Why is fresh food better in Crete, the largest island in Greece and a major European producer of fresh produce, compared to the same produce from mainland Greece or Cyprus? This observation by Konstantinos Loizos, who at the time was working in Crete, gave birth to a Cypriot biotech start-up. EMBIO Diagnostics, aspires to offer a reliable and affordable solution to agricultural producers for monitoring pesticide and bacteria levels in fresh produce, impacting the quality of the food that reaches our plates. Currently EMBIO employees eight people as well as a number of trainees and interns.
Mr Loizou's observation led to the development of B.EL.D (Bio Electric Diagnostics), a portable device that allows on-site measurements and diagnostics enabling instant monitoring of pesticide residue levels. Unlike traditional diagnostic machines used in laboratories which cost thousands of euros, B.EL.D costs only a few hundred. Apart from affordability, B.EL.D was also developed with efficiency in mind, to give users an immediate insight of the condition of their produce.
Food safety requires adherence to strict standards/regulations and Mr Loizou identified a large market for reliable and rapid diagnostics. B.EL.D simplifies and speeds up the adherence to such standards and regulations.
"Although around 95% of fresh produce was found to be below the maximum residue level, 1 in 20 fresh produce is still contaminated and can cause disease, including cancer," he comments.
Research for B.EL.D started in 2013, during Mr Loizos' studies at the Agricultural University of Athens, where he and one of his current partners at EMBIO examined a €60.000 laboratory testing machine and investigated whether a similar portable, user-friendly device could be built. The result was B.EL.D, priced at only a few hundred euros and manufactured in EMBIO’s Nicosia facilities.
Designed and developed in Cyprus, the device combines sampling and accuracy levels comparable to state-of-the-art equipment available only in laboratories.
To operate B.EL.D the user has to connect the device via Bluetooth to their mobile phone using EMBIO’s app. Once connected, the user can start testing on the spot with results coming in minutes. The platform also provides auto report generation. The use of a mobile application, for both Android and iOS, means users can set up a portable laboratory anywhere, while having the flexibility to monitor past work as well.
As for the validity of B.EL.D's results in relation to the competent authorities, this depends on the tests performed. For example, the listeria tests for milk and cheese were certified for B.EL.D by an independent evaluator.
In addition, EMBIO has received an ISO 13485 certification for in vitro diagnostics. According to Mr Loizos, EMBIO is the first company to receive such a certification in Cyprus for production purposes in the areas of food safety and health.
Following the pandemic, B.EL.D’s testing versatility was further demonstrated after it was adapted to detect and diagnose coronavirus. EMBIO has developed a prototype sensor, AirBELD, which monitors the concentration of COVID-19 particles in the air for an indoor environment. Additionally, B.EL.D has been modified to carry out covid tests, as part of the CovBELD project. Clinical trials were successfully completed in August 2020 with mass production in mind as the next step.
In addition to B.EL.D, EMBIO has also developed Artificial Intelligence software for WESS, a weather station, in collaboration with the AIR Institute, a Spanish deep technology laboratory.
WESS is a 24/7 real-time weather monitoring system which can operate in any location. It combines Artificial Intelligence with smart agricultural monitoring and reports on leaf wetness, wind, soil moisture and temperature, solar radiation and can make smart recommendations. EMBIO has an income-fee based on the number of its users.
In December 2020, EMBIO was added to the Foodtech 500 2020 list out of thousands of international companies in the AgriFoodTech field. The Foodtech 500 is the world’s first definitive list of the global entrepreneurial talent at the intersection between food, technology, and sustainability. The list is run by Forward Fooding, with an aim of fostering food tech innovation to redesign food systems.
Mr Loizou's vision is for B.EL.D to become a major player in the field of food safety, environmental and health diagnostics. The target industries for B.EL.D are R&D companies, wanting to use the device for research purposes, food safety, and health, with CovBELD.
So far, EMBIO has sold 50 of its devices in Cyprus, Australia (food safety sector), China (R&D sector), USA, Greece, Germany (R&D sector), Spain (food safety sector) and UK.
