’s four co-founders, and a researcher who was hired using funds from the Danish grant, a freelancer is working to building a network for Sundew in China.

“Ideally, we will find a good partner in China in the long term, at least for distribution,” he said.

The Chinese market is a major target. It has by far the world’s largest aquaculture production , and freshwater fish like carp, eel and catfish dominate its seafood market.

“Because of the structure of the aquaculture market for freshwater fish, Asia is particularly important to us,” Gardiner said. “Major animal health companies see this as their primary need in China…All freshwater fish farms will have ich as a risk. You can imagine a very well-run farm where they can keep this out, but anything that’s drawing water from natural sources is likely to be affected by it from time to time.”

When it comes to regulation, the company is looking at global routes to market for treating food fish, as well as ornamental fish, for which the regulatory path may be faster.

“We are at the start of a long road,” Gardiner said. “We have no real doubts that it’s likely to take us three or four years to get through the regulation that will allow us to sell this really broadly to the aquaculture market.”

Despite the challenges ahead, he is optimistic about the company’s potential.

“We are never going to be short of waterborne diseases and needing solutions that work well,” he said. “Being the company that deals with aquatic diseases, that’s our long-term vision.”


Hello Sundew

In the 40-seconds video below Andy Gardiner gives a brief introduction to Sundew and explains why he joined the StartLife Accelerate Fall 2019 program.