5 mins read

‘We Harness Light To Enrich Lives’ – Agritech Startup Qarbotech

December 30, 2023
Business Today
5 mins read

Since its inception in 2018, a Malaysian-based Agritech startup has set its sight in capitalizing technology to enhance various aspects of human lives including tackling food security challenges.

And the company plans to scale even further, from its goal to expand to in the region to its ambitious goal to be a global leader in quantum dots technology.

In an exclusive interview with Business Today, Qarbotech co-founder and chief executive officer Chor Chee Hoe said in the near term, the company plans to scale up to 50 times its current production capacity with its pilot manufacturing plant, set to be fully operational in April 2024.

With the new plant, which will have the capability to produce 100,000 liters of the company’s flagship products QarboGrow monthly, it plans to expand its business across Southeast Asia.

QarboGrow is a revolutionary photosynthesis enhancement technology that helps farmers increase crop yield by 60% while reducing their environmental impact.

Its patented photosynthesis enhancement nanotechnology is an on-plant or in-soil solution that boosts agricultural productivity.

Aside from expanding its manufacturing facilit, Qarbotech will also make significant investments in strengthening their research and development.

Chor said the expansion plans was made possible as it had recently won $700,000 in seed funding and grants, from a funding round led by multi-stage venture capital firm, 500 Global.

It includes innovation grants from the Temasek Foundation for winning the Climate Impact Innovations Challenge 2023, and Khazanah Nasional’s Dana Impak for winning the Khazanah Impact Innovation Challenge (KIIC) 2023.

He said a significant portion of the funding will be allocated to capital expenditures (capex) for the new production facilities to meet the growing market demand from its customers and distributors.

“Currently, we are renting a small laboratory at Universiti Putra Malaysia to manufacture our product, QarboGrow photosynthesis enhancer, for crop validation trials and to supply some paying customers and farmers.

“Our current monthly production volume stands at approximately 2000 liters, sufficient for covering 120 hectares of plantation for one growth season.

“With the seed funding, we can construct our own pilot plant to scale up production, which is set to be fully operational by April 2024.

“With the increase in production volume to 100,000 monthly, we can positively impact at least 1000 smallholder farmers,” he said.

Chor aside from meeting the demand the expansion aligns with growth aspiration in Malaysia and Indonesia.

“Our short-term plans include expanding our existing market in Malaysia and entering new markets like Indonesia.

“As a research-centric agritech startup, we will also continue to improve our product offerings through extensive research and development in 2024,” Chor said.

Chor said Qarbotech has also successfully entered into several Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) and Memorandum of Agreement (MOAs) with various partners in both Malaysia and Indonesia, as part of its strategic business expansion plan during the third and fourth quarters of 2023.

“We have Letter of Intent (LOIs) and MOUs, to account for 30% of the new production capacity to date,” he added.

“The market potential in Southeast Asia is substantial, and we anticipate our production capacity to be fully utilized by the end on 2024,” added Chor.

He said the company’s revenue has quadrupled to approximately RM450,000 in 2023 from around RM110,000 in 2022.

“A total of 90% of the revenue came from the B2B segment, catering to farmers, floriculturists, and chemical companies while the remaining 10% was derived from the B2C segment, serving home gardeners and plant hobbyists.”

What is in the pipeline for Qarbotech?

Looking ahead to 2024, Qarbotech anticipates a significant increase in revenue, projecting a total of RM3.8 million, predominantly driven by the B2B sector, Chor said.

“Our strategic vision for the end of 2024 entails establishing a robust presence in Malaysia and Indonesia while actively contributing to the regional food security agenda.

“Beyond food crops, we foresee playing a pivotal role in enhancing the value of nutraceuticals within Malaysia. This country boasts a rich biodiversity, housing some of the world’s oldest rainforests, harboring over 2,000 plants with potential medicinal value.

“This wealth of raw materials positions Malaysia competitively in comparison to global counterparts in nutraceutical development. By leveraging enhanced photosynthesis, medicinal plants can potentially exhibit a higher content of active ingredients or compounds.

“We have observed and studied this phenomenon using microalgae cultivated for nutraceutical compounds, resulting in a remarkable increase of over 60% in the active ingredient. Nutraceutical players in Malaysia will be our key focus in expanding our B2B customer base,” he said.

On its plans for Qarbogrow, Chor said the company plans to gather additional validating data on crops with longer growth cycles, such as dragon fruits, oil palm and durian.

