The new agricultural biotech incubator is financially supported by the government of Flanders, which earmarked EUR 500,000 in funding.
The new incubator will be an inspiring biotope for start-ups working on the future of sustainable agriculture and food production. This project strengthens Flanders’ top position in the biotech applications for agribusiness and the food industry.
Numerous innovative agro-biotech companies are active in and around Ghent (Flanders) and form a dynamic cluster. These companies – including Inari, a US biotech firm that received the 2020 Newcomer of the Year Trophy at Flanders’ Foreign Investment Trophy – translate fundamental research into agricultural innovations, such as climate-proof crops, crops that facilitate the protein transition, bio-based sustainable soil improvers, etc. However, to offer entrepreneurs in plant sciences every opportunity, there’s a need for additional space and sector-specific expertise.
VIB’s new incubator seeks to give agro-biotech start-ups that kind of support by offering a unique environment with access to the very latest technologies. For this, VIB can rely on decades of experience gained through its bio-incubator program, which lies at the basis of Flanders’ flourishing biotech cluster. Moreover, the fact that the program is supported by both VIB and ILVO (Flanders’ research institute for agriculture, fisheries and food) opens a lot of doors for young companies, including networking, coaching and collaboration possibilities.
The importance of such support is made crystal clear by the numerous examples of VIB-backed start-ups that are gaining fame in the life sciences industry. Biotalys – formerly Agrosavfe – is one of the highlights. It develops biological crop protection products and responds to ever-stricter regulations for chemical pesticides and insecticides. Like its sector peer Ablynx, Biotalys draws its inspiration from the llama immune system to develop its sustainable products.
Another new VIB kid on the block is Aphea.Bio, which focuses on microorganisms that improve fertilizer uptake and plant growth and protect plants against specific diseases. It recently raised EUR 14 million in capital.
VIB will operate the new incubator in Nevele with around 10 employees. According to Jérôme Van Biervliet, managing director of VIB; the infrastructure comes at “the right time” and is “a missing piece of the puzzle” in Flanders’ growing agro-tech cluster. The research site’s history goes back to the 1970s with the pioneering work of researchers Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell. It has 3,500 m² in greenhouse space and is equipped with the latest technologies and robotics to detail plant growth – such as height, shape, leaf growth and color.
This enables companies and researchers to evaluate new crop varieties or crop protection methods faster than in field trials. They will be able to experiment with temperature, soil composition, light, water dosage and other parameters to select the most suitable varieties for local soybean cultivation, for instance. The infrastructure also allows companies to develop and test drought-resistant crops.
“Our vision is that the agro-biotech incubator will become a driving force in Flanders to support innovations in agriculture and food production. With the acquisition of the CropDesign site, we want to create opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop their businesses in Flanders, leverage the unique local ecosystem and bring high-quality jobs to the region,” says Jérôme Van Biervliet, managing director of VIB.
The ambition is to produce the agricultural solutions of tomorrow and to further stimulate the growth of the agro-biotech cluster in and around Ghent.
To make the agro-biotech incubator in Nevele a success, VIB and ILVO have signed a partnership supported by the government of Flanders. “Fundamental scientific insights go hand in hand with developments towards concrete applications in agricultural practice,” comments Joris Relaes, administrator-general of ILVO. “The high-tech greenhouses in Nevele complete the research area needed to develop useful innovative products in the plant world.”
“Plant science with an emphasis on sustainability and climate change is an important focus for us at VIB,” adds Dirk Inzé, scientific director of the VIB-UGent Center for Plant Systems Biology.
In this new setting, we can use our internationally recognized expertise in plant phenotyping and continue to support agricultural research.
“The new incubator fits within the recovery plan to combine research-based innovation with the creation of economic impact after the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, the initiative is in line with Flanders’ ambition to be a leader in protein transition. After all, the transition to more plant-based and less animal protein in our diets is a major social challenge,” concludes Minister Hilde Crevits.