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Agtech Startup Crop Enhancement Reaps $8.5M for Plant Coating Tech

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reduce or even eliminate the need for pesticides. That turns out to be a top goal of many new agricultural technologies angling for the market. A recent Research and Markets report calculated that “smart agriculture”— technologies that boost agricultural productivity and reduce the environmental impact of chemicals—will reach $19 billion by 2021. CropCoat can work on staple U.S. crops such as corn, soy, and wheat. But Chen says Crop Enhancement will focus first on crops grown in the tropics, where the problem of getting chemicals to stick to a plant is more pronounced. The company calculates that the crop protection markets for cocoa and coffee are each $1 billion. Citrus, pineapples, bananas, and potatoes together make up a $2 billion-plus crop protection market. In addition to fighting off pests, Chen says, CropCoat could also resist fungal infestations.

Before CropCoat reaches farmers, however, Crop Enhancement needs to complete field trials. The trials are comparing fields sprayed with CropCoat against fields sprayed with pesticide, as well as untreated fields. The objective is to show whether (and how much) the film improves crop yields. The company is conducting field trials around the world in partnership with companies, growers, non-governmental organizations, and universities; Chen says that the lead investors of the Series B round will play a role in expanding these studies. Malaysia-based MLS Capital can assist the trial efforts in Asia because the firm knows the region well, he explains. Meanwhile, 1955 Capital focuses on bringing technology from the developed world into the developing world.

The startup’s new venture cash will also support its regulatory efforts. Crop Enhancement plans to seek approvals from regulatory bodies in countries in Asia and Latin America. In the United States, CropCoat will need Environmental Protection Agency approval, as well as approvals in each state. Chen says the product could become available to farmers in about one year. If and when it reaches the market, the technology’s benefits could extend beyond its protective properties for plants. Farmers spray insecticides every two weeks—more often during the rainy season. In field trials so far, Crop Enhancement found that reducing the need for insecticides saves on labor. The company is still working out the interval needed between sprays, but Chen says CropCoat is saving time and labor costs for farmers.

Crop Enhancement is also moving forward with a second product that encloses particles of a crop treatment, such as fertilizer or herbicide. Soane likens the technology to timed-release medication. While the technology is different, the concept is the same—encapsulation of the active ingredient slows its release. Soane says this “tunable release” would help the environment by keeping fertilizers out of rivers and by easing demand on fertilizers such as potash and phosphate, both of which are finite resources that are mined.

Crop Enhancement has done limited field testing of its encapsulation technology. Since the startup does not make fertilizers, it needs to work with companies that do. Chen says some of the new venture funding will support efforts to find partners that can help test and commercialize the technology.

“Fertilizers are used in pretty much every crop,” he says. “If we can help farmers manage their nutrient delivery, this would be a major advantage.”

Photo of cocoa pods courtesy of Flickr user shankar s. via a Creative Commons license.

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