10 AgTech Startups Out to Feed the World

We’ve just returned from the Thought For Food 2017 Summit in Amsterdam – aside from being a tremendously produced meeting of energetic and inspiring minds, their startup challenge brought to the fore some of the most impressive people in the agriculture technology field. The theme of the conference was ‘what’s next?’ in terms of answering the all-important question: how do we feed 9 billion people by 2050?

The 2-day conference was held in a converted shipping warehouse – reeking of cool – and paired keynotes and panels with hands-on demos and ‘honesty circles’ for sharing diverse experiences. The summit culminated in 10 high energy pitches from startups from all corners of the globe, with a prize of €10k up for grabs, which left the judges from Rockstart, Invest With Impact and Kulisha (last years’ winner) with a difficult decision…

Cultivando Futuro – Colombia – WINNER

Since police forcibly shut down the biggest farmers strike in Colombia in 2013, the standard of living and support for farmers has continued to decline. With out-dated and expensive forms of data collection and closed systems of information, it is extremely difficult for farmers to work out what they should grow, when they should grow it, and who they should sell to. This results in waste, and in a high opportunity cost for farmers simply feeling in the dark. Cultivando Futuro have built a platform which allows farmers to register what they are producing and when their harvests are, so that wholesale partners can directly connect and trade. The platform also gives the farmers foresight around which suppliers are looking for what, and when, so they can better manage their crops. A remarkably simple-sounding solution, but with 1 million small farms in Colombia, you can easily see how this will revolutionise the farming industry in this country.

AgroSpheres – US – RUNNER UP

Pests are a huge problem when it comes to farming, and currently, farmers have to wait 4-6 weeks after pesticide application before they can harvest their crops – due to the length of time they take to break down. This causes mass crop loss due to over-ripening and weather damage, meaning farmers are uncontrollably losing income. AgroSpheres have developed a patented active ingredient delivery system which degrades pesticides in a matter of hours – basically, they have created a spray which speeds up the breakdown process. With their technology being brand new, they don’t have any current competitors in the market…definitely one to watch.

Dairy FIT – US

With small farms being quickly replaced with large farms with over 500 cattle in tow, looking after the animals effectively has become a hugely difficult task – with whole herd methods missing out on the personal welfare of each individual cow. Dairy FIT have created ‘Facial Inference Technology’ – which, using machine learning, allows farmers to take a photo of a cow’s face and detect biometric information linked to milk production, health and fertility. The app will be free for farmers, and the data collected will be used to improve the analytical methods. Academics can also access the data and analytics for free, and genetic companies will pay to access. Dairy FIT has 4 patents issued in the US, with 4 international filings. They are currently conducting research trials on 2 prominent US dairies.

Wastebusters – Malaysia

One third of food created for consumption worldwide – is wasted. 585 million tonnes of ‘ugly’ fruit and veg is thrown away every day. In Malaysia alone, 17,572 tonnes of food is wasted every day – and it’s not exactly the largest country in the world. There are lots of programmes for donating unwanted food to homeless shelters and the like, but with food spoiling so quickly, 80% of donated food is still thrown away. So Waste Busters have created a process of steaming, drum drying and grinding this ‘waste’ into fruit snacks and an easy-to-use flour, to make into nutritionally rich biscuits and animal feed. Their process ensures the food is edible and safe, and better still – they are opening up under a Creative Commons license. Their veg and fruit powder has a minimum shelf life of 2 years, and is less than 25 cents per serving – 20% less than the world food rationing levels.

BlueGreen Nexus – US

By 2050, 65 of people will live in cities. 3 out of 5 cities are coastal. Mid-century predictions put sea levels at a foot higher than today. How will we feed all these people sustainably as we lose land to the oceans? BlueGreen Nexus are building floating ocean greenhouses, aimed to be used in a modular manner, to produce nutritious food ON the ocean. With limits to current urban agriculture being land, water and labour, BlueGreen Nexus’ solution using solar water distillation means all can be done on board without as much human intervention. It seems cities need to rethink their approach to coastlines – as BlueGreen Nexus say ‘from retreat to resilience’.

