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UV plant tech extends beyond crop growth

AAP logoAAP 28/08/2016 Fiona Rotherham

Agritech start-up Biolumic, which increases crop yields by applying ultraviolet (UV) light to seeds, seedlings, and plants, is also treating them for resistance to pests and disease.

The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2012 by chief scientific officer Jason Wargent, who is a Massey University-based world expert on the effect of light on plant growth and development. He initially investigated whether the hole in the ozone layer was damaging plant growth and instead found increased UV levels were beneficial.

Early trials in New Zealand on lettuce and basil plants showed promising gains by having specific "recipes" of UV light shone on them to make them hardier and grow bigger. Biolumic's game-changing Smart Light Array Technology releases varying quantities of UV light at different wavelengths.

Successful trials in 2015 on lettuce and broccoli for one of California's largest salad grower, where yields increased on average 10 per cent, led to the company becoming Biolumic's first paying customer in 2016 with 35 million seedlings being treated.

Biolumic's business model is to have recurring revenue based on installing equipment onsite and charging a per-plant treatment fee, with the US and Mexico the initial target markets, followed by Europe.

"We've been able to show that customers will get a significant return with a payback of $2 for every $1 spent with Biolumic," said chief executive Warren Bebb.

Companies involved in the trials often say the environmentally-friendly technology seems "too good to be true", he said.

"They do challenge it and question what the process involves and how easy it is to scale up and incorporate with what they do. While it looks promising, we still have a few things to work out."

The start-up has also moved beyond treating leafy vegetables to trials of treating seeds of corn in New Zealand this year which have produced similar good results.

"There has been the same consistent reaction to seeds as treating seedlings and we didn't expect that," Bebb said.

Further seed trials are planned in New Zealand from November and then in the northern hemisphere next year. Prime targets for the seed treatment are row crops such as corn, soy, and wheat.

The seed treatment industry alone is worth an estimated $US10 billion ($A13.22 billion) annually and growing at 20 per cent per annum, Bebb said.

"It is such a great opportunity that even though we're a small company we have had to put resources into it and shareholders have been happy to support that so far."

A third leg under development is treating the plants for pest and diseases resistance by using a slightly different ultra-violet light and would do away with the need for pesticides. Bebb said its two UV treatments could be combined or kept separate though the trials for pest and disease resistance which involve spraying a pathogen onto healthy plants may be harder to convince commercial growers to agree to.

The first quarter of 2016 is shaping up to be a big one for the start-up when the outcome of a second commercial trial in Mexico for one of that country's largest processed vegetable producers will be known, the one-year contract with its big Californian customer comes up for renewal, and it's hoped new trials in Europe will start.

The start-up's funding is also due to run out in March 2016 and Bebb said they will do a further fundraising round early in the year from existing and strategic investors. Although the amount has not yet been signed off by the board it will be above the $NZ2 million ($A1.91 million) raised in 2015. That round was supported by new and existing investors and major shareholders include the Manawatu Investment Group, NZ Venture Investment Fund, Stephen Tindall's K1Wi investment vehicle, Ice Angels, and Enterprise Angels.

Wargent's stake has been diluted to just under 10 per cent.

It has also had around $NZ300,000 in research and development grants to date.

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