“I would encourage every person, from every age, every colour, religion, gender, location to ask themselves ‘why you are here? Why do you exist?’ It is so important to know the answer to that question”. (Luke Young)
Luke’s answer to his own question is “I exist because I believe in creating a lasting positive impact”. With his fellow Durham University graduate, Rory Hornby, he is well on his way to doing just that. In 2019, a year after graduating with a Masters in Biological Sciences, he and Rory co-founded Agrisea, an ocean agriculture company that uses no fresh water, no chemical fertilisers, less labour, and less land than the traditional farming system and, importantly, produces no methane. By designing and implementing a sustainable ocean agriculture system, Luke and Rory are helping to solve world hunger.
Starting with rice, it took them two years to produce salt-tolerant seeds by identifying the eight ancestral genes that are normally only active in plants naturally tolerant to saline water. Their patented system uses gene editing to “switch on” those genes in such a way as to allow salt entry and the plants to thrive in salty conditions. Currently, this is half the salinity of oceanic saltwater but they claim that their system will enable them, eventually, to create floating farms on the ocean producing clean hydroponic crops, not just rice.
Initially located in Durham University’s Venture Lab, Agrisea, now named Alora, is based in the University of Waterloo’s Velocity incubator in Ontario, Canada, having first won lab space and $250,000 of seed funding at the IndieBio incubator based in San Francisco. With 3.5 billion people relying on rice every day, Alora is in talks to create floating ocean farms with major rice-producing countries such as Bangladesh, China and Vietnam as well as New Zealand and the USA, where the farms would act as ocean filters, and Japan where the crops could be planted in land flooded by the tsunamis. In places like the Mekong Delta, for example, where increased salinity is reducing the amount of land available to grow rice, they are “basically making what is currently non-productive land into productive land and the potential is unlimited” says Rory.
In April 2022, Alora raised $1.4 million early-stage venture capital from Toyota Venture Capital and Mistletoe Singapore. It intends to use this funding to grow the venture by hiring more biological scientists to help expand into other crops including grains, leafy greens and herbs. While their mission is to “build a future where having enough food each day is no longer a luxury, but a basic right for every person, no matter where they are”, Luke and Rory recognise that to be sustainable they need to “make as much money as possible”. Initially, therefore, they intend to licence out their platforms and seeds to farming companies and governments but, long term, their intention is to have two systems one being to operate their own farms, the other being to have local, like-minded partners who will grow the crops themselves.
According to Lisa Coca, Climate Fund partner at Toyota Ventures, “Alora’s innovative approach to cultivating salt-tolerant crops is a game-changing trifecta that addresses the key issues related to climate change and the production of food, namely the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (specifically methane), food security and land usage, as well as water conservation”. The venture addresses, therefore, not just SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), but 10 (reduced inequalities) and 12 (responsible Consumption and Production), together with 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life Below Water) and 15 (Life on Land) as well as 9 (Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure).
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Inspiring case study emanating from the UK’s Durham University and the team’s vision and innovation in identifying and addressing the challenges of increasing food production in a changing global environment. Only sorry that the UK have lost out to Canada for the next stage of this impressive business venture. Good luck to Alora