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Phytoform Labs is October's Featured Business of the Month

Thu, 25 October 2018

Nicolas Kral won a Smarter Future Award in October 2017 for his business Phytoform Labs
Selective plant breeding has improved food taste and crop resilience in the past but ongoing challenges like climate change, crop disease and rising demand for more nutritious produce means selective breeding is not sufficient. Phytoform Labs are now changing crops at the genetic level, enabling plant breeding innovation with novel bio-technologies fit for 21st century challenges. 
Nicolas Kral and the rest of the founding team started Phytoform Labs at university where they juggled their PhD programme and a fledgling company. At its core, not much has changed in Phytoform Labs since the beginning; the business is still striving towards its long-term goals of a more sustainable food supply chain. However, the team has seen growth in numbers and premises as Phytoform Labs has expanded into specialised office and laboratory space. 
We sat down with Nicolas to catch up with him and see what’s next for his award-winning business. 
What was the inspiration behind Phytoform Labs? 
Engineering principles applied to biology have huge potential to change the world for the better. However, this is only starting to be implemented in plant sciences, never mind agriculture. We at Phytoform Labs want to contribute to this shift and mitigate some of the harshest effects of climate change by developing new crop cultivars. On a personal note, the motivation also arose as a little bit of a necessity since only about 1 in 200 PhD students will eventually make professor at an academic institution. I thought my odds would be improved by taking a leap of faith, changing my career path early and focusing on science-driven business.  
How did you get into entrepreneurship? Did you always want to go into business for yourself? 
Imperial College, where I graduated from, was a great place to be exposed to the entrepreneurial community. I saw my peers and older mentors transition from a science career to an entrepreneurial journey, some of them also Shell LiveWIRE alumni. Since I had these examples around me, I knew it was a viable option and I was not afraid to follow the vision we laid out for Phytoform Labs. 
What challenges did you face when setting up your business? 
Being a first-time founder is very hard, especially coming from a science background. There are so many things involved with running a business that at first you don’t know where to focus. I would say the biggest challenge is to start creating a name for the company independent of your previous scientific achievements, which essentially do not matter. What matters is to attract customers and keep the team motivated, which are things we are learning as we go along. 
What is your biggest (or proudest) achievement with the business? 
We’ve won multiple awards with Phytoform Labs, but I think the proudest achievement is that I’m part of a team that’s working together well and is aiming towards really changing the world. 
You won a Shell LiveWIRE Award in 2017, how have things changed for you since then? 
When we won last year, we weren’t much more than an idea. So, things have changed quite drastically since we won. We now have our own working laboratory and team in it and we’re on the way to develop our first product. We now interact with other bio-tech companies and are slowly securing longer term business partnerships. We are starting to put Phytoform Labs on the map, which is really important. 
What’s next for Phytoform Labs? 
We plan to finish our first crop variety and start trialling it in greenhouses at scale. We also have a couple of other things in the making, but those have to stay under wraps for now. On the business side, we obviously want to grow and keep making new products. We are building partnerships with established businesses and other start-ups in agriculture and bio-tech, so that the crops we make will appear on the market and hopefully make a difference. 
What role do you think entrepreneurs will play in the transition to a low carbon society? 
I think entrepreneurs are instrumental, since they drive big changes. Together with other small teams we have a vision and a way that we imagine future to be, and we are working towards it. Traditionally most disruptive innovations, which are without any doubt necessary for tackling climate change, have come from small, driven teams. 
What’s your approach to risk as an entrepreneur? 
I don’t think risk is actually something entrepreneurs should be looking out for. We are constantly trying to manage risk for our business from the commercial, technical and regulatory perspective. I guess tackling a problem head on and not really knowing what the future brings can appear risky to others, but to me it seems just a logical progression of my thoughts. 
What’s the most important personality trait to have as an entrepreneur and why? 
Resilient, calm and motivated. Resilient, because things will never go your way and you constantly have to make them go your way. Calm is something I struggle most with, but because running a start-up is such a roller coaster, I think it’s important to not overthink both the successes and the difficulties. Being motivated is the key to doing anything. Even though at times things don’t go our way or are stressful, since we want to keep doing what we are doing, and we are excited about what tomorrow brings, then I don’t mind the obstacles along the way. 
If you could return to this time last year would you do anything differently? 
No, well maybe I’d focus more on what customers were telling us! 
What advice would you give to aspiring young entrepreneurs? 
Test your ideas with potential customers early, see if people like what you are making and see if they’d even be willing to pay for it. If you don’t find demand, don’t worry, just changing one small aspect of your fledgling business can turn it all around. Pivoting based on customer feedback is part of every start-up’s journey and as an entrepreneur you’ll have to be comfortable with change. 
Got a Smart Idea for a Business? 
Do you have a smart business idea that will provide a solution to the world’s future transport, food, energy, or natural resource challenges, or make our urban environments cleaner and more sustainable places to work and live in? If so you can apply online now for funding!  

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