From scientist to entrepreneur: How EIT FAN accelerates innovations out of the lab and into to the market
In 2017 Yoav Politi, Idan Alyagor and Yuval Gilad were researchers at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, exploring molecular genetics and developmental biology. The same year, Monika Tomecka, who holds a PhD in biomedical science, and Brian Miller, who specialises in Microfluidics and Biosensors, met in the UK, where Brian was doing advanced research in the field of drinking water monitoring.
Fast forward to 2020 and they are now heading up two promising startups that have the potential to change the food system for the better. How did they get so far, so fast? Both teams were participants in EIT’s Food Accelerator Network (FAN) programme in 2019. And the support that they received from EIT Food has helped to propel them on their journey from scientist to founder.
Saving energy and water in food manufacturing through a new filtering technology
Monika and Brian were actually one of the three winning teams with their startup, uFraction8. Over the course of the 4-month long programme, they convinced the jury that their novel filtration technology was a breakthrough for the food and drink market.
The uFraction8 team receiving the €100,000 prize after winning the EIT FAN finals
A large number of food and beverage companies rely on technology to separate different particles. In the case of milk for example, a centrifuge is used to separate the milk and the cream. By spinning the liquid quickly, the different particles form individual layers, which can then be funnelled off. Wine and beer on the other hand are often passed through a physical filter in order to catch the yeast that is left after fermentation. uFraction8 came up with a revolutionary technology that makes the process of separating particles much more sustainable. “We make use of microfluidics, which has huge advantages over traditional filters, membranes and centrifuges,” explains Monika. Microfluidics manipulate fluids by constraining them to a very small (sub-millimeter) scale, inducing certain physical reactions which uFraction8 take advantage of with their technology.“Our technology eliminates the need for the physical filter, which means less cleaning and less water wasted,s well as less material. Compared to separation by centrifuges, we use much less energy.” Compared to centrifuges, uFraction8’s solution represents an energy-saving of 75%. Their technology could have an important impact as the food industry looks for solutions to reduce its carbon footprint.
A technological breakthrough in insect farming to revolutionise the feed industry
The team of FreezeM from Israel shares uFraction8’s desire to develop an impactful solution that makes the food system more sustainable. Being experts on insect genetics and molecular biology, Yoav, Idan and Yuval asked themselves how they could accelerate the transformation of the feed industry towards insects over fishmeal? Due to its nutritional profile, fishmeal is used as a protein supplement in the diets of farm animals and the main diet for farmed fish and shrimp. It is made of wild fish specifically caught for the fishmeal industry, as well as parts of fish that are not intended for human consumption. While the fisheries are supposed to be sustainably managed, risks of negative side effects, such as overfishing, remain.
Larvae of the black soldier fly
Farmed insects could be an alternative protein supplement for animal feed, but the current production process is highly inefficient. Or rather, it was before FreezeM developed a technology to freeze the eggs of the black soldier fly without destroying their viability and enabling a specialised supply chain as a result.
“The black soldier fly is a great protein source and it grows very quickly” explains Yuval. “However, the production runs through a series of steps, which are very different from each other, making it very complex to run a farming operation for the black soldier fly. There are four steps: reproducing flies for eggs, breeding eggs for the larvae, feeding the larvae till harvest and then processing them into meal and oil. Up until now, every insect farm needed to have its own reproduction centre, which required a completely different set of competencies compared to farming the larvae or processing them into feed.”
As it turns out, ‘cryopreservation’, which is used effectively on freezing human cells, cannot be applied to insects. With FreezeM‘s technology, reproduction centres can now be separated from the farming part. They can create a stock of eggs at a central production site and ship them frozen to decentralised farming facilities, which then hatch the larvae, feed them up and transform them into feed. “Our solution kick-starts this whole industry. You can start small, for example by adding a small operation to an existing farm, and using the local waste streams to feed the larvae. We eliminated the need for creating a complex infrastructure.”
Fun fact: The larvae from half a kilo of black soldier fly eggs will have eaten 10 tons of organic waste by the time they are harvested, resulting in 1 ton of processed insect meal!
Scaling the business after gaining access to corporate partners through EIT FAN
The team of FreezeM had a strong scientific network in Israel, which they leveraged successfully to develop the technology and the first prototype. In order to build a market in Europe, they then turned to EIT FAN. “Participating in the Food Accelerator Network gave us a nice business toolbox, which was very helpful. Most importantly though, EIT FAN has a very strong innovation community of food and agtech professionals, as well as major corporate partners. We got tremendous exposure from the programme,” confirms Yuval.
The immediate result: several strategic collaborations, of which one has led to a joint grant submission for scaling up FreezeM’s technology and incorporating it in industrial settings. The team is also discussing the possibility of creating a consortium with industry partners in order to build a large-scale reproduction facility.
The team of FreezeM: Idan, Victoria, Yuval, Mirit, Yoav
uFraction8’s Monika agrees that the exposure from participating in EIT FAN was extremely valuable. “Brian originally developed the technology during his PhD programme, but it was focused on water filtration. When we started to think about how this technology could be transformed into a business, we decided to go after the biomanufacturing market, which includes the food and beverage industries, where my background in biology comes in very handy.”
They quickly focused on use cases in microalgae production, which they identified as a novel food with huge growth potential. These aquatic and land plant-like organisms are very nutrient-dense, have a high level of protein and can be cultivated indoors. They are being cultivated in tanks, floating freely in water, and currently a complicated chain of technologies including filters – membranes and centrifuges – is used to separate water and the algae to be harvested. After a few iterations of tests in larger lab set-ups, the uFraction8 team knew that in order to get to the next stage of development, they needed to acquire pilot projects at actual production sites. And they needed access to corporates in the food manufacturing business. “We applied to EIT Food in the hope of getting our technology in front of potential pilot customers. All I can say is: mission accomplished,” states Monika proudly. Currently, uFraction8 is finalising negotiations with three corporate partners to create bigger pilots with their filtration units.
Apply to EIT FAN to accelerate your innovation and access an unparalleled network of leading agrifood businesses
EIT FAN is currently looking for the 60 most promising startups changing the food system to join the 2020 programme. All startups solving a critical issue in our food system and that have gained traction through first sales or LOIs are invited to apply.
The 4-month accelerator is designed to maximise exposure of our startups to potential customers, investors and media and help them learn valuable skills from our mentors. EIT FAN brings together 60 startups, 25+ leading corporate and academic partners in a multi-location programme, giving participants unparalleled access to a unique network. There is even a chance to win up to €100k in funding! Deadline for applications is 10 March 2020.
For more information and to apply by 10 March 2020 visit: https://www.eitfan.eu/