Water sensor research turns into promising business

Credit: Cornell.

A basic research in water sensor technology that started at Cornell has now bloomed into a promising business providing grape, nut, apple and other growers accurate information regarding their plants’ irrigation needs in real time at a reasonable cost.

Currently, the water sensing tools commercially available are expensive, inaccurate or labor intensive, but the new cost-effective sensor is accurate and able to read water pressure inside the plant much like a blood pressure gauge for humans.

The sensor employs a silicon chip with a miniscule water cavity. When embedded in a plant with drought stress, water leaves the chip’s cavity through a nanoporous membrane, resulting in a tension which is converted into an electrical signal.

Plants have a low water pressure, sometimes even negative, when they are thirsty. The sensor is able to read this pressure in real time, providing growers the necessary information to optimize water use, especially in drought-stricken agricultural areas. In addition, providing water at the right time can significantly improve the quality of fruits and nuts, particularly grapes for red wines.

In mid-2016, engineers and horticulturalists from Cornell who developed the sensor launched FloraPulse, a start-up that aimed to commercialize the sensor and provide agricultural services. Their initial target markets were grape and nut growers in California’s Central and Napa valleys.

“We’re developing a service for growers to know exactly when, where and how much to irrigate,” said Michael Santiago, Ph.D 2016 entrepreneurial lead for FloraPulse. Santiago helped develop the technology while pursuing his doctorate in the lab of Abraham Stroock, the project’s principal investigator, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the same lab.

Stroock, who is director of Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, began development of a micro-sensor in 2009 along with Alan Lakso, professor emeritus of horticulture, at the Cornell NanoScale Science & Technology Facility (CNF).

For the past three years, the team developed the prototype water sensor that had a fingertip-sized chip and a probe for inserting it into plant stems. It is compatible with the industry-standard electronic plug-and-play readers, which also extends to wireless integration that is quickly transforming agricultural practice.

“That’s a crucial piece of our strategy: take a measurement that’s hard to get and turn it into something that is very common,” said Stroock. The researchers are trying to further tweak the technology and will conduct further greenhouse and field tests in spring and summer at Cornell and in California.

“We’re going to help make better wines, because there is a strong relationship between water pressure or the stress that we measure and the quality of red wine,” Santiago said.

Trained as a mechanical engineer, Santiago started teaching himself how to commercialize the sensor. He had participated in eLab, a business accelerator for Cornell students, in his fourth year as a graduate student, where he learned how to develop a business model.

In November 2016, the group became one of four university teams to win the first national Innovations in Food and Agricultural Science and Technology (I-FAST) prize competition. The USDA-NIFA prize provided $50,000 to attend an intensive program, Innovation Corps (I-Corps), which supported the university scientists to translate their innovation into marketplace.

The grant was instrumental in developing the business,

“The I-Corps program enabled us to interview over 100 potential customers so that we could build our business model using real customer data,” Santiago explained, adding that over the next six weeks, he traveled throughout California’s wine country to interview potential customers.

The research group also includes MBA student Zachary Leidig who has taken a leave of absence from the management school to build the business. Together, Santiago and Leidig are building their business model, talking to potential investors and suppliers, arranging for licensing technology and testing sensors.

More information can be found at: Cornell.

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