BioLumic

Using the near-magical properties of UV light to increase crop production.

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

biolumic2BioLumic increases crop yields by applying ultraviolet (UV) light to seeds, seedlings, and plants in very specific “recipes” to control their growth patterns. Stressing plants by shining UV light in the right quantity, at the right time in their development provokes a response that makes the plants hardier – bigger stems, bigger leaves, and better overall resilience.

When I first heard about BioLumic a couple of years ago, I thought, yeah, nah, that’s crackpot pseudo-science. But this technology is based on hard scientific research, and it appears to work. It looks likely to revolutionise commercial agriculture by increasing crop yields without genetic modification or chemicals – just add light.

Jason Wargent
Jason Wargent
Warren Bebb
Warren Bebb

BioLumic’s founder and Chief Science Officer is Massey University’s Dr Jason Wargent, a world-renowned expert on plant photomorphogenesis – the effects of light on plant growth and development. He’s published a Ph.D thesis on the topic and numerous papers, and is now working with CEO Warren Bebb and a team of 7 to commercialise his research. They have filed three patents which are currently going through local and international examination.

And it’s generating some stunning results. BioLumic are currently running trials with lettuce growers in Salinas, California – the USA’s major lettuce growing area. For head lettuce, they’re getting a 10% increase in the number of heads of lettuce per unit land area, resulting in a 25% EBIT uplift for the grower. For processed lettuce, they can achieve a 26% increase in tonnes per hectare – all without genetic modification or additional chemicals. Trials with corn are underway in NZ, with the first harvest expected in April.

The numbers tell a big story too. In 2016, they’ll be treating 35 million seedlings. The lettuce market alone in the USA is a $2b market, and fresh cut vegetables is an $82b market globally. If you add in seeds and cereals, that takes it up to $650b. And this market is growing – it’s estimated that the world will need to grow 50% more food by 2050, despite a best-case scenario of bringing an additional 10% of arable land online by then. Something big is going to be needed to fill that gap, and BioLumic could be the answer.

They have a recurring revenue model based on installing equipment onsite, and then charge a per-plant treatment fee. They plan to set up operations and distribution in each territory that they’ll be operating in. They’re currently scoring key customers in the USA, and will branch out from there.

To date, BioLumic have run a seed round, a top-up round, an two angel rounds with participation from Manawatu Investment Group (MIG), NZVIF, ICE Angels, Enterprise Angels, K1W1, Massey Ventures, Sparkbox, and others. They have runway through mid-2017, and the next round is likely to be a mix of VC plus strategic investment.

BioLumic is a great example of breakthrough Kiwi agricultural ingenuity contributing to the solution of a serious world problem, and potentially creating massive value along the way.


2015: The year in review

2015 has been a watershed year for the startup scene in New Zealand.  When I started this Startup of the Week blog in September, a number of people asked me, “are there really enough great startups in New Zealand to feature one every week?”  The answer is a resounding yes!

Had you asked me about New Zealand startups in 2010, I would have told you that there were patches of awesome, and things looked like they were just starting to come together. Five years on, things are really pumping, as evidenced by:

  • Thriving startup hubs in the main centres: Visit GridAKL, BizDojo, CreativeHQ, or The Greenhouse and you’ll be under no illusion that healthy and diverse startup activity abounds.
  • Entrepreneurial buzz in the regions: The BCC (Palmerston North), and Bridge Street Collective (Nelson) have been going from strength to strength for several years, and we’re seeing new players emerge in Whangarei, Tauranga, Taranaki, Hawkes Bay, and Dunedin.
  • Finally, the rise of Ag Tech startups: In prior years, there was a paucity of agricultural startups coming out of New Zealand. Now, with companies like Engender, CropX, BioLumic, eBee, and others, this sector which builds on NZ’s natural strengths looks like it’s getting to critical mass.
  • Meetups are mushrooming: I seem to be getting a couple of announcements for new startup-related meetups every month in Wellington. Startup Garage and Lean Startup Wellington how have over 1,000 members each. People are getting together, which is great.
  • Startup Weekends continue to thrive: There’s no shortage of newbie entrepreneurs starting their entrepreneurial journey through Startup Weekends. We ran 11 events up and down the country this year, with 736 participants – both records. Many of these participants are now fully plugged into the scene, some running their own startups, some working for others, and some busily hatching plans. And some qualifying themselves out, having decided they’re happier in their day jobs. Win.
  • Accelerator ramp-up: Lightning Lab ran three programmes this year – Auckland, Christchurch, and Manufacturing (Wellington). The dust hasn’t settled yet, but this is likely to have resulted in 10+ new startups achieving funding, networks, and a path to global success.  Oh, and another 10+ startups being qualified out after a short sharp experiment – to me that’s also an important success statistic. The Government R9 Accelerator broke new ground, and will be doing round two this year. Vodafone’s Xone will be opening in 2016. And there are others.
  • An explosion in angel investment activity: AngelHQ‘s Dave Allison told me that as at the beginning of December, not including any of the Lightning Lab companies, the club had 12 open investment deals. I can’t remember a time where there were more than 3 or 4 deals open at any given point in time. Given that nearly all angel club deals in NZ are now syndicated between clubs, I’m sure that the menu at ICE Angels, Enterprise Angels, Manawatu Investment Group, Venture Accelerator Nelson, and Otago Angels are growing in a similar fashion. Post-earthquakes, Canterbury Angels is also off to a great start. And there are a host of unofficial syndicates forming around the country too. There’s never been a better time to be an angel investor.

ICE Angels summarised the year’s angel activity with this nice Prezi – thanks guys!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Victor W Hwang, author of “The Rainforest“, and cofounder of Global Innovation Week (HT: Andreas Stefanidis)

“Despite outward appearances, the Startup Movement is not just about startups. It is actually a deeper cultural shift that cuts to the heart of the human condition. It reflects a dissatisfaction with the way much of the world has gone for the last several decades. It marks a transformation in how we view our societies, how we convene our communities, how we create value together as human beings. It’s a counterpoint to the governing economic paradigm – what economists call neoliberalism – which has prized efficiency and productivity above everything else, even when it has corroded relationships that bond us together in our communities and social networks…

“Innovation is not a solo sport. It thrives in supportive, diverse, connected, pay­it­forward ecosystems. It dies in selfish ones. Building a startup – indeed, bringing any innovation to life – is hard enough already. The last thing you need is distrust, high social barriers, and cynicism from those around you. You need people who are willing to believe in you. Because human beings innovate together in teams.”

Thanks for your support this year, reading and spreading the stories of NZ startups going global.

If you’re involved in the startup scene, good on you for taking risks, sharing your energy, and pursuing your passion – you’re making the world, and New Zealand, a better place for everyone.

If you’re a bystander, a dreamer, or an armchair startup enthusiast, there are plenty of ways for you to get involved in 2016. Just contact any of the organisations mentioned above, and start forming the connections that will enable you to become part of the success story we’re all creating together of New Zealand as a global entrepreneurial powerhouse.

That’s it from me for 2015. Have a great break, and we’ll see you in February.