Part of the challenge in selling the devices in Cyprus, according to Mr Loizou, is the lack of adequate and strict enforcement of food safety regulations on the island. In the absence of sufficient strict enforcement, potential customers do not feel the need to purchase the device.
However, some large companies, Lidl is cited as an example, are raising quality standards, which may cause spill-over effects, pushing other supermarkets and producers to further raise their quality standards.
Mr Loizou's vision for EMBIO is to develop into a major test production facility. He also cited the implementation of the European Green Deal, especially with regard to agricultural and food safety regulations (e.g. pesticide restrictions), as having the potential to create new opportunities for the biotech startup.
Like in other Cypriot start-ups, government sponsorship schemes were the first source of funding.
EMBIO received initial funding in 2017 from a Ministry of Commerce programme and participated in various competitions. EMBIO's CEO reports that he had contacts with various investors, mainly from abroad, with three offers having been made.
The first investor was Kinisis Ventures. Kinisis is involved on an almost daily basis with EMBIO's activities. Mr Loizou describes the investors as business partners and their participation has a positive impact on the operation and development of EMBIO Diagnostics. Kinisis is helping EMBIO build its strategy and develop a marketing plan to enter the US market.
In February 2021 EMBIO Diagnostics received an award for innovation in Covid-19 response by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), which provides tailored support for start-up ecosystems across Europe. The company will share a total of $100.000 of mixed cash reimbursement and advisory vouchers provided by the EBRD.
In December 2021, EMBIO announced a €1m strategic investment from ASBIS Group, a leading Value-Added Distributor, developer, and supplier of IT and IoT products, solutions, and services in the growing markets of Europe, Middle East and Africa. When addressing EMBIO’s products in the announcement, Siarhei Kostevitch, CEO and Chairman of ASBIS Group, stated ‘I am convinced that by introducing these innovative devices to our distribution channels, EMBIO Diagnostics will achieve global success, of which we, as the company's shareholders, will also be the beneficiaries’. Meanwhile, Mr Loizou commented ‘the extensive geographical presence of ASBIS and sales structures in 56 countries around the world, will enable us to commercialize our devices and scale faster. We have ambitious development plans, and I am convinced that our cooperation will bring tangible benefits to both parties.
In the coming months, EMBIO Diagnostics plans to expand its facilities to enable it to focus on ongoing R&D as well as promoting the B.EL.D device and branding. A prototype of the mass production version of B.EL.D has been developed and the details for mass production are currently under review. All relevant partnerships for mass production have already been established.
An agreement has also been signed with one of Europe's leading universities for the next stage of the clinical trial of B.EL.D.
Future plans also include the addition of new listeria diagnostics for Salmonella.
Mr Loizou says that most of their competition is indirect, with companies such as Thermo Scientific manufacturing larger and more expensive machines. Part of the challenge for EMBIO is to convince customers of traditional and larger machines to use B.EL.D and consider it as an equivalent device with equally reliable results. A key incentive for potential customers is B.EL.D’s affordability.
Analysis of the agritech market sees precision farming, farm management and quality management as key growth areas, according to ReportLinker. EMBIO is active in all the above areas, through its products B.EL.D and WESS. Overall, the market is expected to have a CAGR of 12.1% between 2020 and 2027.
In 2019, the agritech market was valued at $17.4bn and by 2027 is expected to grow to $41.1bn.
A potential competitor of EMBIO could be seen in MyDx, a California-based start-up, which, similarly to B.EL.D, has created the OrganaDx™ sensor that allows users to measure the levels of pesticides found in their food. The sensor is placed in the MyDx device which can also carry out other tests, such as the potency of cannabis, harmfulness of water and air. The OrganaDx™ sensor, along with those for testing water and air quality, are not yet commercially available. MyDx is only currently being used to measure the potency of cannabis.
A different market insight relevant to EMBIO’s WESS product is that of precision farming. According to a report by Grand View Research, Inc. it is projected to expand at a CAGR of 13.1% from 2021 to 2028. The hardware segment accounted for the largest revenue share of 69.13% in 2020 and is expected to remain dominant over the forecast period. The digital revolution in the agricultural sector, along with government financial incentives to farms, is likely to drive demand for precision farming in Europe in the forthcoming years.