The problem and our solution
With increasing concern around the environmental impact of chemicals there is a growing demand for more eco-friendly fertlisers. However growers currently face both financial and practical challenges in sourcing organic fertilisers that are cost-effective and reliable.
Our company, Bio-F Solutions, is aiming to fill this gap in the market. We are developing eco-friendly and slow release fertilisers that are based on natural microorganisms and algae which we have directly isolated from UK farms. We harness the power of these microorganisms to naturally produce high-quality nutrients so they don’t need to be added artificially.
The products are more efficient than traditional fertilisers as they increase the productivity of the soil whilst requiring less work from the farmers to apply them. They are also more sustainable than current practices as they reduce fertiliser run-off into the environment and lessen subsequent harmful impacts such as eutrophication of waters.
Bio-F was founded in 2018 by a group of researchers developing organic fertlisers at Imperial College London. Most of us are working in the same research group in the Faculty of Natural Sciences led by Dr Patrik Jones and are at various stages of our academic career. Our business development expert, Viktoriia Nikonova, graduated with a Business Management and Entrepreneurship Masters from Cranfield School of Management in 2018 and was brought in to the team due to her vast expertise in business development and planning.
Having developed the concept, we are now scaling up production for both in-house and on-farm trials, and are currently looking for funding to build a pilot plant and initiate field trials in partnership with collaborating farmers.
Advisors and mentors
We are lucky to have the advice and input from several experts from the worlds of business, sustainability and agriculture. As part of the Imperial Venture Mentoring Servce (IVMS), we are benefitting from the advice of Dr Paul Atherton who is a successful, serial technology entrepreneur who focuses on start up companies from UK universities, and the input of Dr. Ian Edmondson, who is highly experienced in growing businesses.
We also have Janet Murray as an advisor who has vast business expertise for early entrepreneurs and is a well recognised mentor for green and sustainability start-up programmes. We met Janet through the Enterprise Lab coaching services and she later mentored us as part of the Greenhouse Pre-Incubator programme run by European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Climate Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC), where she became a close follower of our progresss.
Alongside this we also have Peter Bevan as an advisor, who is the Fruit and Vegetable Agronomist for the organic food retailer Abel & Cole. Peter has a deep understanding of soil conditions and sustainable practices in the UK and a wealth of insider knowledge into the dynamics of the agri sector and challenges faced by farmers. We first contacted Peter to get a better understanding of the challenges UK farmers are facing and, after learning more about Bio-F, he decided to become an advisor.
When we joined Phase 1 of the WE Innovate programme Bio-F was at a stage where we truly needed guidance. The programme allowed us to strengthen our business development skills so we could translate our technology and get our product ready for the field. We greatly benefitted from the training provided by the programme in anthropological market research so we could unleash the true value of our research. As part of WE Innovate, we were also surrounded by a community of inspiring and supportive women who all wanted to champion female entrepreneurship and leadership, and this was a fantastic environment in which to work.
In phase 2 of the WE Innovate programme we attended training sessions on pitching and an investor breakfast, which helped us to develop our public speaking and networking skills. We were delighted to make it through to the finals of the programme where we had the opportunity to present in front of a panel of experienced judges and an audience of 200 people. It was a nervewracking but very valuable experience. Being part of the programme helped us secure additional funds for our startup which have been key to further develop our technology and gain wider exposure both off and on campus.
Enterprise Lab support
The support we received from the Enterprise Lab has been central to the development of Bio-F and the team have catered to our evolving needs from when we first engaged with the Lab right through to where we are now. It is thanks to Enterprise Lab events that we realised the extent of support available for Imperial students interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial path. From there they then connected us with wonderful mentors like Janet Murray who then linked us to several relevant entrepreneurship programmes that helped us extend our network and gain business skills.
As the company grows we need different types and levels of support and the Enterprise Lab never fails to offer us the opportunity to meet with relevant and insightful experts in one-to-one session via the ‘experts-in-residence’ programme. Through this we’ve been helped in a range of areas such as negotiation, team building, IP, business development and marketing. Thanks to the IVMS, we are being advised by mentors who are highly experienced.
In a nutshell, the support available at the Enterprise Lab as been central to the setting up Bio-F and its subsequent success.
Successes and set-backs
There have been a number of moments in our development where we have had reason to celebrate. Securing funds to hire a full-time researcher to further develop our proof-of-concept was a major victory for us. Our success in several start-up competitions and programmes has helped massively to raise awareness of Bio-F and also given us huge amounts of support, particularly the EIT Food Global Food Venture Programme and Entrepreneurship Prize and the WE Innovate programme. A real boost to our self confidence has been the interest shown in our company from major global fertiliser companies, which demonstrates that we have a viable product. So far we’ve faced a number of challenges, which we’ve overcome but we haven’t had any major set-backs.
Advice to aspiring entrepreneurs
• Just get started and don’t be afraid of failure! It’s all a learning process
• Get away from the lab or your computer as soon as possible. Speak to experts, potential customers and stakeholders as their feedback is invaluable in developing your product.
• Apply for all opportunities as long as they are relevant. Grow your network, experience and understanding of the sector.