FungiAlert's pioneering technology senses plant disease before infection occurs. EEN is helping its founders sense the potential of their business
KTN and EEN have helped to provide a very good platform for the development of our business
Dr Angela de Manzanos Guinot, CTO & co-founder, FungiAlert
Founded in 2014 by two PhD researchers at Imperial College, Dr Angela de Manzanos Guinot and Dr Kerry O'Donnelly Weaver, FungiAlert is a pioneering company in the field (pun intended) of soil health.
Its sensor technology alerts farmers to the presence of plant disease before infection occurs by detecting pathogenic spores in soil and water.
FungiAlert’s technology detects micro-organisms while they are alive and active in the field and only those which are in high concentration. Currently, soil samples need to be taken to a laboratory for analysis, which can alter the microbial dynamic, meaning that the samples do not necessarily accurately reflect the natural dynamics of the soil conditions.
In addition, FungiAlert’s technology can slash the time between sampling and reporting to three to five days rather than the standard three to five weeks. “We report with a detailed description of the active micro-organisms and their likely effects and consequences for the soil,” says Dr de Manzanos.
Gaining advice and funding
Based in the Rothamsted Research Centre in Hertfordshire, the founders wanted to apply for Innovate UK funding and to learn more about available support and advice as they took their venture from the research phase to active commercialisation. EEN advisers in the East of England introduced FungiAlert to the Knowledge Transfer Network and that tie-up resulted in a successful bid for an Innovate UK Health & Life Sciences grant in October 2018. (Find out about the latest funding calls which are relevant to the Health and Life Sciences sector here.)
With EEN and KTN support, FungiAlert benefited from further help through the Innovate2succeed (I2S) business innovation programme. This involved a review of their marketing activity, which centred on branding, building a value proposition and setting some useful KPIs. “The programme helped us improve our brand identity and made our marketing efforts more efficient and quicker,” says de Manzanos. “KTN and EEN have helped to provide a very good platform for the development of our business.”
The initial Innovate UK grant enabled the young company to optimise and develop its technology for testing in water as well as in soil and coir, which had been beyond their early and limited R&D budget. It also gave the small business visibility in a large marketplace, as did their pitching at a KTN investor event and a subsequent invitation to pitch at the World Agritech Summit.
Winning equity investors
It also gave the company credibility with potential investors; in November 2018, Sussex Place Ventures invested in FungiAlert. “The grant played an important part in the due diligence conducted by investors, so it was enormously helpful,” says Dr Weaver.
The award of the grant and the winning of equity investment sparked a transformative period for the company. “It meant we could hire staff to help with our lab work and our field trials, and we could accelerate our technology development to get it to market faster,” says Weaver.
FungiAlert enters full commercial phase
This is the year in which FungiAlert enters its full commercial phase. “We are in the early days but are on target with our sales plan,” says Weaver. The key market are large growers of high value crops such as berries, grapes, carrots, brassica and salad leaves. (Just as an example: there are four disease threats which can pose large and expensive problems for soft fruit growers, all of which can be detected early by FungiAlert’s technology.)
The company has hired a sales specialist and is also exploring distribution channels to reach the market for smaller crop growers.
An app is planned for release to improve the user experience.
The company is already looking at international sales. With a Spanish co-founder, Spain is one natural target but de Manzanos and Weaver are also considering other European markets and can also see potential in Africa and Latin America.
Concern and awareness of climate change, soil degradation and biodiversity means that FungiAlert’s message has wide and important resonance.
“The world is recognising that we have to make a shift in the way farming is done,” says Dr de Manzanos. “We are trying to encourage soil health and help farmers understand what is in the soil. Our tool enables farmers to plan and plant different varieties, which will ultimately encourage healthy fungi and greater biodiversity.”