Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most costly inputs to corn farmers. Farmers lose over 2 billion pounds of fertilizer to waterways each year, translating to over $1 billion in wasted fertilizer and unrealized yield lost annually.
The EnGeniousAg in-field nitrogen sensors enable farmers to measure nitrogen levels in their crops in as little as three seconds. The company’s proprietary sensor technology has been applied to monitor nitrate levels in a wide range of crop plants, soil, and agricultural drainage water. These sensors allow farmers to make same-day nitrogen application decisions without waiting for costly and time-consuming lab testing and respond to excess nitrate runoff, decreasing agriculture’s environmental footprint while improving farmer profitability.
To help EnGeniourAg develop these low-cost instant-readout plant nitrate sensors, the startup has received a $1 million National Science Foundation Phase II Small Business Innovation Research grant.
“EnGeniousAg sensors avoid the complex issues of trying to estimate optimal fertilizer application rates from soil nitrate tests. Variation in soil chemistry, crop genetics, and other factors all complicate the job of figuring out how much of the nitrate that crop plants can access and use,” said EnGeniousAg Co-Founder James Schnable, the Gardner Professor of Agronomy at the University of Nebraska. “Our sensors measure nitrate levels in the plants themselves. We think this can do a better job of identifying the estimated 10-30% of corn acres in any given year that will not benefit from the application of nitrogen fertilizer. Correctly identifying these fields creates the potential for up to $6 billion a year in savings for farmers without reducing crop yields.”
Small Business Innovation Research grants are competitive funding designed to catalyze technological innovation in the private sector and increase the commercialization of federally funded research by supporting small businesses. This new investment from the National Science Foundation will enable EnGeniousAg to conduct large-scale field tests of corn grown under variable fertilizer application rates to validate and improve the company’s predictive model for translating the amount of nitrate in corn stalks into fertilizer application recommendations.
“EnGeniousAg is an example of a company accelerating the translation of science-based innovation into practical applications. Founded by entrepreneurial faculty, the company demonstrates the value of translating great ideas into commercial products and services,” said Nadilia Gomez, the Chief Technology Officer for Digital and Precision Agriculture at Iowa State University. “Farmers don’t want to waste fertilizer; it’s money down the drain. Solutions like the one provided by EnGeniousAg can help farmers apply fertilizer where it’s needed, increasing the profitability and sustainability of their farms.”
EnGeniousAg was founded by four agriculture and engineering faculty from Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The company is applying advances in microelectronic mechanical systems, originally developed for use in “wearable” human health sensors, to some of the most challenging and pressing issues facing agriculture: the rising cost and limited availability of key crop inputs, such as nitrogen fertilizer.
“Nitrogen fertilizer is among the costliest inputs to crop production,” said Michael Castellano, EnGeniousAg Co-Founder and the Frankenberger Professor of Soil Science at Iowa State University. “Unused nitrogen fertilizer is a cost to the farmer that can diminish air and water quality. The EnGeniousAg sensors diagnose the nitrogen needs of every field every year.”
The new funding from the National Science Foundation will also enable EnGeniousAg to partner with Premier Crop Systems and Soil View, two Iowa-based precision agriculture companies, to conduct field tests in many different locations with different levels of nitrogen fertilizer application.
“When I started at BioConnect in 2017, one of my key goals was to see more Iowa bioscience startups successfully win Phase II awards. Successfully competing for these awards is a key step towards bringing more venture capital investment into our state,” said the BioConnect Iowa SBIR/STTR Statewide Program Coordinator Anne Price. “It’s great to see this successful award to EnGeniousAg bringing more investment funds into the state and creating exciting technology jobs for Iowans. EnGeniousAg can potentially improve farmer profitability and environmental quality across the state and globe.”
The EnGeniousAg intellectual property portfolio includes multiple issued or provisional patent applications covering different aspects of their sensor technology. EnGeniousAg initially licensed IP invented by co-founders Prof. Liang Dong and Dr. Xinran Wang from the Iowa State University Research Foundation and has developed additional IP internally since the company’s founding in 2018.