As the California drought drags on and moves north in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon BEST is helping fund research for a Portland startup that has developed a biodegradable superabsorbent polymer (SAP) for agricultural applications that can soak up 300 times its weight in water, then release the moisture back into the soil near plant roots as the ground dries.
In early field studies at Oregon State University, the new biodegradable SAP, AgriSorb™, developed by TryEco®, LLC, increased the marketable yields for high-value crops such as peppers and tomatoes by as much as 26 percent, while significantly reducing irrigation.
“Water efficiency is the challenge of our times,” said Nick Fowler, CEO of TryEco. “Within 20 years it’s predicted that agriculture is going to require more water than is readily available on this planet. So water is both the problem and the opportunity for agriculture over the next 20 years.”
Current surface irrigation methods can be extremely inefficient, Fowler said, yet the U.S. currently has approximately 650 million acres of surface-irrigated agriculture. Using SAPs, farmers can reduce watering, retain excess irrigation water and reduce runoff, as well as lengthen the time between irrigation when soil moisture remains adequate.
“Because our product is certified biodegradable, which is one of the primary differentiators between ours and other SAPs, it also benefits the soil chemistry,” Fowler said. “It increases the surface area that is wetted in the soil, and wetted surfaces are the host for microbial activity, which is beneficial to the uptake of nutrients and overall soil health.”
Most SAPs currently on the market are synthetic and made with petroleum products, which can create hazardous byproducts during production and leave residual monomers in the soil upon degradation. The TryEco product is based on natural starch, which reduces production costs and avoids safety issues.
If not handled correctly during production, some combinations of chemicals used in current SAP products can create toxic emissions, to the point they are hazardous to both operators and the surrounding community. “The patented nature of our production process and chemistry avoids those hazards,” Fowler said.
The TryEco SAP, produced both in a powder form (shown, right) and as pea-sized granules, can be sown directly into the soil with seeds, used as a root dip treatment during transplanting or applied to individual seeds as a coating. The company is initially focusing on agriculture, forestry, and horticulture markets, mainly in highly controlled hothouse environments where crops like tomatoes and peppers are grown.
The company is headquartered in Portland, but has a lab in Lebanon, Oregon, and field trials are underway at OSU.
A $150,000 early-stage investment from Oregon BEST is helping the company collaborate with OSU chemistry professor Vince Remcho and his students on characterization, or baselining, and on development and refinement of new formulations of the SAP pioneered by TryEco.
“Without Oregon BEST, we would not have access to the level of cutting-edge equipment that Vince has in his lab,” Fowler said. “This project characterizes exactly what Oregon BEST is all about: giving startups access to world class research facilities that just aren’t available to most startups in other states.”
Remcho, who was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest general scientific society, said the arrangement also benefits his students.
“They get to work with a cutting-edge material, do some pretty unique characterization work and gain connectivity to a company that could potentially turn into internship opportunities, or even jobs, in the future,” Remcho said.
Given the breadth of Oregon’s agriculture sector and the state’s spirit of innovation and its technology expertise, Oregon BEST has been supporting more cleantech startups engaged in precision agriculture that need access to university research expertise.
“This is an excellent example of how Oregon BEST works to connect a startup with a world-class university researcher to speed development of an important new product – in this case, one that saves water and improves agriculture,” said Ken Vaughn, Director of Commercialization Programs at Oregon BEST.
Oregon BEST offers a wide range of support for cleantech startups in Oregon, and currently has more than 35 start-up companies listed as Oregon BEST Companies that are receiving help moving their technologies toward the marketplace.