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Kenya’s Apollo Agriculture raises $6M Series A led by Anthemis

Apollo Agriculture believes it can attain profits by helping Kenya’s smallholder farmers maximize theirs.

That’s the mission of the Nairobi based startup that raised $6 million in Series A funding led by Anthemis.

Founded in 2016, Apollo Agriculture offers a mobile based product suit for farmers that includes working capital, data analysis for higher crop yields, and options to purchase key inputs and equipment.

“It’s everything a farmer needs to succeed. It’s the seeds and fertilizer they need to plant, the advice they need to manage that product over the course of the season. The insurance they need to protect themselves in case of a bad year…and then ultimately, the financing,” Apollo Agriculture CEO Eli Pollak told TechCrunch on a call.

Apollo’s addressable market includes the many smallholder farmers across Kenya’s population of 53 million. The problem it’s helping them solve is a lack of access to the tech and resources to achieve better results on their plots.

The startup has engineered its own app, platform and outreach program to connect with Kenya’s farmers. Apollo uses M-Pesa mobile money, machine learning and satellite data to guide the credit and products it offers them.

The company — which was a TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 finalist — has served over 40,000 farmers since inception, with 25,000 of those paying relationships coming in 2020, according to Pollak.

Apollo Agriculture co-founders Benjamin Njenga and Eli Pollack

Apollo Agriculture generates revenues on the sale of farm products and earning margins on financing. “The farm pays a fixed price for the package, which comes due at harvest…that includes everything and there’s no hidden fees,” said Pollak.

On deploying the $6 million in Series A financing, “It’s really about continuing to invest in growth. We feel like we’ve got a great product. We’ve got great reviews by customers and want to just keep scaling it,” he said. That means hiring, investing in Apollo’s tech, and growing the startup’s sales and marketing efforts.

“Number two is really strengthening our balance sheet to be able to continue raising the working capital that we need to lend to customers,” Pollak said.

For the moment, expansion in Africa beyond Kenya is in the cards but not in the near-term. “That’s absolutely on the roadmap,” said Pollak. “But like all businesses, everything is a bit in flux right now. So some of our plans for immediate expansion are on a temporary pause as we wait to see things shake out with with COVID.”

Apollo Agriculture’s drive to boost the output and earnings of Africa’s smallholder farmers is born out of the common interests of its co-founders.

Pollak is an American who who studied engineering at Stanford University and went to work in agronomy in the U.S. with The Climate Corporation. “That was how I got excited about Apollo. I would look at other markets and say “wow, they’re farming 20% more acres of maize, or corn across Africa but farmers are producing dramatically less than U.S. farmers,” said Pollak.

Pollak’s colleague, Benjamin Njenga, found inspiration in his experience in his upbringing. “I grew up on a farm in a Kenyan village. My mother, a smallholder farmer, used to plant with low quality seeds and no fertilizer and harvested only five bags per acre each year,” he told the audience at Startup Battlefield in Africa in Lagos in 2018.

Image Credits: Apollo Agriculture

“We knew if she’d used fertilizer and hybrid seeds her production would double, making it easier to pay my school fees.” Njenga went on to explain that she couldn’t access the credit to buy those tools, which prompted the motivation for Apollo Agriculture.

Anthemis Exponential Ventures’ Vica Manos confirmed its lead on Apollo’s latest raise. The UK based VC firm — which invests mostly in the Europe and the U.S. — has also backed South African fintech company Jumo and will continue to consider investments in African startups, Manos told TechCrunch.

Additional investors in Apollo Agriculture’s Series A round included Accion Venture Lab, Leaps by Bayer, and Flourish Ventures.

While agriculture is the leading employer in Africa, it hasn’t attracted the same attention from venture firms or founders as fintech, logistics, or e-commerce. The continent’s agtech startups lagged those sectors in investment, according to Disrupt Africa and WeeTracker’s 2019 funding reports.

Some notable agtech ventures that have gained VC include Nigeria’s Farmcrowdy, Hello Tractor — which has partnered with IBM and Twiga Foods, a Goldman backed B2B agriculture supply chain startup based in Nairobi.

