The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has secured a multimillion-pound investment to help commercialise its research into climate change-resistant crops, zero-carbon fertiliser and plant- and cell-based meat and dairy products.
Greensphere Capital, a sustainability-focused fund, is aiming to invest up to £100m in the work carried out by Kew, a research institution and the UK’s largest botanic garden, as well as other organisations, to commercialise and scale-up study into managing risks around the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.
The funding is designed to increase research into some of the world’s most pressing challenges, including how to feed a growing global population amid rising temperatures and increasing extreme weather events.
Alongside sustainable agriculture, the investment will help pay for extra researchers to look into botanical and fungal sciences, restoration of habitats, agriculture and forestry, with the ultimate goal of turning some projects into companies.
Greensphere – which was founded in 2011 and was the first fund manager to the government’s Green Investment Bank – is investing through its climate incubator, Gaia Sciences Innovation (GSI).
Based at a 320-acre site in southwest London, Kew is home to a collection of almost 17,000 species of plants collected from all over the world during its more than 260-year history, as well its living collections in its gardens at Kew and Wakehurst in Sussex.
The organisation is also home to the Millennium Seed Bank, an underground collection intended to conserve for the future over 2.4bn seeds from around the world including nearly all of the UK’s native plant species.
Kew believes the tie-up with Greensphere will allow it to leverage its collections, particularly when freed from the shorter-term funding cycles commonly found with two- to three-year grants for academic research projects.
A non-departmental public body, Kew receives about a third of its funding from the government through the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but said it does not have “what’s termed an intellectual property budget”.
“It’s a huge opportunity to increase the impact of the work we’re doing on biodiversity,” said Prof Monique Simmonds, deputy director of science at Kew.
However, she added: “It’s not that we’re commercialising Kew.”
“Our expertise on collections, collated over 260 years, gives us a springboard by which we can provide information. Where plants were found in the past, that might not be found now, giving us an indication of what can happen with climate change,” said Simmonds.
“How can we work, not just academically to publish papers about it, but how can we help on the ground, with people, to be able to get money possibly going to those communities, to assist them realise the value of their plants.”
Greensphere’s investment will initially be used to hire about 20 new researchers, with the goal of developing up to 10 companies.
The money will also help to increase the laboratory space dedicated to this kind of work, which GSI believes will strengthen the role of the UK as a scientific and entrepreneurial hub.
The investment firm found that many ventures it could have invested in, which look to tackle biodiversity loss or the changing climate, were not based on scientific evidence, which first prompted discussions with Kew.
“If we were going to invest in natural capital at any scale, it would be dishonest to do it without proper science. A little bit like building a road with no civil engineers,” said Divya Seshamani, managing partner of Greensphere Capital.
“We found the science was a lot less developed than it could be. There weren’t ready companies, but there were clear solutions. We thought this could do with some funding, some commercial structure, to try to get the science into companies, and it would benefit Kew, giving it an extra revenue stream.”
Kew currently has over 350 scientific staff working on projects with partners in more than 100 countries worldwide, including a permanent base in Madagascar, considered a critical location for biodiversity loss.
Kew has previously only created one spin-out from its research, a company called Polypharmakos – formed in 2016 to discover and develop new antimicrobial agents from natural products – created with the University of Cambridge, through a £500,000 investment from the university.