Fund manager turned impact investor Rob Appleby on the green revolution

Rob Appleby, the founder of The Cibus Funds, discusses the battle for one of the most important frontiers in sustainability.

On frequent trips to Indonesia, Appleby says he “witnessed the wholesale dismantling of the rainforest.” This photograph, taken with a drone, shows areas of forest that have been cleared for oil palm plantations in Aceh, Indonesia. EPA/HOTLI SIMANJUNTAK

CV

• Founder, The Cibus Funds, 2016-present.
• Director and Co-Founder, ADM Capital Foundation 2006-present.
• CIO and Co-Founder, ADM Capital 1998 - present.
• Managing Director, Credit Agricole 1996-88.
• Executive Director, Lehman Brothers 1983-96.
• Zoology & Anthropology, Oxford University, 1980-83.

A fund manager, turned farmer, turned conservationist

Rob Appleby, the founder of The Cibus Funds describes himself as “a conservationist by choice”. Cibus – pronounced with a ‘hard C’ as in “Kibus” – forms part of ADM capital, which he co-founded in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis. The investment manager has around $2bn in assets.

All of this is managed in a sustainable manner, with the $500mn plus in the two Cibus Funds specifically “identifying innovative companies poised to benefit from the food and agriculture value chain’s transition to a new, sustainable model”, Appleby tells Impact Investor.

Appleby knows what he is talking about – he is himself a farmer in Dorset, southern England. Shortly after university he left for Hong Kong where over the next 23 years, he had a “ringside seat” to China’s exponential economic growth.

Appleby also witnessed the environmental consequences. He tells us he “experienced barely breathable air” and on frequent trips to Indonesia “witnessed the wholesale dismantling of the rainforest”. He also saw the effects on the world’s food industry as Asia increasingly switched towards a more western (dairy based) diet.

‘Very much a calling’

Out of these experiences Appleby’s sustainability credentials grew, as did his interest in impact investing. About fifteen years ago he tells us they came together and became “very much a calling”.

In 2006, Appleby founded the ADM Capital Foundation, an impact driven foundation focused on making change in Asia. Since its inception, the foundation has supported around fifty sustainable projects for around $40mn.

"There is a perfect storm hitting global food production," says Appleby.

The idea of The Cibus Funds, which aim to find sustainable investment opportunities that have the potential to revolutionise our food production system, was a natural development for Appleby and his co-founder and fellow organic farmer, Alastair Cooper.

The pair have launched two funds. The original Cibus Fund focuses on growth equity opportunities in sustainable food and agriculture companies, while the Cibus Enterprise Fund is aimed at agri food tech investments.

‘A perfect storm’

“There is a perfect storm hitting global food production”, Appleby says, as the ongoing climate crisis combines with the growing world population, and recent Covid disruption to ‘up-end’ decades of accepted practices.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation is predicting that a 60% increase in the world’s food production will be needed by 2030 [PDF]. And yet, according to the University of Sheffield, a third of arable land has been lost in the past 40 years. At the same time the environmental impact of farming is dramatic. Food production emits 34% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and 70% of the world’s freshwater resources are consumed by agriculture, according to the World Bank.

‘40% per annum’

Appleby feels that “until about 2013, investors failed to appreciate the scale of what was happening, with very little capital deployed to explore solutions”. Since then, venture capital has been entering the arena at a growth rate he says exceeds 40% per annum. And a plethora of new businesses have sprung up to bring about change.

The diversity of Cibus’s investments reflects this diversity of opportunities, and apparently the team are getting two to three new approaches every day. This allows them to be highly selective – Appleby says in one case he looked at fifteen different meat substitute companies before choosing the two he wished to back.

Cibus focuses on seven key investment themes: Artificial Input Reduction, Meat and Dairy Industry Disruption, Novel Farming Systems, Health & Wellness, Robotics and Automation, Supply Chain Disruption, and finally Natural Capital.

Appleby has high expectations of the rise of ‘indoor farming’, and tells us how it is impacting both his Summer Berry Company and a recent investment in Dutch Robotics specialist ISO.

“Food grown in controlled environments, under glass or polytunnels, occupies a much smaller land footprint and uses up to 95% less water”, says Appleby. “It also removes the requirement for chemical pesticides, and can allow products to be grown much closer to the consumer, removing the need for transportation.”

Nutraceuticals

Personalized health, and the rise of ‘nutraceuticals’ is another key area Cibus are looking to play.

The developing science around the microbiome, the trillions of gut bacteria that are highly personalized to each individual, is a new frontier attracting venture capital. Cibus’s recent investment in the Arizona company Prenexus puts them at the centre of one part of this with their disruptive prebiotic technology.

Remedy Health, the creation of female entrepreneur Melissa Snover, has also attracted Cibus’s attention. Remedy offers “personalised nutrition in a single daily format” using patented 3D printing technology. In the UK, the company is becoming well-known for its personalised gummy vitamin brand, Nourished.

Appleby concludes by saying that the disruptive technologies creating the food revolution and creating more sustainable production may soon be grouped together to form a new asset class of their own.

He says he intends to launch further funds in the future, and sees a doubling in the Cibus’s funds under management as highly likely – in just the next two years.