By Kate Wilhite, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences
PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University researchers-turned-entrepreneurs have developed a method for growing trees three times faster while conserving water and reducing the need for pesticides – and they just made their first sale.
Plant scientist Amit Dhingra and five members of his research team from the WSU Department of Horticulture founded Phytelligence, the first plant-focused biotechnology startup to come out of the university.
The young company recently delivered 1,000 raspberry plants to Northwest Plant Company in Lynden, Wash., and will deliver another 50,000 to the company in August.
From research to retail
The ideas behind the “smarter plants” Phytelligence produces are deeply rooted in Dhingra’s WSU lab.
“We were doing some genetic analyses and tissue culture for growers as part of our research when we started getting a lot of demand,” said Dhingra. “It was actually two of my undergrad students who said, ‘you should start a company.’”
The professor took his students’ advice and enlisted the help of WSU’s Office of Commercialization. In addition to ensuring that the technology developed by Dhingra and his team was protected, the office connected them with an expert to help draft a business plan, introduced them to potential investors and presented them with opportunities to showcase their products and services at technology events.
Reaching warp speed
Working out of the Phytelligence lab in Pullman, Dhingra and his partners coax tiny fragments of plants into a five-week multiplication schedule. In one year, the method can produce 250,000 plants from a single plant. Traditional propagation techniques produce about 10 plants in the same amount of time.
“It can take 15 to 20 years to develop a new plant variety and then another 10 to 15 to deploy it on a large scale,” said Dhingra, adding that when commercial growers place orders, they sometimes have to wait as long as seven years for trees to be propagated and delivered.
“A process that normally takes five to seven years, we can do in two,” he said. “Every year sooner that growers get trees means a faster return on their investments.”
Phytelligence’s propagation method begins when researchers “plant” pieces of plant tissue in small, sterile jars containing a proprietary agar-based growing medium. At the end of each growth period, the plants, which have been housed in ideal conditions, are divided among containers with a new mix of nutrients customized for the next stage of growth.
A clean-tech solution
The Phytelligence solution eliminates challenges that growers face; for example, it is not uncommon for specimens to arrive damaged or stressed. Losses can be as high as 50 percent, according to Dhingra.
And growers sometimes receive a different plant variety than they ordered through simple human error. They might not even realize it until years later.
“These are problems that growers have just had to accept,” said Dhingra. “But now we are able to virtually eliminate plant mortality because the plants we grow have very robust roots. We eliminate mix-ups because we can genetically verify every plant to be true to type.”
The method is also resource-efficient. While the plants are multiplying, they need very little water compared to soil-grown plants.
“For every tree produced with this method we save 80 gallons of clean water,” said Dhingra. “For 1 million plants we would save the amount of water required by the San Francisco Bay area for one year.”
Additionally, unlike plants grown in soil, those grown in sterile containers require no pesticides, fungicides or insecticides.
While Dhingra and his partners are working on propagating the plants required to fill orders through 2016, they are developing a plan for the next stage of Phytelligence’s growth – licensing their growing media and technology. They also offer genetic analysis.
Since the company was formed in 2012, it has created three full- and six part-time positions as well as numerous internship opportunities for WSU students. Both their offerings and their relationship with the state’s land-grant university have encouraged major support from Washington’s agriculture industry, with 70 percent of startup funding coming from growers and nurseries.
It’s an exciting time for the business partners.
“I grew up on a family farm in Montana growing wheat and barley, so being able to help the ag industry by getting more plants to nurseries is really exciting to me,” said Phytelligence cofounder Tyson Koepke, who received his doctorate in molecular plant science from WSU in 2012.
Cofounder Kathie Nicholson is splitting her time between Phytelligence and her doctoral degree in horticulture with a focus on viticulture. She has been surprised by her interest in the business side of Phytelligence operations.
“It’s really exciting to see the things we’ve done in the lab actually being put to commercial use in Washington’s fruit industry and, hopefully, farther,” she said.