5 Indoor Ag-Ignite Questions with Protenga’s Leo Wein

Indoor Ag-Con is again hosting Indoor Ag-Ignite, a pitch competition to find the most promising indoor ag tech startups, at its Singapore event on January 15-16, 2019. One of last year’s winners – Leo Wein of Protenga – sat down with us to discuss the impact of his win and their subsequent business progress.

What does Protenga do? How did your company get started?

Leo Wein pitching at Indoor Ag-Con Asia in January 2018, Photo by Tiffany L. Clark

We develop data-driven insect=tech. We build farming systems for black soldier flies, farm and make insect-based feed products. We have formulas for pet food and aquaculture. We started in April 2016 in Singapore and later expanded and moved operations to Johor, Malaysia, where we have an R&D farm from which we’ve been selling products. We are currently developing a larger-scale blue-print pilot facility.
We weren’t the first startup to work with insects, but we saw a gap in the alternative protein world. We see huge potential in mid-sized insect farming tech and systems, a big gap in the field as people were doing make shift insect farming in their back gardens at one extreme or were creating large automated facilities in Europe or North America at the other. Asia’s huge aquaculture demand growth means there’s a big need for better feed options. Consumers are increasingly aware of food security and transparency. We discovered that there are lots of places to source raw material for medium size facilities of 5-50 tonnes per day, but it’s harder to source the 200-300 tonnes per day needed by large facilities.

Our systems work on as many standard components as possible combined with production logic from proprietary software that guides and controls process to ensure consistency across our planned distributed network of farms. It’s a unique and overlooked techno farming approach, where we view each farm as a node in the production network. The plan is for our pilot farm to show that we’re working at the right scale, reliability and cost efficiency and then to expand into countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia & Singapore where we have potential partners with suitable waste streams.

How did you come to apply to Indoor Ag-Ignite?
We saw some information about the competition on the Indoor Ag-Con website and thought it would be a good platform to engage with. We applied right before the closing date, and then pitched in the initial round the day before Indoor Ag-Con. We found out that we were selected as a finalist that night, repeated our pitch on the main stage at the event and found out an hour later that we were one of the three winners of a prize package that included a S$50,000 Startup SG grant and a year’s subscription to Plenty Ag’s Upstart University.
There were other benefits of attending the event for us, for example, we met a fellow winner with whom we’re hoping to collaborate on some projects.

What has changed for you since the win?
Winning the competition allowed us to focus more on tech development. It gave us time to discover and reinforce our core proposition and differentiators. We were able to run and gather data from our R&D programme and get more info together without the need to look for early external funding. Enterprise Singapore have been a valuable relationship for us beyond the funding, they’ve provided incredible support beyond the call of duty in linking us with potential collaboration partners in Singapore and beyond, opening opportunities with customers amongst others.

What are you most excited about for the future?
The exciting part is our focus on tech development and data analytics, an insect smartfarm we call data-driven insect=tech. Much of agriculture here is still based on paper-based production planning, we focus on developing digital production management that enables real-time process control. While we don’t think it makes sense to fully automate a black soldier fly system (particularly in Asia) for some time to come, a smart, data-driven production system can greatly improve the labor productivity at lower cost. We believe this is especially important for intensive insect farming, where the cycle time is very short and unlike many other farming value chains (like poultry or aquaculture), it is a full-cycle system from hatchery, grow-out to finished products. Every step of the life cycle of the insect has to be synchronized towards the production goals. If there’s an issue in breeding on day one, day five will have too few new insects to consume the feedstock volume. Then you can’t run the facility at capacity as you don’t have sufficient larvae. Inefficiency is expensive, the worst thing that can happen is running at half capacity. Too few insects could come from the wrong lighting conditions or too few pupae introduced into the reproductive system, there are many potential causes. We can see and analyse the shortage in real time, and plan for it in advance, buffering between networked farms and compensating with more production from a neighboring farm for example. Most staff won’t have the experience or oversight to identify, pinpoint and correct the issue, so having guiding systems and comprehensive digital monitoring across the entire system will allow us to know when there are issues ahead of time. Our production system logic makes the work path more stable and less error-prone.

We also excited about the new facility launch and working with farm partners on product development. We’ve moved beyond selling product as a replacement ingredient for feed and are now looking at ways to add value to the feed and to combine our products with others to improve nutrition, health and physical characteristics of the target animals, such as fish, shrimp, livestock and pets. There’s a whole world of possibility for us to explore!

What advice would you give others about applying to Indoor Ag-Ignite?
Don’t hesitate, do apply! We would have learned from the experience even if we didn’t win as we got great feedback and met some really neat people at the event. It’s a good exercise to marshall your thoughts into a pitch format. Practice, rehearse and have a tight script for the pitch so you deliver it on point and on time. We actually enjoyed the preliminary round as it was a nice warmup in front of a smaller crowd and we adapted our presentation a little afterwards. Indoor Ag-Ignite is unique; there aren’t many platforms targeted at the Agritech space, nothing for the indoor ag space, especially in Asia.

The current round of Indoor Ag-Ignite is open for applications until December 10 at our website.

Join Us at Indoor Ag-Con Asia on January 15-16, 2019

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