Start-up success for 3fbio – Jim Laird [Interview]

Just 12 months ago, 3fbio was the winner of the Best Innovation Award at the Start-up Innovation Challenge 2016. To find out what this meant for the start-up, we interviewed Jim Laird, CEO and Commercial Director of 3fbio.

3fbio has developed a waste elimination process through integrated production of mycoprotein, bioethanol and animal feed. The start-up has received positive response from clients and funders alike.

Can you give us a brief update on the progress 3f bio has made since winning the Start-up Innovation Challenge at Hi Europe last year?

‘Hi Europe 2016 was one of the first occasions we presented our technology, and progress in the last 12 months has been very positive. Following the positive response and the recognition by the Startup Innovation Award, we have grown in scale, we completed an equity funding round in June ‘17, and we secured pilot plant funding in July ’17, working with a large agri-industrial partner.’

‘Our aim is to ‘make sustainable protein’, and we see relevance in both developed and emerging markets. In the last year, the profile of alternative protein is increasing at an unparalleled rate with high scale investment in technologies such as clean-meat, insects and novel proteins.  Alternative protein is the fastest growing sector in European food, and our technology provides added advantage to mycoprotein, the established leading technology in this market.’

‘3f’s technology delivers transformative efficiency for the use of constrained resources. We are lucky to be working in a market that is currently very fashionable and growing rapidly, with global demand for protein demand increasing by c.10M tonnes per year, and with the market for meat alternatives estimated to increase by 10 fold by 2030.’

3f bio’s technology fits into today’s food industry trend of waste elimination through integrated production of mycoprotein, bioethanol and DDGS (animal feed). What triggered the idea to come up with this novel integrated process?

‘The core idea comes from the inspiration and industry experience of founders David Ritchie and Craig Johnston, who 20+ years ago started their careers in ICI as chemical engineers and have built on that with senior roles in various large scale organisations covering agri-tech and large scale collaborative development.’

‘3f bio’s integrated process, which combines established processes in a novel way, is core to what drives the resource efficiency, and this fits with the aims of both the circular economy and the bio economy, with strong sustainability benefits from the zero waste circular process.  In comparison to many circular activities which seek to derive value from waste, the drive for our CTO David Ritchie was to avoid waste, and his experience in driving efficiency in large scale engineering projects combined with a passion for environmental sustainability and agricultural efficiency is at the heart of what we do.’

You won the Startup Innovation Challenge, what do you think helped you stand out from other startups in the competition?

‘3f bio’s technology is relatively simple. Our aim is to make the most sustainable source of food protein and the simplicity of the story combined with its relevance to society’s big issues, such as resource efficiency, waste reduction and reducing carbon emissions, probably helped us in the competition.’

‘The fact that the protein market is currently very fashionable and high profile may also have helped, as what we are doing is delivering a solution to a global unmet need. Whilst there is a lot of interest in clean meat, insects, etc. our focus is on mycoprotein because it has proven consumer acceptance, it is established at scale and the base economic fundamentals are strong.’

3f bio’s technology is very much about partnering with existing bio refinery operations. As a startup was it challenging to approach such companies? Do you have any advice on how to reach out to existing players in the industry and be heard?

‘For our technology to work at scale, we will rely on partnerships and commercial relationships with key partners, including large industrial partners and large scale food and ingredient partners.’

‘Before approaching any potential partner we focussed on three key challenges: Firstly, we have always been very honest about the stage we are at, and also very clear on if and why the fundamental economics were advantaged; Secondly, we will continue to look for any flaw in the argument, but are pleased to say that to date we have not found one; And thirdly, having proven the economics, we are also keen to try and build the investment case and identify the benefits from the perspective of the potential partner.’

Your team is composed of highly experienced individuals. How did you manage to get everyone onboard to join 3f bio?

‘Our team combines a wide range of complementary skills and experience.  The founders bring diverse industry experience across biotech, agri-tech, and food, but more simply share a passion for resource efficiency and how it impacts on the environment.’

‘We are privileged by the calibre of the Board and the growing team, and I believe that it is the shared passion for addressing a big society issue and unmet need that lets us combine this experience.’

‘In order to be fully successful with our aim to ‘make protein sustainable’, we will need to broaden the team, engaging with and partnering with several of the large global food companies who equally champion the need for global sustainable nutrition at affordable prices.’

What advice can you give for other startups that are trying to make it in the food industry?

‘For a start-up, it is key to have a good idea, but I share the view of Stuart Mainwaring from “Just Eat Venture’s”, and quote his advice that it is vital to be “purpose led, rather than idea led”.’

‘3f’s fundamental purpose is to ‘maximise resource efficiency’ and that lets us play a significant role in large markets.  Make sure you are genuinely clear on what’s driving you and what you want to achieve.’

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Simona Kairyte

November 20, 2017

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