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What's next in agriculture? Accelerator funds innovation from pest control to fertilizer

The Daily Times (Salisbury) logo The Daily Times (Salisbury) 9/23/2021 Kristian Jaime, Salisbury Daily Times
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The latest round of agriculture and technology companies looking to tackle pervasive industry problems have been selected by the F3 Tech Accelerator program.

"Our focus is initially on innovation but more importantly the ability to develop a product throughout its life cycle," said Christopher Hlubb, program director of F3 Tech. "There's a great deal of innovation that comes from academia that doesn't make it to the street and our goal is to find companies in best position to succeed."

Hlubb added additional benefits of the program were opportunities to cultivate relationships with potential investors.

F3 Tech, which is supported by the nonprofit Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center in Easton and the U.S. Economic Development Administration, selected:

  • Holganix, a manufacturer of proprietary plant probiotics that harness the power of microorganisms to optimize soils and grow healthier, more sustainable plants. This translates to improved yield on crops and a reduced need for fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Lepidext, producer of a patented bioinsecticide that is safe, effective, and easy to use to control the corn earworm in both the organic and conventional farming of crops affected by the pest.
  • Urban Electric Power, produces energy storage with safe and affordable rechargeable alkaline battery technology without any lead or flammable electrolytes.
  • Growbox, a company that produces self-contained, fully automated shippable fodder systems that can match a year’s output of a 50-acre field of hay.
  • A newly established fifth company in the field of crop protection will be announced in Q4 2021 as they complete their initial funding round.

According to F3, while they do not release the number of applications received, Hlubb did confirm this year the highest total of applicants since the program started. He went on to say the selected companies represented the highest chances of the public seeing a return on their investment.

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"Over the course of the three-month accelerator that starts in September, the companies will receive expert guidance from F3 Tech mentors in business development, marketing, legal and finance. The accelerator requires no equity from participants, a unique value proposition for many early-stage companies," the program overview states.

Probiotics may benefit Chesapeake Bay

a group of people on a dirt path next to a tree: Harmony Hill Nursery in Downingtown, PA. Harmony Hill has seen a shortened harvest time and a reduction in the need for fungicides. © Holganix Harmony Hill Nursery in Downingtown, PA. Harmony Hill has seen a shortened harvest time and a reduction in the need for fungicides.

The Ashton, Pa.-based Holganix, which received $20,000 in funding for marketing and mentoring from F3 Tech, is already seeing positive results in crop yields through its probiotic technology.

Soil that is less dependent on fertilizer and pesticides also means less pollutant runoff into waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.

"We had customers around the Chesapeake Bay Watershed on both the eastern and western shores," said Barrett Ersek, Holganix founder and CEO. "It became apparent to me there was a fertilizer runoff issue in the bay. So I started to look for alternatives with using less chemicals and less nitrogen and less phosphorus."

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The avid fisherman is no stranger to the bay, but he's also fully aware of the industrial applications of his product.

"We realized that while lawn care is important, agriculture was going to be the place where we were going to have the greatest impact. So we developed products for the agricultural industry," Ersek said.

Alternative generator addresses food storage safety

Urban Electric Power offers energy storage with safe and affordable rechargeable alkaline battery technology without any lead or flammable electrolytes. © Urban Electric Power Urban Electric Power offers energy storage with safe and affordable rechargeable alkaline battery technology without any lead or flammable electrolytes.

Meanwhile in Pearl River, NY, Gabriel Cowles, vice president of Commercial Strategy and Finance for Urban Electric Power and his staff have developed a viable alternative to traditional diesel fuel generators.

In the wake of weather-related events like Hurricane Ida, a rechargeable battery for residential and commercial use might be the answer for periodic power outages. For the agricultural community, food storage and immediate power needs are a constant concern.

"The primary goal was to take the ubiquitous alkaline battery you see everywhere that's safe and environmentally friendly and turn it into a battery for the grid," Cowles said. "The idea was turning this into a grid-scale battery. Research began there in 2008, but the team made great progress during the first several years. They demonstrated a large number of cycles for the battery, which is a key indicator."

Since then, UEP has grown to encompass a 40,000-square-foot facility in Pearl River called The New York Center for Innovation. The campus serves as a pilot scale and manufacturing testing lab.

Thus far ,UEP has received assistance in network-building to move into the "commercial deployment market" and establish partnerships. Bringing on early adopters represents the first round of consumers.

"F3 has those connections in the region and can help us gain traction in the market," Cowles.

Targeting agriculture pests

Lexington, Kentucky's Lepidext innovated in a bioinsecticide that targeted the corn earworm in crops by essentially sterilizing pest so that eggs will not be found in parts of the plant.

Pests that affect hemp plants are shown during in-person tours to showcase the stages of development for more than 50 different varieties of hemp Friday, July 30, 2021, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Maryland. © Lauren Roberts/Salisbury Daily Times Pests that affect hemp plants are shown during in-person tours to showcase the stages of development for more than 50 different varieties of hemp Friday, July 30, 2021, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Maryland.

These moth drone insects arrive to the farmer ready to sterilize up to 10 insects before they die.

According to University of Wisconsin-Madison Vegetable Crop Entomology Extension and Research, the females lay eggs singly on fresh corn silks and on foliage. Fertilized females deposit up to 1,000 eggs each. They are particularly attracted to sweet corn in the late tassel through early silking stages.

"This (innovation) can keep the use of insecticides out of the plan," said Maria Labreveux, executive in charge of commercialization for Lepidext. "This is the first instance where such bioinsecticides have been used like this. This is called a sterile insect technique. Ours is the same thing, but it's not genetically modified organisms."

Labreveux added it does not represent anything that could impact the animals around it as well.

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The Maryland Department of Agriculture estimates on the Eastern Shore, there are approximately 6,000 farmers; farms occupy about 32% of the total land; and the industry employs an estimated 350,000 people.

"We need to scientifically test it since biopesticides aren't tested sufficiently. Maryland, like many areas, has dealt with the corn earworm becoming resistant to (traditional) insecticides," Labreveux said.

Finally other companies selected like Growbox in New Hampton, N.Y., and a recently established fifth company are early in their development.

This article originally appeared on Salisbury Daily Times: What's next in agriculture? Accelerator funds innovation from pest control to fertilizer

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