Malaysia-based agrotech start-up earns the nod for helping crops improve yield; EQT sees growing desire for investors to both seek returns and do good
After a gruelling process of shortlisting more than 170 applicants in the inaugural EQT Impact Challenge 2023 Southeast Asia edition, Malaysia-based Qarbotech has emerged tops at the start-up challenge organised by global private equity firm EQT, in partnership with The Edge Singapore and e27.
Qarbotech is recognised for its ability to help crops improve yield, thereby creating a wider impact and also bringing potential commercial viability for its shareholders.
The first prize includes a EUR100,000 ($144,686) investment from the EQT Foundation, along with 300 consultancy hours from professional services firm Ernst & Young, and 15 hours of services from the global law firm DLA Piper to refine its strategy and intellectual property capabilities. Qarbotech will also gain access to EQT’s extensive network and specialised knowledge to propel its growth.
Qarbotech secured the top spot in the EQT Impact Challenge 2023 Southeast Asia after successfully navigating three selection rounds. From an initial pool of over 170 applicants, only 10 were shortlisted, further narrowed down through public voting. The finalists underwent pitch training led by Ted Persson, EQT Ventures’ partner, before presenting their cases at the grand finale on Dec 5 before a jury.
Jury members deliberating the winner, clockwise from bottom left: Jean Eric Salata; Fridtjof Berge; Cilia Holmes Indahl; Chua Kee Lock; Liew Nam Soon and Angela Ng
The jury panel comprises six members: Jean Eric Salata, BPEA EQT head and chairperson of EQT Asia; Cilia Holmes Indahl, EQT Foundation head; Liew Nam Soon, EY Asean regional managing partner for Singapore and Brunei; Fridtjof Berge, Antler’s co-founder and chief business officer; Angela Ng, COO of Impact Investment Exchange (IIX); and Chua Kee Lock, CEO of Vertex Holdings.
The five start-ups were first given three minutes to make their pitch, before taking questions from the jury. The start-ups were rated in metrics such as the viability of the business, the potential magnitude of impact they could make as well as the capabilities of the respective teams.
Resilience and yield
Qarbotech, based in Selangor, has developed a patented product, QarboGrow, designed to accelerate and improve plant growth. The innovation, conceived by Suraya Abdul Rashid, the company’s chief scientist and a professor at the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Universiti Putra Malaysia, focuses on enhancing the photosynthesis process, which is typically inefficient in natural conditions.
Qarbotech's products have helped farmers across Malaysia increase crop yield, says Chor
CEO Chor Chee Hoe says QarboGrow can not only help plants grow faster and be more resilient to weather conditions, it can also process more carbon dioxide and release more oxygen while reducing greenhouse gas as well.
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Plants can do more than just being food or to beautify surroundings, says Chor, who, before joining this business of tending plants, was in charge of maintaining aircraft at FireFly Airlines.
Chor adds that QarboGrow is already being sold to farmers in Malaysia as well as to consumers with home gardens and collectors of certain rare plants. Paddy field farmers seem to see the most benefits from QarboGrow, with crop yield improving to as high as 60%.
“We — the jury members — believe in the solution and we are hoping that it will succeed,” says EQT Foundation’s Indahl as she named Qarbotech as the winner. “While we were discussing the needs for conviction and the method, we are happy to be part of your journey and help you overcome some of those barriers,” she adds.
Before winning the EQT Impact Challenge, Qarbotech had already raised US$700,000 ($939,770) in seed funding and grants. The round was led by multi-stage venture capital firm, 500 Global, and includes innovation grants from the Temasek Foundation for winning the Climate Impact Innovations Challenge 2023, and Khazanah Nasional’s Dana Impak for winning the Khazanah Impact Innovation Challenge (KIIC) 2023.
Chor says that with the new funding, the company plans to improve on its intellectual property (IP) capabilities, bring in more talent, and to beef up its distribution network. “The support from EQT will also open up our network and maybe allow us to expand into the European market and address similar issues. We look forward to working with EQT, EY and DLA Piper in this challenge to create impact.”
Cultivated fat company ImpacFat was the runner-up, while “waste-to-worth” carbon fibre aerogel (CFA) company EcoWorth Tech won third place. The other two finalists are mixed paper waste management and upcycling company Materials in Works and cultivated seafood company Umami Bioworks.
Founded by Mandy Hon — who is also an associate lecturer at Republic Polytechnic with a background in pharmaceutical sciences and business — ImpacFat develops “nutrition-customisable” novel cell-based fish fat. The fish cells are sustainably sourced from different fish species, then cultivated in a controlled environment to become healthy fat cells that are high in omega-3.
ImpacFat's Hon aims to introduce to the market cultivated seafood fat
ImpacFat was founded in 2019 and was spun out of the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) two years later. It is said to be the first in the world to focus on seafood cultivated fat. “Compared to livestock fat, which usually contains unhealthy fats that humans need to cut down on, ImpacFat contains healthy fat that humans seek to gain. ImpacFat is also unlike vegetable oils which are usually very unstable and require heavy processing,” explains Hon.
Nutrition-wise, ImpacFat is comparable to algae oil, which is rich in omega-3 fats EPA and DHA. ImpacFat is able to better complement food in terms of taste and texture, says Hon. The company is currently looking to get its technology patented and is seeking approval from the Singapore Food Agency.
Third-place winner EcoWorth is a cleantech company using CFA technology to help treat industrial wastewater as well as oil and gas decontamination. CFA is a highly absorbent, non-toxic and recyclable material that can absorb a wide variety of organic material from wastewater, explains founder Andre Stolz.
The company’s patented material can absorb up to 190 times its own weight. The valuable organic materials it absorbs can also be recovered and reused with a simple mechanical squeezing. Additionally, CFA can be manufactured from a variety of cellulose-based materials, such as cotton or waste paper.
