We caught up with Angela de Manzanos, CEO and a Co-Founder of FA-Bio as part of ‘Product | People | Potential’. FA-Bio is an exciting Agri-tech company on a mission to increase crop productivity in a sustainable way, minimising agricultural environmental impacts. FA Bio are able to do this by utilising microorganisms for the development of bio-products, such as bio-fungicides, and bio-fertilisers. This ultimately increases both crop yield and restores soil health, providing both short- and long-term agricultural benefits.
The purpose of the article series ‘Product | People | Potential’ is to feature and showcase the very best UK start-ups with grand potential, truly inspiring businesses that are shaking up their sector. We capture and share the stories behind the name. We collate authentic peer to peer real talk while celebrating the growth and success thus far and gather a glimpse of what’s ahead.
Angela: Hi, I am Angela de Manzanos, and I am CEO and co-founder of FA-Bio, previously known as FungiAlert. Currently, we are growing and preparing the company for a Series A raise later this year. Our business is formed by 11 team members at present.
Angela: We have a patented technology called SporSenZ. The SporSenZ has a gel that coats the inner surface. Some of the components of this gel mimic root compounds so when the SporSenZ is inserted into the soil, it attracts microbes that are generally attracted to roots. The SporSenZ captures, or ‘baits’, the microbes that are active in the soil. The SporSenZ is left in the soil for 2-weeks and then is sent back to our lab. In our lab, we identify the species that were present in the soil, and we also collect a sample of these microbes. What we are doing with our patented technology is we are collecting microbes from crops and then we analyse these microbes and discover microbial active ingredients that can replace chemical inputs, such as fertilisers.
Angela: Sure! FA-Bio was born as FungiAlert. FungiAlert was started by me and the other co-founder (Dr Kerry O’Donnelly Weaver, COO and Co-Founder) when we were doing our PhDs at Imperial College London, in Crop Protection and Sustainability, at the Institute of Chemical Biology. With FungiAlert, our original idea was to develop tools that would be able to alert farmers about the presence of fungal pathogens in soils before growers started sowing. We also thought it could guide the application of fungicides with the aim of reducing the chances of appearance of pathogens that were resistant to fungicides. With FungiAlert we won three competitions, including a patent application. Investors decided to invest in our idea once we had finished our PhDs and that allowed us to spin-out the company from Imperial College London. We moved to Rothamsted Research Centre where we have been based since 2016.
Angela: As a start-up, being at Rothamsted has allowed us to recruit great scientists into our team. Most of the members of our scientific team are somehow related to Rothamsted Research Centre. In terms of scientists and labs, it has been good, but we have also had access to glasshouses, fields, and equipment, and it has helped us to collaborate with researchers.
Angela: Our original business idea for FungiAlert was to do soil microbial analysis that was facilitated by our SporSenZ technology. We started commercialising this soil microbial analysis in 2019. Since then, we have deployed over 2600 SporSenZ all over the world, especially in Europe, Latin America, the US, and Africa.
Angela: Sure; in terms of scientific team members, being based at Rothamsted Research Centre has helped us find the right people. We have faced more challenges around sales and commercial, business development, or data as well. In terms of looking for commercial people, we have used different methods such as advertisements, for instance, advertising in agricultural magazines, but this led to a pool of candidates who were maybe not aligned with the culture of the company. We are two young females who started the business, and most of the candidates were senior men. It has been a bit of a challenge to find cultural fits, but now through our network, we are getting more referrals for candidates that have a good commercial and sales track record. I guess that is a big challenge for start-ups, with commercial hires being very expensive, also people need to be aligned with the culture of the company and share the values.
We will be looking to start a data team shortly, but this is a big challenge as people in the UK are very pricey. Hopefully, post-fundraising we will be able to afford them! You do need to have very specific skills for our needs in terms of data science, so finding the right candidate with the skills we are looking for is going to be a challenge because normally you are paying for academic experience. I have heard from other companies too that hiring for data teams is a big challenge and always takes longer than you expect.
Angela: That is a very good question. When we started our proposition, our solution was to develop tools that would alert about the presence of fungal pathogens in the soil. When we started working with growers in 2018, we realised with the feedback that growers were not only interested in learning which pathogens were present in the soil, but also which beneficial microbes would be present too. We listened to the market and adjusted our technology to be able to sample all kinds of microbes and started selling and commercialising our soil microbe analysis in 2019. Growers do not always have revenue that is proportional to the effort they put into growing their crops. This means that growers are very careful with their spending, and they need to see our product as an investment. From our soil microbial analysis and working with growers, we realised that the return on investment was not clear to them. Though some growers really liked the information we sent to them, the value was not always clear to them. A lot of crop growers were telling us how expensive crop protection products including microbial bio-fungicides, and the products were not working. With the realisation that the discovery of microbes that would already be naturally present and working as a bio-fungicide was of interest to growers, we realised this was highly valuable to growers. From this, we sought to identify microbial products that would work for growers because growers are looking for sustainable replacements for chemicals, but it is hard for them because not everything works robustly. When we are discovering microbes, our microbes can be found active in the soil and so we tested the proposition that this would work as a natural bio fungicide. This was successful, and this tailored our business further. My advice would be to listen to your customers and pivot or adapt your technology to meet their needs, potentially a couple of times.
Angela: In terms of partnerships, at this stage, we are seeking to discover ore microbes. Because of this, we are looking to partner with growers and volunteers where we give our SporSenZ analysis free of charge in exchange for them donating the microbes they collect from their fields to us. We partner with companies that carry out soil analysis and physical-chemical analysis. We also partner with companies that are doing field trials or academics who can help us with glasshouse trials. We are also seeking partnerships related to genomic mining and other bioinformatic analyses.
Companies that are customers of ours range from start-ups to large multi-billion revenue companies and specialise in biological crop inputs.
Angela: The challenge has always been really understanding how you can deliver value to the growers. You can have a very clear idea in your mind but when you test it, you might get feedback that shows your original idea was not great in terms of value.
Also, raising capital can be challenging, especially because agriculture is not like healthcare in terms of revenue so you can be competing against companies that investors might think can have a higher return on investment.
Arguably, I think being female funders seeking to raise capital has also been a challenge. We all know that female younger founders have a lower chance of success because they can be perceived as a riskier investment. However, I am prepared to prove this wrong!
Also, I think growing a commercial team, beyond a scientific team has also been a challenge. It isn’t an easy journey to grow a successful team as it is a trial-and-error process to try and get the best people working for you and fit the culture. Within start-ups, you need to be prepared to wear many different hats and this doesn’t always suit everyone, especially for people coming from large operations.
Angela: I am currently preparing to raise investment myself so this question might be better 3-months from now! However, I will say that from my experience from our last fundraising (seed round) it is important that you get investors that believe in you as founders and believe in your leadership and support your growth. Some investors can make you waste time with long due diligence processes, so it is very important from the beginning to understand their decision-making processes and interests to maximise the chances of getting the right investor that will support you.
Thank you for your time, Angela!