At the tail end of October, German company Evonik Industries – the largest specialty chemicals company in the world – invested in Dutch biotech startup In Ovo. Co-leading this series A investment round was Singapore-based venture capital fund VisVires New Protein. The total amount of the investment remains undisclosed but it probably rounded to several millions.
In Ovo – headquartered at the Bio Science Park of the University of Leiden – was founded in 2013 by Wouter Bruins and Wil Stutterheim with the aim of solving one of the biggest ethical problems in modern poultry farming: the yearly culling of billions of male chicks by means of grounding, gassing, and cervical dislocation.
The male chicks are killed because they can’t lay eggs and they’re also not fit for meat production (the meat industry raises a different breed of chicks, the broilers). In Ovo wants to solve this problem by developing a method to determine the sex of the chicks before they hatch.
As I often highlight, ending animal farming is probably one of the three most pressing challenges for the humankind. Solving it would bring huge benefits to the environment, our health, and obviously the lives of billions of animals.
In Ovo is not working in this direction. At the opposite, if successful, its innovative method of egg sexing would probably guarantee the egg industry a few years of additional prosperity (the culling of male baby chicks is time-consuming and bad for business).
However, In Ovo might put an end to a gruesome practice in the span of just a few years. Will it be just an intermediary solution? Maybe, but it will be an important one. For this reason, I reached out to Wouter Bruins, In Ovo’s founder and managing director. I asked him about how did he have the idea of founding In Ovo and what makes its approach to the problem unique.
Well, first off, congrats on your latest funding round. How are you planning to use the pretty penny you just raised?
We need to grow so we’re of course going to hire many new people. I was reading the other day that there has never been so many open job positions in the Netherlands but I think we have the right proposition to attract top-notch talent.
Flashback to the beginnings. How did it all start?
I was a biology student at the University of Leiden, but I was also following a couple of courses about marketing and entrepreneurship. I didn’t have any experience as an entrepreneur but when I looked at the entrepreneurs that were based at the Leiden Bio Science Park, I liked what they were trying to do and I wanted to give it a chance as well.
So I started looking for a problem. I quite like problem-driven companies that focus just on onesingle issue and try to solve it.
I was just talking with a lot of business people, telling them: “I’m a biology student. What are the biggest issues you’re struggling with? Maybe, I can help you.” This way, I met a person from the egg industry that exposed me the problem of male chicks culling. I knew nothing about chicks at the time but I immediately understood that this was an interesting and important problem to tackle.
What did you do next?
I just googled the problem and looked for how many people already tried to solve it. I wanted to see if there was an approach that was not being considered.
And how would you explain your approach to someone who has very little knowledge of biology?
The first thing that we did was trying to figure out the differences between male and female eggs. We did that in terms of very small chemical compounds, called metabolites.
Now, when we want to determine the sex of an egg, we make a very tiny hole in the eggshell so we can extract a sample. Afterwards, we use that sample to determine the sex of the chick. In the end, we’re also able to close the tiny hole on the eggshell.
Of course, it’s important that we do all of this really fast, in a line.
You do the sexing when the eggs are already incubated, right?
Yes, there’s an embryo in the egg when we do the sexing. Obviously, we’re looking into ways to speed up also this process. Being able to spot the sex of the chick at day zero would be ideal but I don’t think is feasible at the moment. But never say never…