Vive la crop! Nanotech venture Vive Crop Protection of Toronto has developed a more eco-friendly way to keep pests, fungi and weeds out of farmers' fields. And that's just the beginning.
The solvents themselves are often known carcinogens, not the kind of thing we want on farmland that grows soy, com and wheat. And they're not as effective as they could be. Farmers tend to overspray to make sure enough of the active ingredients in insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are dispersed across a field to be effective.
It's why Vive Crop Protection, a Toronto-based nanotechnology company specializing in crop protection, has been attracting so much attention from some of the world's biggest chemical companies. Vive Crop (formerly Vive Nano, and before that Northern Nanotechnologies) has done away with the need for volatile organic solvents. It has also significantly improved how pesticides are delivered, to the point where fewer active ingredients are needed to do the same job. In both cases, impact to the environment and human health is reduced.
At the heart of Vive Crop's technology are polymer particles the company has trademarked under the name Allosperse, which measure less than 10 nanometres in size. It describes these particles as ultra-small cages--or "really tiny little FEDEX boxes" in the words of CEO Keith Thomas--which hold active pesticide ingredients and are engineered to disperse evenly in water.
Even and thorough dispersal is critical. Avinash Bhaskar, an analyst at research firm Frost & Sullivan who has followed Vive Crop closely, says one of the biggest problems with pesticides is they tend to agglomerate, resulting in uneven, clustery distribution on fields. "You want uniform distribution on the soil," Bhaskar says. "Vive Crop's technology prevents agglomeration and this is a key differentiator in the market."
How Vive Crop chemically engineers these Allosperse particles is the company's core innovation. It starts by dissolving negatively charged polymers in water. The like charges repel so the polymers spread out in the solution. Then positively charged ions are added to the mix. These ions neutralize the charge around the polymers, causing the polymers to collapse around the ions and create a kind of nano cage--the Allosperse.
The company then filters out the positive and negative ions and loads up the empty cages with molecules of active pesticide ingredients. The cage itself is amphiphilic, meaning it has both water-attracting and water-repelling areas. In this case, the outer shell attracts water and the inner core doesn't. "While in water the active ingredient, which also hates water, stays inside (the cages)," explains Vive Crop chief technology officer Darren Anderson. Because the outside of the cages like water, the particles freely and evenly disperse. "Once sprayed on the crop, the water droplets evaporate and the active ingredient gradually disperses from the particles that are left behind." How does Vive Crop assure that the Allosperse cages are amphiphilic? "I can't tell you the answer," says Anderson. "It's part of our secret sauce."
What the company can say is that the polymer cages themselves are benign. Vive Crop makes them out of chitosans, found naturally in the shells of shrimp and other crustaceans, and polyacrylic acid, the super-absorbent material found in baby diapers.
"They're all approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and if they're safe enough for kids' diapers they're safe enough for crops," says Thomas. "The end result is that the nasty solvents are gone." The approach could just as easily work for delivering dyes, fragrances and drugs--all markets that Vive Crop will explore down the road.
Crop protection was chosen as the quickest path to market for a number of reasons. Field trials with a crop are much easier and take far less time--as little as a month or even a few days--compared to doing multi-year trials to test, for example, delivery of chemotherapy drugs. "It's the same insect we're killing whether it's in the lab or in the field, but with drug delivery you're going from petri dish to mouse to human," says Thomas.
The core technology was developed in the early 2000s by Jordan Dinglasan, a chemistry student from the Philippines who took up graduate studies at the University of Toronto. Dinglasan and fellow researchers at U of T's Department of Chemistry, including Anderson and chemistry professor Cynthia Goh, decided in 2006 that they wanted to reach beyond the walls of academia and create a company to commercialize the technology.
Thomas, 47, a seasoned entrepreneur who had just sold his IT firm Vector Innovations, was on the prowl for a new venture to invest in and, after seeing a presentation from Dinglasan and colleagues, found himself impressed by what the team had developed. He decided to take the researchers under his wing. "I'm the grey hair on the team," he jokes.
But a bit of grey hair is exactly what this team of talented researchers, with no prior business experience, needed. Thomas focused the company's efforts, refined its business model and opened up dialogue with some of the world's largest chemical companies.
"They have so much potential," says Jon Dogterom, who leads the clean technology, advanced materials and engineering practice at MARS, an innovation "incubator" in Toronto that counts Vive Crop as one of its early clients. "A lot of what's going for this company is its people and with Keith at the helm, it gives me a lot of confidence in what they're doing."
The company now has about 30 employees, with Dinglasan in the role of research and development coordinator and Goh, who is still a professor at the university, acting as company adviser. Vive Crop has so far raised about $8 million from the private sector, on top of another $8 million in grants from provincial and government bodies, including the Ontario Centres of Excellence and Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
"We were very lucky in terms of the equity we've been able to raise and other financing. We're sitting on a good amount of cash right now, but we're not self-sustaining yet," says Thomas. "We're currently developing products in conjunction with, you name it...." He stops short of saying exactly which companies. But those close to Vive Crop say it's a Who's Who of the industry: Dow Chemical, BASF and other giants looking to reduce the environmental and health impacts of their products. "We're not ever going to be distributing our own products," says Thomas. "We work with the majors and in some cases with generic manufacturers. We get the active ingredients from these customers, and then do the work to enhance the delivery of that ingredient for them."
Thomas stresses that no commercial products based on Vive Crop's technology have yet hit the market, though expects that 2013 will be a breakout year after regulatory approvals have been obtained. "But in field trials it works and it works really well."
Those field trials have been done in two stages. One involves testing of the product in greenhouses at Ontario's University of Guelph, which works in collaboration with Vive Crop. Greenhouses offer a more controlled environment without surprises from Mother Nature, such as unexpected wind gusts and rainfall.
The second stage moves the technology from the greenhouse to the farmer's field. The company works with a third-party research organization, which to date has run several independent tests on dedicated plots of land in the American southeast, as well as in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and some tropical locations outside of North America.
There's no doubt in the minds of Vive Crop's founders that the technology is going to have a major impact on the industry. "I expect the technology to be a game-changer in the agricultural sector," says Anderson, who was the company's founding president before Thomas joined. "Eventually, I expect products like ours will represent the majority of products on the market."
Frost & Sullivan honoured Vive Crop with a technology innovation award in 2010. At the time, Bhaskar said the company had a head start in the market. "Competing solutions are still in their respective research stages, waiting for credible evidence on the impact of their technology," he said then. Pose the question today and Anderson says the company still has a healthy market lead. "We think we're at least two years ahead of most of our competitors."
The fact it has stayed focused--that 90 per cent of its activities are devoted to agri-chem development--has helped it maintain that lead. But the company has its eye on other markets as well. It sees itself developing gold and magnetic nanoparticles that can enhance diagnostic processes in life sciences and other nanoparticles being used to make advanced coatings.
Another potential application is light-activated photocatalysts that can be used for water remediation or to break down pollutants that accumulate on the outside of buildings and bridges, helping to keep them clean.
What Bhaskar likes about the company is that it's capable of creating nanoparticles for most chemicals on the periodic table and it can manufacture its product in large volumes. "Further, the technology does not need a dedicated plant and is easy and cost-effective to implement."
In this sense, Vive Crop is more than just a farmer's field of dreams and a nightmare for pests and weeds.
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|Publication:||Canadian Chemical News|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2012|
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