A Swiss start-up at the forefront of the fight against food waste

Olga and Sylvain Dubey want to get rid of the gray rot that attacks many fruit and vegetable varieties. swissinfo.ch

Molds are the number one enemy of strawberries, bananas and other potatoes that have already been picked. Thanks to an internationally patented natural method, Vaud-based start-up AgroSustain and its founder Olga Dubey are declaring war on these pest fungi.

This content was posted on April 26, 2019 – 11:03 AM

Main cause of plant disease, pathogenic fungiexternal link cause global agricultural losses estimated at over 200 billion francs each year. Farmers are not the only ones affected by this scourge: the dreaded gray rot often develops after harvesting, causing waste and a considerable loss of revenue (SFr60 billion) for fruit and vegetable wholesalers and distributors.

“We provide an effective, economical and biological alternative to the only chemical solutions that existed until now”

Olga Dubey, founder of AgroSustain

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“Molds are responsible for a third of all post-harvest losses. The problem is particularly acute in developing countries, where food storage and transport are not always optimal,” says Olga Dubey (28), founder of start-up AgroSustain.external link.

This young sustainable agriculture company based in the canton of Vaud has the ambition to overcome these harmful organisms. Its recipe: a biological compound called AgroShelf+, capable of stopping the development of several species of pathogenic fungi and thus prolonging the shelf life of many varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Blacklisted pesticides

It was as part of her doctoral work at the University of Lausanne that Olga Dubey identified a molecule with strong antifungal properties. “This molecule, naturally present in plants, has the advantage of being able to be extracted through an organic synthesis process. Thus, we offer an effective, economical and biological alternative to the only chemical solutions that existed until now,” she notes.

In Switzerland, it is not allowed to treat agricultural products with synthetic pesticides after harvest. Like the United States, however, many other countries allow this practice. Pesticides are today increasingly criticized for their harmfulness to health and the environment, a phenomenon that obviously has not escaped Olga Dubey.

“We are witnessing a global movement towards a healthier and greener way of life. With enough experience, knowledge and the right technology, I am convinced that all the answers to our problems can be found in nature”, says the young entrepreneur.

A start-up in 26

A conviction linked to the body from his earliest childhood, when he spent much of his free time in his grandparents’ vegetable garden in Russia. “Even as a child, I was aware of the challenges posed by food storage. It was always engraved in my mind and it was probably what guided my choice of studies”, says Olga Dubey.

“I love research, but I also always had the ambition to do something useful for people”

Olga Dubey, founder of AgroSustain

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As soon as she finished her molecular biology course, the young woman, then only 26 years old, created AgroSustain with her husband Sylvain Dubey, PhD in biology and head of technology, and Jean-Pascal Aribot, commercial director.

“I love research, but I’ve also always had the ambition to do something useful for people. After my discovery, I decided to leave the laboratory to start developing this new product and create my own company”, says Olga Dubey in Russian-accented English.

many supports

AgroSustain, which now has nine employees, raised an initial funding of one million francs late last year. A new round of funding is expected soon to enable the commercialization of its first product by 2021. The start-up has also benefited from several loans and awards from organizations active in supporting innovation.

It must be said that Olga Dubey’s discovery arouses great interest from players in the sector. Partnerships have already been established in the greatest secrecy with major distributors active in Switzerland and abroad. Acquisition proposals have also been flowing for a year.

“AgroSustain is not for sale. On the other hand, we are open to possible collaborations that allow us to distribute our products more widely”, says the young entrepreneur, who has just entered the annual ranking of ‘Forbes’ magazine.external link of the 30 best entrepreneurs under the age of 30 in the Science and Health category.

Confederation interest

Public actors are also not indifferent to the potential of AgroSustain. The start-up thus signed a partnership agreement with Agroscope from Changinsexternal linkone of the Confederation’s seven competence centers specializing in agricultural research.

“This is the first time such a collaboration has been established. Integration is almost complete, as we share the same premises and seek to gather as much of our knowledge as possible”, explains Katia Gindro, head of the mycology and biotechnology group. external linkin Changins.

Olga Dubey (left) works closely with the Changins Agroscope mycology and biotechnology group, led by Katia Gindro. swissinfo.ch

Much appreciated by both parties, this type of partnership can develop in the coming years. Everyone seems to find their account.

risk reduction

On the AgroSustain side, we welcome access to cutting-edge agronomic research expertise and the provision of ideal infrastructure – laboratories, greenhouses and agricultural land – for carrying out large-scale trials.

Confederation experts, in turn, see it as a means of getting in touch with economic means active in the development of innovative agrotechnological products. Furthermore, this collaboration is perfectly aligned with the Confederation’s action plan.external link aiming to reduce the risks associated with the use of phytosanitary products.

“We will have to do without some synthetic pesticides and fungicides in the future. This is particularly the case with travacid, used to limit the development of fungi, including gray rot on cuttings and vine grafts. The work carried out by AgroSustain is very important in this regard and may find applications in other agricultural sectors”, considers Katia Gindro.

Swiss agrotech shoots

Aboveground lettuce crops (Combagroup), solar powered robots specializing in field weeding (Ecorobotixexternal link), tools capable of measuring the environmental impact of food (Beelong) or drones specialized in digitizing agricultural holdings (Gamaya): Switzerland has an increasing number of start-ups active in the development of new agricultural and agri-food techniques .

These young shoots are developing around the federal polytechnic schools, the Nestlé research development center or even the agricultural research centers of the Confederacy. Unlike the Vale da Saúde (medical technologies), for example, this ecosystem is still in its embryonic stage. Agriculture is, in fact, one of the last sectors of the economy to embark on the wave of new technologies.

“These start-ups are active in very different fields, so there is no competition between us. On the contrary, the people active in this community are very supportive and do not hesitate to help each other when necessary”, emphasizes Olga Dubey, founder of AgroSustain.

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You can contact the author of this article on Twitter: @samueljabergexternal link

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