Usually, when one uses a manure-related term to describe a startup, it is not intended as a compliment.
But there’s a growing exception to this rule. Actual poop-focused startups have been scooping up quite a few investments lately.
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In sectors from agriculture to commercial real estate, upstart companies are taking innovative approaches to the disposal, treatment and recycling of animal and human waste. While it’s a fairly small space in terms of total venture funding, investors believe there’s room for considerable growth.
“It’s an underinvested area,” said Kyle Welborn, managing director of The Yield Lab, a seed- and early-stage agritech investor, regarding technologies to mitigate the impact of animal agriculture emissions. The space looks particularly compelling from a climate investment perspective, as agriculture represents nearly a fifth of global carbon emissions, with livestock farming a key contributor.
Humans, meanwhile, also aren’t doing the greatest job handling our own wastes. Dated or undeveloped sanitation systems look ill-equipped to serve growing urban populations worldwide. That leaves plenty of room for innovators unafraid of taking on a dirty job in the effort to find more environmentally friendly solutions.
Where’s it all headed? Inspired by the author’s quest for a topic appealing to both Crunchbase News readers and her 5-year-old, we decided to take a deeper look at what might be affectionately called the poop startup space. For simplicity, it’s broken down into two areas: agricultural applications and solutions for humans.
Cows, pigs and poultry
First we’ll look at venture investment around animal agriculture. Or rather, the lack of it. For anyone following funding trends in high-protein food, it’s clear a single theme—plant-based protein—dominates investment, with VCs spending copiously on everything from vegan cheese to lab-grown meat.
By and large, this is an admirable and environmentally conscientious undertaking, Welborn observes. But for now, there’s also still a lot to take care of back on the farm.
“Plant-based is going to be a very successful category, but at least to date it is not showing signs of really replacing conventional meat. And cultured meat is too early,” he said. “The net result has been a lack of dollars in animal health and technologies that deal with animal waste.”
Still, some deals are happening. A Crunchbase analysis of investment in companies with business models tied to animal waste unearthed at least 11 funded companies. The largest funding rounds are centered around aquaponics—a farming practice in which fish manure fertilizes plants—and technologies that convert excrement for sustainable reuse.
We look at several funding recipients below:
Among the largest funding recipients is Norwegian startup N2 Applied. The company has raised nearly $40 million to date, including a $17.3 million EU grant awarded in October for technology that converts slurry into nitrogen-rich, sustainable fertilizer that produces far higher yields than crops spread with untreated manure.
N2 is planning initial commercial installations of its technology next year, CEO Carl Hansson told Crunchbase News. Each unit costs roughly the cost of a tractor, with the ability to process waste from about 200 cows or over 400 pigs.
“We can definitely contribute to making livestock farming more sustainable. But in order for this to be a mainstream technology, which is our ambition, we have to make it profitable for the farmer,” Hansson said. He’s hopeful the value proposition will appeal to farmers, who can benefit from savings on chemical fertilizer, higher premiums for sustainable, organic milk and meat, and potential compensation for reducing carbon emissions.
With the exception of Brooklyn-based aquaponics startup Upward Farms, most of the largest funding recipients are working on applications for converting excrement to fertilizers and energy sources, such as biochar.
It looks like a sizable list, but funding totals sans aquaponics are still below $150 million to date for manure-focused companies funded in the past few years. By comparison, just one alternative protein category, cell-based meat, pulled in over $900 million in this year alone.
It’s problematic for the manure space that “business models don’t exactly look like B2B SaaS or human therapeutics,” Welborn notes. While companies have developed some impressive technologies, they can require equipment installations that exceed typical farmers’ budgets.
Now, obviously, excrement isn’t widely considered a venture investment category. There are no manure-focused venture firms or startup conferences on the future of poop.
Perhaps the closest thing, at least for human-focused innovations, is the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge, an effort by the Gates Foundation to spur the creation of new toilet technologies that safely and effectively manage human waste. Launched in 2011, the initiative supports products that remove harmful pathogens from waste, recover useful resources, operate off-grid, and promote sustainable sanitation in poor urban settings.
One startup beneficiary of the program’s funding is Washington-based Sedron Technologies, a developer of sanitation tools that promise to lower disposal costs while capturing energy, recycling energy and destroying pathogens. It makes systems for agriculture and fecal sludge, while also developing a product called the Firelight Toilet that contains a complete blackwater recycling system.
India-based Eram Scientific is another foundation funding recipient. The company has developed an electronic public toilet that is self-cleaning, portable and eco-friendly. The toilets are maintained and monitored remotely using a GPRS-enabled system.
An analysis of Crunchbase data also revealed several venture-backed companies that are innovating in the human waste management space, which we chart out below:
One intriguing entry here is Epic Cleantec, a San Francisco startup and toilet challenge participant that wants to move more urban wastewater treatment from municipal sanitation infrastructure to the actual buildings where most of the flushing and draining takes place. The company raised $9.4 million in new funding this week for technology it says can help a building reuse up to 95 percent of its water.
Flushing out the future
Oddly, for a sector filled with companies doing such environmentally admirable work, waste-focused startups have not generated noteworthy exits of late.
Perhaps, as Welborn observed, it will take some time and business model tweaks to make the most innovative technologies affordable and available to the market at large.
On the next-generation toilet side, meanwhile, it seems there ought to be plenty of demand for, say, self-cleaning public toilets or technologies that help lower ever-rising water and sewer bills.
For now, however, we’re still in wait-and-see mode for which of today’s most promising startups is likely to mature into the first poop-focused unicorn.
Illustration: Dom Guzman
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Author: Joanna Glasner