VIB and ILVO launch new start-up Protealis to support sustainable plant protein production

Ghent-based company Protealis,  new spin-off from VIB and ILVO, is making its debut today in the plant breeding industry.  Inspired by the mission to grow more sustainable plant-based proteins locally, Protealis aims to harvest the full potential of legume crops.  With innovative breeding technologies and proprietary seed coatings, Protealis will create new opportunities for European farmers to help overcome Europe’s protein deficit.  The initial focus is to develop high yielding, high-protein soybean varieties.  Protealis has successfully concluded a EUR 6 million seed financing round led by V-Bio Ventures, and joined by Agri Investment Fund (AIF), Participatiemaatschappij Vlaanderen (PMV), Estari Group, Globachem Group, Gemma Frisius Fund and VIB.  The capital will support the company’s plans to further develop its proprietary technology, expand its crop portfolio and bring the first soy varieties adapted to local needs to the market by 2022.

Europe is over 70% dependent on import of its supply of protein-rich crops.  However, the millions of tons of soy we annually import from South America to cover for our deficits comes at the expense of rain forests and their unique ecosystems.  Moreover, there is a growing consumer demand for sustainable, local and more high-quality plant-based protein for direct use in food applications.  To future-proof protein supply and consumption in Europe, a shift towards local plant protein production is urgently needed and endorsed by EU and Flanders’ policies.  However, soybean varieties bred up until now do not typically thrive in our local soil and climate.

Protealis’ goal is to develop high-protein and high-yielding protein crops that are well adapted to our climate and the needs of local agriculture.  Legume crops are an excellent source of protein and can be grown sustainably as they do not require nitrogen fertilization.  With their soil improving characteristics, legumes are an excellent addition for farmers in crop rotation.  Soy, with up to 46 grams protein per 100 grams, is a logical first crop of choice for Protealis.  The new company will breed varieties that are well adapted to northern latitude regions in Europe, ensuring local supply for the fast-growing markets of meat and dairy replacements as well as for sustainable animal nutrition.

Protealis is based on the strategic alliance of research institutes VIB and ILVO and draws on the unique know-how of each of the partners.  This includes a market-ready breeding program based on innovative, non-GM breeding technologies from ILVO and seed coating with proprietary yield enhancing soil bacteria from VIB.  These innovations have been developed and refined over the years at the top VIB labs of professors Sofie Goormachtig (VIB-UGent) and Jan Michiels (VIB-KU Leuven), and the ILVO teams of Joke Pannecoucque and Isabel Roldán-Ruiz.

Protealis is led by Benjamin Laga, former global head for plant biotech research at BASF, who brings more than 20 years of international seed business and innovation experience.  As CEO he will also join Protealis’ board of directors.  Benjamin Laga is joind by Jonas Aper, who has been in charge of the soy breeding program at ILVO since its inception in 2013.  This entrepreneurial team is passionate about making a positive impact on the planet and environment created by the opportunity to valorize the combined ILVO-VIB word in a company setting.

Protealis is backed by a solid investor consortium who invested EUR 6 million in a series A round led by V-Bio Ventures, and with participation of Agri Investment Fund (AIF), Participatiemaatschappij Vlaanderen (PMV), Estari Group, Globachem Group, Gemma Frisius Fund and VIB.  The ambition of the investor consortium is to support the market introduction and geographic and product portfolio expansion of the new company.  In this way Protealis can maximally live up to its mission statement and bring its high protein crops to European farmers.

Commenting on the announcement, CEO Benjamin Laga says: “My personal aspiration has always been to combine science and technology with entrepreneurship in orde to address societal and environmental challenges.  And all of that just comes together beautifully in Protealis.”

Jérôme Van Biervliet managing director of VIB, says: “Protealis is a perfect example of entrepreneurship in the accelerating biotech ecosystem fostered by VIB.  Through our collaborative journey with ILVO, we were able to couple breeding expertise with high-tech research and create an economic opportunity.  The intense dedication of many colleagues in the team was vital to make this happen.”

Joris Relaes, administrator-general ILVO: “ILVO has been working towards local soy in our agri-food chain for 10 years.  We are delighted that our highly specialized soy breeding program is now being given the opportunity to accelerate towards the market via our new spin-off.  ILVO participates in Protealis.  As a public research center, we have made constructive, clear and fair agreements with the spin-off.”

Willem Broekaert from V-Bio Ventures: “We are proud to bring together a group of experienced investors supporting Protealis to become a leading player in the plant breeding sector, which historically has not seen much backing from venture capital.  We are highly confident that the quality of the team and technology of Protealis will lead to significant value creation for all stakeholders.”