Cornell-Developed Water Sensor Technology Moves from Basic Research to Business

The chip, seen here on top of a cork, is at the heart of the Cornell-developed water sensor. Zach Leidig/Provided

A water sensor technology being studied at Cornell is moving from basic research into a promising business that fills a vital requirement for apple, grape, nut, and other growers.

While the currently available water sensing tools are inaccurate, labor intensive, or expensive, the new sensor notifies the growers when their plants require irrigation with accurate, real-time readings at affordable cost.

The new sensor reads the water pressure within the plant similar to a blood pressure gauge for humans. Plants’ water pressure is low and sometimes even negative when they are thirsty. The sensor reads this pressure within the plant in order to help growers ensure plant health and improve water use in drought-stricken agricultural regions. The quality of fruits, nuts and particularly grapes for red wines can also be greatly improved by applying water at the right time.

In the middle of 2016, Cornell horticulturalists and engineers who developed the sensor introduced FloraPulse, a startup intended for commercializing the sensor and using it to offer agricultural services. The nut and grape growers in California’s Central and Napa valleys are the first target markets.

We’re developing a service for growers to know exactly when, where and how much to irrigate.

Michael Santiago, Ph.D. ’16

Santiago is the entrepreneurial lead for FloraPulse and a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Abraham Stroock, the project’s principal investigator. Santiago, while pursuing his doctorate in Stroock’s lab, helped develop the technology.

Stroock, director of the School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and Alan Lakso, professor emeritus of Horticulture, started development of a microsensor in 2009 using new technologies created in Stroock’s lab.

Produced in the Cornell Nanofabrication Facility, the sensor is a silicon chip with a small cavity that holds water. When the silicon chip is fixed in a plant with drought stress, water leaves this cavity via a nanoporous membrane and the resulting tension becomes an electrical signal.

Over the last three years, the research team at Cornell developed a commercial water sensor prototype with a fingertip-sized chip and a probe for integrating into plant stems.

The new sensor is compatible with electronic plug-and-play readers, which are the industry standard for billions of sensors, for example, tire pressure sensors in today’s cars. This compatibility also extends to wireless integration that is quickly changing agricultural practices.

“That’s a crucial piece of our strategy, take a measurement that’s hard to get and turn it into something that is very common,” said Stroock. This year, the team will continue to modify the technology and conduct additional field and greenhouse testing this spring and summer at Cornell and in California.

We’re going to help make better wines, because there is a strong relationship between water pressure or the stress that we measure and the quality of red wine.

Michael Santiago, Ph.D. ’16

The initial basic research was supported by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Innovations in Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Air Force.

From Science to Business

Although trained as a mechanical engineer, Santiago has been teaching himself how to commercialize the sensor. He took part in eLab, a non-profit business “accelerator” for Cornell students, in his fourth year as a graduate student. There, he learned how to develop a business model and propose an idea.

In November 2016, the team was one of four winners of the first national Innovations in Food and Agricultural Science and Technology (I-FAST) prize competition. The USDA-NIFA prize provided $50,000 in order to attend Innovation Corps (I-Corps), an intensive NSF program that supports and guides university researchers to bring their tech innovations into the marketplace.

The grant has been instrumental in developing the business, Santiago said. “The I-Corps program enabled us to interview over 100 potential customers so that we can build our business model using real customer data,” he explained. Over a six-week period towards the end of 2016, Santiago traveled throughout wine country in California, where he interviewed potential customers.

The team also included MBA student Zachary Leidig, who has taken leave from Cornell’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management this semester in order to develop the business. In the next few months, Santiago and Leidig will move to California. Together, they are developing a business model, speaking to potential investors and suppliers, arranging for licensing technology from the Center for Technology Licensing at Cornell and testing sensors this spring and summer.

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