Ahead of the Venture Catalyst Challenge (VCC) final on the 23rd March 2017, we look back to past VCC contestants and finalists to see where they are now.
In the third and final of our interviews we spoke with FungiAlert, former participants in both the VCC and Althea Programmes. Founders Dr. Angela de Manzanos and Dr. Kerry O’Donnelly Weaver developed an early, in-field detection device for plant disease which can detect the spores of the pathogen in soil and water before they infect plants, while they were still Post-Doc researchers at Imperial. They hope that their FungiAlert devices, the first of their kind, will improve crop yields, inspire more sustainable disease management practices and ultimately make a big impact in the sustainable farming landscape.
1. How did participating in the VCC and Althea programmes affect FungiAlert?
Kerry: Both programmes gave us a boost in terms of confidence. We were very capable academically but the programmes gave us the skills we needed to pursue the business side.
We were able to quickly learn and understand the technical process of creating a prototype and company from the more intense VCC (6 weeks), which was a well-oiled process by then whereas The Althea Programme was much longer (6 months) and really gave us confidence above all else.
We also won £10,000 from the VCC and £5,000 from Althea, which covered a chunk of our start-up costs…!
2. What has been the most exciting development/experience for you and the company since you took part in the VCC and Althea?
Kerry: (Laughing) Actually becoming a company, if that doesn’t sound silly! After both programmes we became our own entity, gained the confidence to pursue more funding and eventually got enough money to become independent. We now have our own lab in the Rothamsted Research Centre in Harpenden – We have 65sqm of lab space all to ourselves!
3. What would you say to an industry giant that wanted to support young entrepreneurs?
Kerry: A lot of the problem for small companies working with industry giants is fear for their intellectual property. Young companies need assurance.
Angela: Yes! What we really want is a safe space and the security of mind to know we won’t have to worry about our IP or the growth of our business being restricted.
Kerry: When you’re starting out you know your technology very well but you don’t have the access to large customer bases, to understand the true practicalities of your technology. This is something giant companies can also definitely help with. Their access to the same customer base can help smaller businesses understand more about the customer needs.
4. What came first – the idea or the entrepreneurial mindset? e were you always looking for an idea or was it the idea that spawned the business?
Kerry: We both really had an urge to have our own business but it was the Dragon’s Den event run by Oscar Ces in our department at Imperial that really gave us our first taste of pitching our idea and the boost we needed to accelerate the development of our ideas.
The prize was the opportunity to file a patent, which has been the most important thing in moving forward with the company.
Angela: We are also trying to solve a problem with our technology and the fact that people are willing to buy into the solution of that problem that we’ve created gives us even more motivation to deliver FungiAlert.
5. What do you hope the next 5 years has in store for you, your product and the company? The next 15 if you’re ambitious.
Kerry: In the next 5 years we would like to launch the product and really build the business. We are still really excited to have the freedom to choose where we want to go and who we want to work with.
Angela: In 5 years it would be ideal to have a global reach – Mexico, California…
Kerry: Long term we want to help people improve their yield and have a product that has a great impact in the world. The product was initially developed to improve the accessibility of sustainable farming – to provide evidence of where and how farmers should be spraying their crops.
Really, we are trying to have a social impact with our product. The issue of untargeted pesticide use will become an even greater issue in the next 10 years and something needs to be done about it now.
You can learn more about FungiAlert at www.fungialert.com