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Bioengineering their way to cleaner, more productive soil

PhytoMines wants to help the mining industry tidy up after itself

Hello there,

Our Christmas break is over and we’re back to bring you a fresh startup every Tuesday and Thursday.

Today’s startup is doing something that could prove very important in the environmental space, and targeting mining companies as its first market. Scroll down to read all about PhytoMines.

Yesterday, Team PreSeed Now (that’s Samantha and I) had a 2024 kick-off meeting up in the scenic (and bitterly cold) Peak District. We’ve got big plans to do a lot more in the early-stage startup space this year. Look out for more information soon.

Before that though, this month we’ll have an exciting upgrade to the Startup Tracker our paying subscribers have been using for the past few months. More info to follow as soon as the last bit of polish is applied to everything.

– Martin

PhytoMines wants to bioengineer its way to cleaner, more productive soil

Unless you’ve got a mine on your doorstep or work at the sharp end of industry, you probably don’t think much about metal pollution in the soil. But mining the raw materials essential for all sorts of products can also be an environmental hazard.

Extracting metal from the ground leaves a lot of soil burdened with trace amounts of metal that can’t be mined via traditional methods, and can render land unusable for other purposes, or cause pollution that makes agriculture difficult. 

That’s why clearing heavy metal pollution from soil around mines is important, through a process called remediation. But while techniques like acid leaching can remove heavy metals from soil, they have environmental impacts of their own.

PhytoMines is a new startup that thinks it has a solution. The London-based team wants to use plants to both clean up pollution and extract metal from the soil so that it can be used in industry. But unlike others in this space, they’re bioengineering enhanced plants specifically for the task.

“We take strains of bacteria that are engineered to exhibit certain genes, and then we take plant seeds and introduce the bacteria into the plant seed,” explains co-founder and CEO Franklin Keck

“Then we go out to a field and we plant the seeds and let them grow naturally for three months. Then we harvest them and take them away and use a patented process to extract the heavy metals from the biomass and then both can be recycled back into industry,” 

It’s an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional ways of cleaning heavy metals from the soil, adds Keck’s fellow co-founder Ion Ioannou

“This whole approach is very sustainable, as the metal is extracted and recycled, but also the plant biomass in the end can be recycled itself to produce things like bioethanol or cellulose, etc. So we're offering a green, sustainable technology in order to treat soil waste.”

While the startup’s name is closely related to the process of phytomining (extracting metal from the soil), that’s only part of what PhytoMines does.

“We don't want to compete with mines. We want to work with mines and we want to replace the current remediation techniques that cause harm to the environment; they're more expensive and they also produce lots of CO2,” says Ionannou.

Keck and Ionannou plan to patent the specific bacteria and genes involved in their process. While it’s slower than current remediation techniques, they believe it can be up to eight times less expensive.

The story so far

Keck moved to the UK from California in 2018 to do a masters degree at Imperial College London. He says it was there he got a taste for the startup world, working with a team that was using algae to enhance plant growth. Moving on to do a PhD at Imperial, he researched phytoremediation of heavy metals.

Also in 2018, Ionannou moved from Greece to the UK for his masters at UCL. It was while doing his subsequent PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering at Imperial that he met Keck and collaborated on research. 

In 2022, Keck joined the Conception X programme as he looked to build a startup around his research. Ionannou was intrigued by entrepreneurship himself, and joined the programme and the startup that became PhytoMines too.

Next on the roadmap is some additional R&D to verify that they can collect more metal, and types of metals, from the soil than they have already tested. Future R&D will look at speeding up the remediation process, increasing the metal uptake, and increasing the toxicity tolerance of the plants they use.

At the same time, they want to begin field trials to fully validate the commercial potential of the technology. Ionannou is optimistic.

“We want to do the field trials in parallel with the beginning of commercialising this, and that's why we're gonna target metal mines, because they do have all these soil waste that we want to use. And if we get good results, they're automatically going to be our first clients. Given the fact that they constantly produce waste, this is a service that they're going to need all the time.”

Beyond metal mines, PhytoMines sees potential in selling to other producers of soil pollution, and land developers who want to clean up land to build upon or just increase its value. Ionannou points to the UK government’s fund to regenerate brownfield land for building homes as an example of a potential use case.

Go deeper on PhytoMines

Read more about their funding and investment plans, their vision, competition, and challenges:


PhytoMines hasn’t raised any external funding yet, as their product development research has been directly related to Keck’s PhD. 

However, PhytoMines is now raising $1.5 million to expand their team with research engineers and an agronomist. They also want their own lab space in London and to begin their first field trials.


It’s fair to say that bioengineering plants to clean up and extract usable metals from soil is not exactly a startup idea that will attract mainstream excitement, but Keck is bullish about the impact they can have.

“We can play a small part in cleaning up the planet. The planet is so messed up from the centuries of industrial activity that have gone on, and I think we can do at least a small part in rectifying that. 

“I'd like to see our technology received well, and I hope to deploy it globally, because everyone deserves cleaner land; more land for agriculture, for housing… so I hope in a few years we start to see that begin to happen.”


While there are other companies doing broadly the same thing as PhytoMines–phytoremediation–Keck believes his startup has a significant edge on the competition.

“They just use wild plants. They don't use endophytes and genes that they've cloned. We have the technology to extract the heavy metals and do biomass recycling.”

The closest competitor is Paris-based Genomines, which does use enhanced plants, but they focus solely on extracting nickel from the soil as a method of mining, not as remediation.

PhytoMines, by comparison, puts remediation first, while offering the ability to reclaim metal from the soil as an additional benefit, “closing the loop”, as Keck puts it.


Regulation is Keck’s biggest concern when it comes to growing the business. It’s a common issue for startups working in genetic modification; the UK and the EU regulate genetically modified plants far more rigorously than the USA.

“If we're in the States, it's going to be a lot easier because they have GMOs [genetically modified organisms] everywhere. Getting through those hoops at the beginning will be the hardest little key to turn. But then once we do, I think it'll happen pretty quickly.

“It's just a lot easier to plant GMOs in the States. In the EU and in the UK, they still are very cautious around anything GM. In Europe, they've only recently said they're going to re-evaluate their regulations for GM crops because of climate change and the decrease in crop yields. But that's only very recently. 

“And the UK is somewhere in between, because it's a little bit easier to deploy GM crops or plants in the field but still it requires you to go through a few hoops.”

Ionannou adds that the fact PhytoMines’ plants aren’t meant for human or animal consumption could make things easier when it comes to getting approval.

“We're not going to use this plant for crop production or something to do with the food chain. We're targeting heavy industry land and metal mines’ land etc, where obviously you don't grow crops and you don't have any animals around. That's a safer aspect of deploying GMOs in this kind of land.”

In summary:

Name: PhytoMines

What they do: Biologically enhanced plants designed to clean up metal pollution from soil, allowing the metals and the biomass from the plants to be recycled into industry and other uses.

Location: London

Raised to date: Bootstrapped

Currently raising?: $1.5 million

Back on Thursday

We’re shifting from the environment and heavy industry to business tech for our next startup.

We’ll see you in your inbox for that this coming Thursday!