On whether Apollo Agriculture sees Twiga as a competitor, CEO Eli Pollak suggested collaboration. “Twiga could be a company that in the future we could potential partner with,” he said.

“We’re partnering with farmers to produce lots of high quality crops, and they could potentially be a great partner in helping those farmers access stable prices for those…yields.”

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Mammoth Biosciences aims to be Illumina for the gene editing generation

In 1998, the startup company Illumina launched a revolution in the life sciences industry by developing technology to slash the costs of identifying and mapping genetic material.

Now, a little over 20 years later, Mammoth Biosciences is hoping to do the same thing for gene editing tools.

The company, co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, who did some of the pioneering work to discover the gene editing enzyme known as CRISPR, has just raised $45 million as it looks to bring to market products that can be used not only for disease detection, but are more precise editing tools for genetic material.

Rather than get bogged down in the patent dispute that raged over the provenance and ownership of applications for the original CRISPR enzyme — the Cas9 discovered by Doudna and developed for clinical applications at the Broad Institute — Mammoth has joined a number of startups in identifying new enzymes with a broader array of properties.

“From the very beginning of the company we’ve only worked with novel new enzymes to create these diagnostic products and the new novel diagnostic and editing,” says Trevor Martin, Mammoth Biosciences co-founder and chief executive.

Chiefly, the company is touting its Cas14 enzyme, which the company says opens up new possibilities for programmable biology thanks to its small size, diverse targeting ability and high fidelity — meaning that there are no unforeseen side effects to edits made using the enzyme (something that has arisen with Cas9 applications).

“There’s not one protein that’s going to be the best at everything,” says Martin. “For any particular product that you’re building, at Mammoth, we have the broadest toolbox.”

The Cas14 enzyme can be used to make gene edits in-vivo, meaning in live organisms, instead of ex-vivo, or outside of an organism. The in-vivo use-case could accelerate the time it takes to conduct experiments or develop treatments.

“Twenty years from now, when the umpteenth drug gets approved using Crispr and some nuclease named Cas132013, people are going to look back on this patent battle and think, ‘what a godawful waste of money,’ ” Jacob Sherkow a patent law scholar at New York Law School told Wired back in 2018.

Already, Horizon Discovery, a Cambridge, U.K.-based gene editing technology developer, is using the new tools developed by Mammoth Bioscience to create new CRISPR tools for Chinese Hamster Ovary cell line editing.

That partnership is an example of how Mammoth is thinking about the commercialization of the new Cas14 enzyme line and its role in biological engineering.

“You will need a full toolbox of CRISPR proteins,” says Martin. “That will allow you to interact with biology in the same way that we interact with software and computers. “From first principles, companies will programmatically modify biology to cure a disease or decrease risk for a disease. That’s going to be really kind of a turning point.”

To achieve its vision, Mammoth has managed to nab top talent from the life sciences industry, including Peter Nell, a co-founder of Casebia (a joint venture between Bayer and CRISPR Therapeutics), who came on board as chief business officer, and Ted Tisch, a former executive at Synthego and Bio-Rad, who joined the company as chief operating officer.

The company also nabbed $45 million of funding, including investment firms Mayfield, NFX, Verily (the Alphabet subsidiary) and Brook Byers, which was led by Decheng Capital — bringing the company to more than $70 million in funding.

“There are a dozen or so products that are in clinical development with CRISPR,” says Ursheet Parikh, a partner with Mayfield. “Maybe that number would go up by five or 10 without Mammoth, but it will go up by one or two orders of magnitude with Mammoth.”

To Parikh, Mammoth is the best positioned of the CRISPR development tools, because the company is building a whole platform that customers can license and use to develop products using gene editing.

The thinking, according to Parikh, is as follows, “if this technology can power lots of applications, let’s basically ensure that lots of these applications can come to market and as that happens I get my app store cut.”

“It’s an Illumina-like business,” Parikh says. “Just as anybody who is innovating with genomics needs an Illumina sequencer because they want to be able to do the sequencing… if someone wants to do editing… This gives them the access to do the right sequencing.”

Source: TechCrunch