09/12/2017

​We combine world-class scientists with the agility of a start-up

In the fast-emerging market of sustainable alternatives for chemical agricultural products, VIB spin-off Aphea.Bio is the new kid in town – or rather: in the wheat, barley and maize fields. Launched in June, the start-up’s offices in the Ghent-based Bio-Accelerator are still looking spic and span. However, Scientific Advisor Sofie Goormachtig (VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology), CEO Isabel Vercauteren and CSO Steven Vandenabeele have already spent three exciting years on the project. They’re happy to look back on the highlights, and give us a glimpse of what the future might bring.

Isabel, you were brought in at a pivotal moment, when Aphea.Bio was looking for investors.

Isabel: “When Sofie and Steven asked me to join them one year ago, I was working at Bayer CropScience as their R&D Licensing and New Ventures Manager. My first big project, raising the necessary funds, was both challenging and exciting. Our very first pitch was not that successful, but we gradually grew into our roles, finetuned our presentation and learned how to tick all the boxes from an investor’s point of view. One of the key tricks was to attune every pitch to the type of investor before us.”

What were the keys to success in this journey?

Steven: “The driving force that brought all the pieces of the puzzle together was definitely VIB’s tech transfer team. Thanks to their experience and vast network, they knew exactly when and where to acquire additional resources or expertise. Always thinking two steps ahead, they ensured that we never really experienced considerable setbacks in those three years.”

Sofie: “Another element was the excellent team spirit while building everything from scratch. First with us three (Tom, Tibby and myself), and recently with the entire team, including Steven and Isabel. Week after week, we saw the project grow and move in the right direction. To me, as a researcher, witnessing the evolution from insights to tangible results was extremely stimulating – to the point that it’s almost a pity that the project has taken off for real now. In those exciting times, we also managed to loot the entire stock of Mignonette chocolates from the cupboard at the VIB Headquarters in Ghent!”

Glad we’ve got that on the record. Team-wise, where are we now?

Isabel: “Our 11-member team is a bright international bunch, with people from France, Iran, Chile and the UK. Some of them are jacks-of-all-trades, because in a start-up you need more specialized skill sets than you can afford people. The same applied to me: at the start, I had to speak the languages of financials, HR, R&D, IP or
compliance. I managed quite well, but when we just moved in here and IT specialists were setting up the infrastructure, their lingo was a bit too exotic for me (laughs).”

Steven: “For the real technical stuff, we rely on partners such as IP agencies or regulatory experts. And of course, there are a lot of VIB alliances: the Dirk Inzé Lab takes care of automated phenotyping of crop plants and the Jeroen Raes Lab (see text box, ed.) performs data analyses on microbes we select. Finally, there are a couple of third-party collaborations with French and Spanish institutes as well.”

Sofie: “My own network is also useful to help move science forward. In addition to my lab and my students, ILVO (the Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) proved a valuable research partner.”

Now Aphea.Bio is in full swing, what’s next?

Isabel: “We have raised sufficient funds for the next three years, which is our estimated timeframe for developing biostimulants and biopesticides that are validated in the field. After that, new capital will be required to further develop and market these products, which will take another couple of years. All options are open: we might sell products ourselves, or through a partnership with a large seed company. “

And the big question: how confident are you in Aphea.Bio’s chances of success?
Steven: “Of course, we never know what will happen and no doubt other institutes and companies are active in the same field. But the European market for high-quality products is still wide open. Sure, you can already find a couple of garden-variety products, but we’re aiming for biologicals that prove their robustness in any
circumstance – year after year, no matter the climate or soil.”

Sofie: “I second Steven. Thanks to the rapid pace of technological evolution, we’re doing away with the traditional method of picking something out of the black box of microorganisms and, if we’re lucky, finding some useful microbes. Today, we can finally shed some light in this black box and pinpoint the exact bacterial species or consortium we need.”

Isabel: “Besides, we have the best of both worlds: world-class scientists who master these techniques, and the agility of a start-up. This gives Aphea.Bio a huge competitive edge.”

More info on www.aphea.bio

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Building on Jeroen Raes’ groundwork
Aphea.Bio’s technology platform is also based on the microbiome experience of Jeroen Raes (VIB-KU Leuven Center for Microbiology). Over time, his data analysis pipeline will be taken over completely by Aphea.Bio itself. Jeroen: “I’m really excited to translate the principles of microbial ecology we learned from our ocean and human projects into plant research. Our expertise in highthroughput microbiome analysis will allow Aphea.Bio to discover novel leads and study the impact of new products on an ecosystem-wide scale.”

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