Novihum: A sustainable soil solution to feed the future
Intensive farming is depleting our soils of the crucial nutrients needed to grow food. With support from the Enterprise Europe Network, Peter Langer, CEO of Novihum Technologies, scaled up a university research project and started manufacturing a product that could not only replenish these soils, but increase yield too.
Novihum is a carbon-rich soil conditioning technology that improves soil fertility for 10 years, significantly increasing crop yields while reducing water use and pollution. After fifteen years of research at the Technical University of Dresden, a company was set up around the technology with the aim to scale up the research into a commercial product. Founders of the company were Peter Langer, CEO, and Horst Ninnemann, Director R&D.
"I was attracted to Novihum because I found the idea inspiring," said Peter. "I have a background in managing high-tech engineering companies, but I wanted to work more hands-on with a new and challenging project."
Peter and Horst founded Novihum Technologies in 2012 and addressed the scaling up challenge head on. They knew from the start that they needed a factory where they could produce a steady supply of Novihum at a reasonable cost; once they had that, they planned to enter European and international horticulture, roof greening, industrial cultivation, and sustainability markets.
"We had a proven product, and we had secured the first equity investments from venture capital firms, but we needed to scale up from a laboratory into a pilot plant and then to a larger, more industrial scale. We were looking for investment to develop, so we contacted ZENIT, a German Member of the Enterprise Europe Network, and asked them how we could finance such a pilot plant. They helped us lay out a programme that outlined the staff, what type of facility and location we needed," said Peter.
The Enterprise Europe Network is the world's largest support network for small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) with international ambitions. ZENIT conducted a workshop with Novihum Technologies and provided tailor-made advice to help them scale up. As a result Novihum developed a strong application for funding from the European Commission’s SME Instrument, the EU research and innovation programme helping small businesses with high growth potential.
"We read their initial proposal and tried to find some weaknesses in order to turn them into strengths," said Bernd Meyer from ZENIT, who orchestrated the workshop with Novihum. "It was already a good proposal and would probably have got a positive evaluation, but with our support they reached the next level. We’re happy to see they got the funding because it means we analysed their application correctly"
Novihum were awarded over EUR 2 million which they used to developed a pilot production plant in Dortmund that can produce 1 000 tonnes of Novihum a year. This created 20 jobs in the process while plans are already in motion to develop a full production plant which could produce 30 000 tonnes of Novihum a year and sell to clients all around the world, ensuring even further job creation. Overall, the funding has helped Novihum Technologies accelerate their market entry by at least a year.
"Today we face decreasing agricultural yields because of the way we use our soils. This is a problem in Europe, but also all over the world," said Peter. "Novihum is a product that can sustainably generate the organic matter to bring these soils back to health and increase yield production. With our production plant we can now start talking to customers and setting up bigger trials."