“We are presently collaborating with several plantations partners engaged in cultivation of dragon fruits, palm trees, and durian trees,” he said.

The data, he added, could help address the challenge of low yield during the monsoon season through the utilization of the company’s technology.

Qarbogrow photosysthesis enhancer product empower plants to capture more sunlight, even under overcast skies, with users reporting substantial improvements in both rice and vegetable yields.

“Since the early days of Qarbotech, we have assisted thriving farmers in building climate-resilient food production systems through our agricultural innovation.

“Climate change has evidently impacted our food supply and production system. We will persist in supporting our network of farmers in adapting to these changes,” he added.

Additionally, in anticipation of future global expansion, Chor said the company is also actively pursuing various international certifications and standards.

“This includes seeking approval from Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from United States to certify our material as internationally recognized as food-safe.

“At present, we have successfully completed acute oral toxicity tests and genotoxicity tests, conducted by an independent third-party laboratory in Malaysia,” Chor said.

Qarbotech also plans to expand its product line of a “new and disruptive solution that will reshape conventional approaches to farming”.

However, he said this is still in the works with a research and development partner that couldn’t be named just yet as it is protected by secrecy agreement (confidentially agreement).

“Both Qarbotech and this entity will co-own this new intellectual property when it is successfully researched and developed.”

Capitalizing on technology to improve human lives

Qarbotech’s flagship product Qarbogrow, was based on quantum dots technolgy (QDs), and developed by the its founder and chief scientist Dr Suraya Abdul Rashid.

QDs, including Graphene QDs (GQDs) and carbon QDs (CQDs) are considered some of the most promising carbon-based nanomaterials at the forefront of this research area.

Dr Suraya, who is also Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology deputy director, is an expert on nanomaterials, including for its properties, application and manufacturing process.

“While nanomaterials can be produced in small quantities in the lab using any method, it was imperative for her, as a chemical engineer, that the production process be safe, scalable, sustainable, and economical,” he said.

Although Dr Suraya started with GQDs research in 2013, where she successfully patented the process to a green, green scalable, and economical method for producing GQDs in 2016, she later found that incorporating CQDs into photocatalysts improved their efficiency.

“She shifted her focus to exploring CQD as a potential photosynthesis enhancer, spurred by UPM’s encouragement.

“Collaborating with co-researchers from the the university’s Faculty of Agriculture, they successfully demonstrated unprecedented improvements in photosynthesis rates for various plants sprayed with CQD.

“This exciting development prompted Dr. Suraya to establish Qarbotech in 2018 to commercialize the technology she had pioneered,” Chor explained.

Dr Suraya invited Chor to be co-founder and CEO as they have collaborated on a project previously during his postgraduate study and he accepted the invitation for their synergy and for a personal reason.

Growing up as an asthmatic child, he recognized the potential of Qarbotech’s technology to remove additional carbon dioxide from the air through plant and generate more oxygen.

Going forward, Chor said the company’s vision is to emerge as the global leader in quantum dots technology and for the long-term, he envisioned the company as a scientific venture.

The ‘Q’ in Qarbotech signifies quantum dots, and the company possesses expertise in the production of biocompatible quantum dots.

“We have the capability to synthesize both organic and inorganic quantum dots. Presently, our focus is on organic or biocompatible quantum dots. For the first time ever, we witnessed the application of quantum dots directly in the agriculture sector.

According to Qarbotech’s statement, the population in Southeast Asia is estimated to grow by 12 percent, from 670 million in 2020 to 750 million by 2035. The population surge and climate volatility are expected to drive a 40 percent increase in food demand by 2050.

The climate crisis such as El Niño phenomenon brings longer droughts and monsoon seasons, significantly reducing crop yields and farmers’ income while also causing food insecurity problems in Malaysia.

“Qarbotech’s technology can enhance the rate of photosynthesis and lead to higher crop yields. But it’s crucial to combine it with other solutions such as smart farming and other sustainable farming practices.

“The key focus is collaboration; when all agritech players in Malaysia join forces, we can contribute to the economic resilience of farming communities.

Chor added, besides food security and resilient agriculture, the technologies the company develop will play a pivotal role in enhancing various aspects of human life including utilizing renewable energy and healthcare.

“All these elements can be powered by our quantum dots technology. We harness light to enrich lives,” he said.