by Jonathan Hua, THRIVE Accelerator Manager
This post originally appeared on Medium.com.
I love to eat. I consume blueberries, strawberries, and almonds like moviegoers consume popcorn: mindlessly and in giant handfuls. When I started investing in the agrifood tech sector through SVG Ventures-THRIVE, my primary goal was to invest in an industry that is both supporting the sustainability of our natural ecosystem and helping to improve our food production capabilities to help feed a burgeoning population. This is why I was so excited when I met the co-founding trio behind Olombria — Tashia, Louis and Greg.
Food production can be impacted by several factors, including climate change, and the availability of key resources like water, energy, labor and arable land. However, one key catalyst to food production that is often overlooked is pollination. Without the assistance of pollinators, most plants cannot produce fruits and seeds. According to the FAO, we know that, of all crops across the globe producing fruits or seeds for human consumption, roughly 75% depend, at least in part, on pollinators such as honey bees. In addition, pollinators affect 35% of global arable land, supporting the production of nearly 90 of the world’s leading food crops. But wild pollinators are under threat —according to the USDA, bee populations have been steadily declining for years now due to Varroa mite infestations, habitat loss, pesticides, weather and disease. In the USA, there has been an 18% reduction in honeybee hives since 1990. Hive prices have skyrocketed, with growers spending $400 million to pollinate almond trees each year in California alone, and an estimated nearly $3 billion spent across all crops in the USA each year. If this alarming trend continues, we are facing a loss or severe yield decrease of several critical fruits and crops we currently take for granted. Can you imagine a world where we have limited access to coffee, cocoa, or strawberries? The horde of dessert aficionados and coffee addicts would revolt! So the key here is either to help re-boost the honey bee population or to find an alternative pollination source.
And this is where Olombria comes in. Olombria uses hoverflies (and is currently experimenting with other fly variations) as supplementary pollinators to bees in agrarian settings. Flies already do about 1/3 of the world’s pollination, but they are still underutilized and the Olombria technology substantially increases their effectiveness. Their solution involves a mesh network of machine learning nodes with insect recognition and chemical signal release capabilities that are connected to sprayer devices that release natural volatiles and carefully curated chemicals into a field to attract and manage the behavior of flies to aid in the pollination process. They are also testing a computer vision device that can provide farmers and growers with actionable insights on insect assemblage, pollinator availability/areas of deficit, pollinator effectiveness, pollinator health, as well as environmental data (to track conditions affecting the chemical dispersion process). The solution is comprehensive, quite innovative in its approach and tackles a significant problem in the food production process.
Why Is This Important?
Believe it or not, insect pollination contributes an estimated $175 billion globally through increased productivity in agriculture each year. Olombria is tackling a large primary market that has high impact potential through a diversity of crop types across fruits, berries and nuts. Looking at the economics, increasing crop yield through fly pollinator efficiency by a conservative estimate of only 2% is worth upwards of $100 million per year in value to almond farmers, with the potential to increase crop yields by ~4% or more, which increases grower value to an additional $200 million per year. This increase not only provides a significant return on a grower’s investment through more optimized crop production numbers, but also helps to create a sustainable pollination system into the future that takes the risk out of pollinating in irregular bloom seasons. On top of that, there is the potential to save farmers millions of dollars on beehive rentals and maintenance.
Olombria Is Still Very Early-Stage — What Gives THRIVE Confidence That They Will Succeed?
- Tashia, Louis and Greg are impressive in their own right — they studied together at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and built Olombria out of RCA’s 2017 Biodesign Challenge. Within a year of starting the business, they closed a pre-seed funding round with multiple investors and have ongoing trials and partnerships with over a dozen of the UK’s key growers and agricultural organizations. In the process, they have also built up an impressive team of scientists and researchers including the world’s leading behavioral entomologists, chemical ecologists, fly experts and pollination biology experts.
- Despite the fact that almonds and berries have relatively short bloom seasons, they are high-value crops with a huge TAM potential. Olombria is targeting all crops that require pollination.
- Olombria’s business model is accessible to farmers of all sizes and involves a low-cost subscription service for both the IoT nodes and data aggregation. Despite the low cost to farmers, the profit margins for Olombria are still respectably high.
- Olombria has very few competitors in the space — in fact, it is a stretch to even consider beekeepers to be competitors, despite bees being the biggest competitor to hoverflies in pollination. They are, in fact, supplementary to each other in the field and do not have any negative effects on the pollinating capabilities of the other group. In addition, utilizing beekeeping services means purchasing costly hives and labor-intensive maintenance to go along with it. If the bee population continues to dwindle, flies will have to come to the rescue. Walmart also created some buzz (pun intended) recently for patenting autonomous robot bees. While intriguing, this solution has not yet proven to be as effective as natural bees or flies, is difficult to implement and has high upfront Cap Ex considerations. But the advent of robotic pollination helps Olombria by further validating the market need for a pollination alternative to bees.
- Olombria is future-proofing their technology. Vertical farming is a sector of agriculture that has been growing at a phenomenal rate over the past few years. As urban populations continue to proliferate, high-tech and vertically integrated farming solutions will become more highly sought-after. With next-gen farming companies like Bowery Farming, Plenty, BrightFarms and AeroFarms raising mega financing rounds of upwards of $100 million+, it is clear to see that indoor farming is the next frontier of agriculture. With that said, many fruits and plants grown indoors also require pollination. Right now, this is being done using a combination of robotic bees (expensive), hand pollination (low precision) and artificial wind pollination (costly and space-prohibitive). These are band-aid fixes but are not sustainable solutions in the long-term. Due to the closed environment of indoor farms, honeybees are not a viable pollinating solution. This leaves a relatively wide-open opportunity for Olombria to utilize the versatility of flies to create the next generation of pollinators for indoor use.
I’m excited about what Olombria has built so far, and keen to see them successfully launch their product into market. I love investing in sharp founders with low egos and copious amounts of confidence in executing on their vision. We are so impressed with how polished the team is and how well they work together. To sum it up: the Olombria team is “pretty fly”.