Ligno Flava – Indonesia

90% of grocery products use flavour agents – and as we know, additives are bad for our health, affecting out kidneys and livers and, in some cases, possibly leading to cancer. Vanillin in the world’s favourite agent, with demand sitting 60:40 between the food & beverage and perfume & pharma industries, though less than 1% of vanillin is produced naturally. In Indonesia, there is lots of biomass, but 62% of it is burnt every year as waste. Worldwide, thee is 300billion tonnes of biomass produced per year. Ligno Flava can turn biomass into vanillin. Using natural bio-conversion – turning the biomass into lignin and then lignin into aromatics such as vanillin – Ligno Flava makes use of agricultural waste such as coconut husks and cocoa shells.  With alternatives being the $1250/kg  vanilla pods or environment-damaging synthetics extracted from petrochemicals, Ligno Flava have created a scalable, sustainable and (at only $180/kilo) very affordable alternative for our favourite flavour agent.

AgriYolo – France

Colombia has been named in the top 7 countries for agriculture by 2050. But with only 35% of arable land actually being used (6 million hectares – larger than the size of Switzerland – is left dormant), the potential to be a top country for agriculture is still far off for the Colombians. AgriYolo have created a three-way collaboration platform to encourage young investors, time-poor land-owners and growing agriculture businesses in Colombia to make the most of their arable land. The platform acts as a discovery engine, a project design consultant (with legal and financial transparency built in) and a reporting dashboard to keep track of the progress of the project. AgriYolo have created a specific, but high potential marketplace for the Colombia of tomorrow.

Sparky – Uganda

Uganda has a population of 40 million – 80% of which are small-scale farmers. When the farmers don’t sell all their produce at the markets, they have to bring anything unsold home to go to waste. 45% of produce in Uganda goes to waste: 1.3 billion tonnes per year. Pair this fact beside another – 11 million people in Uganda go hungry. During the dry season, the farmers can dry out the fruit and veg in the sun to preserve the food longer, but in the wet season the only alternative is expensive solar dryers (which need sun), costing over $500, and taking 3 days to dry each batch. Sparky have invented a thermo-dehydrator using a gas stove, to transfer shelf live from 2 days to 2 years, taking only 3 hours per batch and costing $150. Sparky will sell the dryers directly to farmers – who can pay in instalments – and help other entrepreneurs start food drying businesses.

From Challenge to Opportunity – India & Switzerland

300,000 farmers in India have taken their own lives between 1995 and 2016, with yearly rates increasing at 42%. Farmers expenses are increasing, and income decreasing – meaning many have to decide whether to educate or to feed their children when they cannot afford both. There is 7514km of sea coast around India, and From Challenge to Opportunity are using different types of seaweed to create a variety of cheap fertilisers that are crop and season specific – meaning the 32% of farmer spend that goes to fertiliser can reduce to 5%. The entrepreneurs are selling direct to farmers due to their strong network and are even using these channels to distribute healthy seaweed biscuits to feed children at school, funded by their fertiliser profits. They gave all the attendees at the Summit at a sample: tasty on first bite, strange aftertaste, but definitely a delicious alternative to hunger!

Climate Edge – UK

There are 640 cups of coffee drank every second in the UK – and 80% of all coffee comes from small farms around the world. But climate change is making it very challenging for these small farms to keep producing coffee efficiently, with 20% of yield down due to recent humidity and temperature changes. As every farm is unique, wide-scale advice is rendered almost useless and 25 million small farms are left to make their own decisions based on no data. Climate Edge have created weather stations for tracking air temperature, soil temperature and humidity – syncing data every hour to the cloud, to be analysed and turned into actionable advice for the farmers. Climate Edge have created a plug and play solution which costs one twentieth of the nearest competitor. Their plan is to install the stations for free, and charge $10 per month for the data tool. They will then sell the localised weather data to insurers, financiers and meteorologists.