The Seeds of Our Future: The Possibilities of Enzyme Engineering

Silicon Valley Forum’s AgTech Immersion Program and Conference on April 3rd-6th is just around the corner. Agriculture is an industry that is ripe for innovation—as the world’s population grows, smarter farms and sustainability are more important than ever. The search for AgTech innovation goes beyond Silicon Valley and even the US; to that end, our second annual AgTech Immersion Program and Conference aims to bring the world right to Silicon Valley.

In this AgTech Blog Series – The Seeds of our Future – we’ve invited our program speakers to share their unique stories from their experience as international entrepreneurs: challenges they’ve faced, opportunities in AgTech innovations, and their grand vision of AgTech’s future.

Our second post features the CEO and Founder of GEA Enzymes, Leonardo Álvarez, pictured above on the right together with Juan Darte, CTO and Francia Navarrete, CBO. GEA Enzymes was one of the four finalists at Silicon Valley Forum’s World Cup Tech Challenge 2016 in which they later got accepted to Indiebio, the Worlds Largest Seed Biotech Accelerator.

 

What are the main changes you see happening in your space that you are excited about?

Biotech has been changing many industries for ages, but what’s particularly exciting for me is how biotech is changing the way traditional sectors work. It’s great to see big players in the food and beverage industry and in the agricultural sector looking outside the discipline for new solutions to their age old problems. We’ve been in talks with a few executives of multinational corporations and the interest they’ve taken not only to MADI™, but to the entire space of biotech is very encouraging. I think there are big opportunities for biotech to completely reimagine quite a few traditional sectors out there.

Another large change that’s been interesting to witness is the consumer mindset around genetic engineering. The stigma around genetic engineered products is lifting and people are starting to understand the various possibilities and advantages of transgenic organisms and engineered enzymes.

Take food for example. We’ve seen a huge trend towards organic and natural, and for many, it’s because they want products that are better for the environment, nutritious, and more flavorful. And conversely, think of engineered food as the opposite. But by harnessing these new technologies well, we can achieve the same principles. With MADI™, we can design enzymes that can create products that are more nutritious, more flavorful, and ultimately, better for the world. This decreases the impact on our planet and the supply chain. It’s pretty incredible. My hope is that this change in mindset gains momentum and people will want to see biotech applied to improve people’s lives.

 

What role do you see GEA Enzymes take in the AgTech future? 

It’s lofty, but we want to be a world leader in protein and enzyme design. The AgTech area is a good starting point for us to demonstrate the power of our technology, but we also see ourselves being a part of the future of cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and a whole range of other industries.

In terms of where we see ourselves contributing in the field of agriculture, it’s at the supply chain level, and I’ll tell you why we think it’s a huge opportunity. Unlike manufacturing and most other sectors, agriculture is quite unique in that a wide range of variables like the rainfall or natural disasters can’t be controlled. These variables hugely impact the quality of the product. Take vegetable oils for example. Whether its olive oil or sunflower oil, every oil needs a consistent saturated/unsaturated fatty acid ratio in the final product for the right texture, and physical/chemical properties. It’s important that we meet consumer expectations and every batch is the same, but if the raw product varies based on the soil or water that season, the ratio can be off, resulting in a worse oil. It’s difficult to control everything at the growing stage, but what we can do now with biotech is to change the ratio of fats in the final product by manipulating the molecular structure of fatty acids and triglycerides.This means that although nature will remain unpredictable, we can now attenuate those natural fluctuations. That’s just one example. This kind of technology and thinking can be extrapolated and applied in endless ways.

 

Which three main differences in AgTech practices do you see when comparing your home country Chile to the US? 

The first difference is the rate of innovation. The Chilean government has been doing a great job accelerating innovation by providing grants and programming like Start-Up Chile. However, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The second difference is gaining traction. There isn’t as strong of a “startup culture” in Chile as there is here. In Chile, big players in the Ag sector aren’t paying much attention to startups and what they can offer. Therefore, it’s harder to negotiate partnerships, conduct pilots, and gain traction.

Lastly, I think there’s a difference in what people consider then making purchases. Take our prior example, vegetable oils. In the Bay Area, I’ll see people pick up particular oils because it’s ethical, or sustainable, or fair trade. In Chile, the choice is based more on price and product quality. If you have several small fair trade farms providing raw ingredients, it’s harder to achieve consistency in quality. Companies in Chile aren’t thinking as much about ethics, but I think the shift towards value-based purchasing will grow. And with MADI™, we can create products that are ethically good without compromising excellency in quality, consistency and price.

 

What have been your main challenges so far in building your startup in the AgTech industry?

Our biggest challenge was unexpected and normally seen as an advantage. I remember when we started to meet with experts in various industries. We would come out of each meeting with at least ten different problems that we could solve with MADI™. Our enzyme and protein builder was too versatile and it was difficult to find our focus. We landed on AgTech and it’s been rewarding to take it all the way through by designing real products that have real applications in the world of AgTech. Our challenge now is to demonstrate the wide applicability and power of MADI™ while not being too scattered in our projects. But we’re growing our team currently and are confident that we’ll be problem-solving for other sectors in the near future.

 

What is your top piece of advice to entrepreneurs building their startup in the AgTech industry? 

This applies to start-ups in general: be willing to admit to yourself and others that you don’t know everything. Your start-up is your sweat and tears, it’s hard to give up control, but you need to delegate and trust others. That’s been a factor in our success and a big learning for us.

– See more at: http://siliconvalleyforum.com/article/the-seeds-of-our-future-the-possibilities-of-enzyme-engineering#sthash.Jz1b1wqP.dpuf

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