Imperial College London

Major funding boost for White City-based startup Arborea

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A sapling growing in the sun

Agri food tech startup Arborea expands from Imperial’s White City Campus to Portugal, after securing €3.6m of investment to scale up its technology.

Following success in developing both the technology and the business proposition within the Imperial ecosystem, this seed funding will allow Arborea to scale up production with a demonstration facility just outside of Lisbon.

The 3.6 million funding will support the business to scale its BioSolar Leaf technology at the new facility in Portugal, which will be used to demonstrate the company’s ability to cultivate commercial-grade high-value functional ingredients and proteins used in food and beverage and nutraceutical applications.

Arborea’s technology is unique. The team have spent the last five years researching the best way to grow organic, healthy food ingredients with the smallest environmental impact, aiming to feed the world’s present and future generations while protecting the planet. Global food security is an increasingly important problem driven by population growth and climate change, exacerbated by slowing crop yield improvements and dwindling availability of new agricultural land.

"Our aim is to create the most sustainable and affordable protein source to feed our future generations” Julian Melchiorri CEO, Arborea

Arborea’s breakthrough cultivation technology mimics the functioning mechanisms of a real leaf. It is able to self-maintain the ideal growth conditions in the same way across all scales and with the smallest energy inputs. It can also sequester carbon from the atmosphere at normal pressures, meaning no additional energy is needed within the process.

Through its use of synthetic photosynthesis, the output of carbon sequestering is a protein-rich food supplement. This means the technology can tackle not just the issue of increasing levels of carbon in the atmosphere, but also in providing a sustainable solution for food production.

Vegetables

Arborea’s technology can deliver this without causing additional damage to the natural environment that is associated with agriculture at this scale, such as deforestation, use of chemicals for producing higher yields, or from disrupting water supplies from rivers, streams or lakes.

Imperial’s role in Arborea’s growth

Arborea was founded by alumnus Julian Melchiorri, who completed two masters in Innovation Design Engineering in 2014, a course administered jointly by Imperial and the Royal College of Art. With huge potential for the company to make a hugely positive impact on the world, CEO Julian Melchiorri highlighted that the journey to the Iberian peninsula started at Imperial.

“Without Imperial I wouldn’t be able to be where I am” said Melchiorri. “At the start it was just a desk in the Incubator (previously based at the South Kensington Campus) and I loved getting to learn from others who were early in their start-up journey about how to be more entrepreneurial.”

“I was fortunate to receive grant funding from SynbCITE with support from Professor Paul Freemont, I was also able to secure a space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. For 18 months I worked on developing a proof of concept for the technology, and it was fantastic to be able to be so close to other innovators in the area.”

However, it wasn’t long before aspirations grew and opportunities arose, and conversations with the College suggested a move a little further west might provide the chances Arborea were seeking. “Imperial understood the vision for the company and the huge potential that the technology has. They helped me identify funding and partnership opportunities. I have enormous gratitude to Imperial and the journey was extremely smooth- for providing us with the lab space and equipment through to getting the pilot running.”

White City experience 

It was an invaluable move for the fledgling company. With a lot of technical expertise and an increasing level of business acumen, the growing team were able to utilise the space at the I-HUB at White City Campus to enhance their work, while also making more valuable connections with other start-ups and learn from their experiences.

“We made some great connections. In particular, sharing information with each other about some of the challenges we might face or the opportunities we could capitalise was invaluable. There is so much energy and enthusiasm and a real entrepreneurial atmosphere at the White City Campus” said Melchiorri. “It has been such an important part of our company’s development.”

Julian Melchiorri said: “We have a vast critical mass of scientists and engineers for cutting-edge innovation here in White City. Being around entrepreneurs and innovators is fundamental.”

Julian Melchiorri speaking about Arborea's technology at an event in the I-HUB (2018)
Julian Melchiorri speaking about Arborea's technology at an event in the I-HUB (2018)

Challenges of the pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, and shortly before Arborea were to embark on their subsequently successful fundraising round, they were discussing possibilities for deploying the technology across the White City area with Hammersmith and Fulham Council. The idea would be that they would place their carbon sequestering plants on the top of some of the buildings, helping improve air quality in the area.

The new funding, though, enabled them to secure the site in Portugal, where the weather will be more effective at demonstrating the potential of the technology, and improve their product for future opportunities around the world.

Melchiorri also benefitted from the insights of Imperial’s range of business development professionals who specialise in supporting enterprising activities and entrepreneurship, such as Naveed Chaudhry, (Greenhouse Lead at the Grantham Institute). “He helped by putting me in touch with a terrific venture capitalist,” said Melchiorri. He added "The timing wasn't right for them, but they might be an investor at their next financing round.  Pitching and closing the deals virtually was very different from what I had prepared for, but we managed it and I’m really thankful to those who have backed our company.” 

Future of Arborea

While the immediate future of production sees the team heading to Portugal, Arborea will remain closely linked to White City and the College, retaining some operations and looking to recruit graduates to support the next stage of their journey.

“In particular, we’re looking for enthusiastic mechanical, chemical and bio engineers that are interested at joining our mission and making healthy and sustainable food the primary choice for everyone” added Melchiorri.



To find out more about ways in which startups and early-stage technologies can be supported across Imperial College London, contact the Enterprise team to speak with our expert advisers.

Find out more about Imperial's White City Campus where we are bringing together researchers, corporate partners, entrepreneurs and the local community to co-exist and co-create on an unprecedented scale, and turning cutting-edge scientific research into real-world benefits for society.

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Amna Siddiq

Amna Siddiq
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Michael Jones

Michael Jones
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Entrepreneurship, Enterprise, Comms-strategy-Entrepreneurial-ecosystem, Alumni, White-City-Campus, Student-entrepreneurship
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