Stolz, who used to be with fast-moving consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble, discovered the chance to make a meaningful impact through CFA by tapping on his background in product supply and engineering. In Shanghai, for example, he was involved in managing groundwater contamination while in Singapore, he studied solutions for oil spills from maritime vessels.
EcoWorth's Stolz has a mission to clean up the seas from oil spills with its patented product
EcoWorth has launched its first commercial product Superof, a CFA-integrated filter solution designed with and for the oil refining industry. Superof lasts longer and is more reliable versus the current solution used by the oil refiners. In fact, EcoWorth’s first paying customer is enjoying a 40-times return on investment compared to previous filers it used, says Stolz.
The EQT Impact Challenge is held at a time of a slowdown in start-up funding, no thanks to higher rates and inflation. Salata notes that there is still a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial activity. Besides traditional venture capital funds, there is also increased interest among family offices and high-net-worth individuals wanting to support early-stage investing.
Echoing that sentiment, Antler’s Berge says: “Early-stage funding will always go in cycles, a bit similar to a pendulum swinging between investors and founders. In the last couple of years there has been leverage towards founders, with capital going in and the founders raising high valuations. Now, the pendulum has shifted towards the investors.”
According to the inaugural edition of Trica’s Private Market Monitor report, conducted in collaboration with EY and law firm AZB Partners, private market investments continue to be the preferred choice in alternative investments, with 18% of the total allocation going to start-ups and venture capital funds. The survey also revealed that 50% of surveyed family offices favour entering start-up investments at the seed to Series A stage.
“Particularly when it comes to impact, I think there is a rising desire for investors to both seek returns and do good. Therefore, I think these businesses will continue to attract funding in the region,” says Salata.
In this context, he sees Southeast Asia as having several advantages that can significantly boost the start-up ecosystem. Firstly, the region boasts a sizeable, youthful, and industrious population. Additionally, there is widespread Internet adoption, coupled with a steadily expanding and supportive financial services sector. Southeast Asia is also drawing global attention to investments in green energy transition, which is expected to positively impact more deals in the realm of impact investments.
Berge too believes that just as long as investors have a “long-term mindset” and fundamentally believe that there are problems to be solved, there should not be a shortage of good founders. “Overall, I’m still very positive, even though the environment is obviously not like it was in the past couple of years,” he says.
Pre-event conversations among EQT colleagues, from left: Daniel Ketema; Cilia Holmes Indahl; Jean Eric Salata; Patrick Cordes
Vertex’s Chua has seen his fair share of cycles over the years. He believes that companies with strong founding teams, differentiated offerings or business models will emerge and thrive as the next global champions.
“We believe there is liquidity in the market and early-stage start-ups will remain a bright spot, particularly in the Asia region. Despite the challenging funding environment, promising early-stage companies will continue to attract investment at reasonable valuations,” he adds.
IIX’s Ng points out that companies with a profound impact can benefit from lower capital costs. “Companies can achieve both high impact and high returns.” She encourages companies to concentrate on their solutions, whether in the environmental, social, or governance sphere. For founders struggling with giving away equity for funding, Ng recommends exploring alternative investment avenues, such as crowdfunding.
Salata expresses genuine admiration for what the start-ups are trying to do and the passion shown by the founders. He says: “What we are doing with the EQT Foundation is to create a forum to bring out very interesting new ideas at the early stages of development. I think it is filling a need and creating an opportunity for entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia. I am looking forward to seeing how these businesses develop, and to do more of this going forward.”
EY’s Liew adds: “We had a good bunch of finalists this time and when it comes down to it, especially at such an early stage, we are looking at the founder and the passion they put into the business, as well as their personal commitment.”
Amid persistent global social and environmental challenges, the imperative for innovative, impact-driven enterprises to surface and bring their ideas to the market has never been more critical.
Salata emphasises the importance of nurturing passion and unwavering belief for aspiring entrepreneurs venturing into impact-driven enterprises. The journey demands perseverance and determination, requiring a wholehearted commitment, particularly in challenging times. Building a supportive network of like-minded individuals is beneficial despite the challenges of attracting top talent to an early-stage company.
Entrepreneurs should strategically focus on sectors with significant demand for change and improvement in their business model, aiming to implement ideas that can genuinely make a substantial impact, says Salata. He adds: “I think there’s just so much opportunity right now, and I want to encourage those interested to give it a try. They are also welcome to talk to us, we would love to learn more about their business.”
Liew reminds aspiring founders of impact businesses also have to be aware of three things: Proposition, competition and solution. They also need to properly highlight their impact edge to stand out from the sea of start-ups that are mainly focusing on profit over purpose.
Berge advises founders to be selective on available opportunities. As the funding environment fluctuates, they should not pay too much attention to the market movements and focus more on building their company.
Examining the mistakes of others can also be a valuable exercise, Berge emphasises. He says founders should not shy away from or undervalue the insights gained by studying those who have attempted similar endeavours.
Vertex’s Chua reminds aspiring impact entrepreneurs to continue being bold in ideation and development. However, it is also important to keep the business model’s viability and road to profitability in mind. This will help grow their offerings while providing a smoother path to fundraising and garnering investor interest.
Indahl concurs, highlighting the need to deeply understand the problems they seek to solve. The right product market fit is crucial as impact-oriented businesses typically have high initial barriers to reaching a commercial scale.
“For instance, for ocean oil spills — it is hard to determine who is actually willing to pay to solve this problem. It is also a difficult business to build around, as we want less of such problems to happen. Therefore, it is really about understanding the problem and how the start-up’s solution is going to out-compete other alternatives,” she adds.