Bringing Discoveries to the Marketplace

Our Technology Transfer and Innovation team connects plant science discoveries that have commercial potential with external partners that can bring their technology to the marketplace. We collaborate with a variety of partners, from emerging start-ups to large corporations, to facilitate the impact of our science.

Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator

Connecting agtech startups with infrastructure and scientific expertise allows good ideas to become commercialized products. We partner with the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) to help early-stage companies conduct research to further develop and validate their innovative solutions that utilize digital agriculture to produce food more sustainably.

Meet the 2021 Cohort
  1. Atlas Sensor Technologies: IoT solutions for the water industry. Monitoring water hardness in real-time with its ion exchange fiber-based technology, to reduce cost and waste while improving how water softeners operate. Danforth Center Principal Investigator Ivan Baxter, PhD, will collaborate with Atlas Sensors to develop a nitrate sensor with possible uses in indoor and outdoor agriculture. This will help track nitrate through the system, enabling efforts to limit its use and waste. Atlas will produce sensor materials and NREL Principal Investigtor Lance Wheeler will perform materials characterization on sample nitrate sensors produced by Atlas.
  2. GrowFlux: Intelligent horticulture lighting. Delivering an IoT platform that is compatible with major manufacturers, which enables an average of 20 to 30 percent energy savings. NREL Principal Investigators Anya Petersen and Venkatesh Chinde will assist with lighting optimization algorithm development and evaluation of various scenarios including pricing, season, and location for greenhouses.
  3. Motorleaf: Automated AI yield predictions. Specializing in the application of artificial intelligence for indoor agriculture to provide greenhouse growers and supply chain participants with information to optimize yield and reduce their carbon footprint. NREL Principal Investigators, Anya Petersen, Venkatesh Chinde will provide research support on inputs for the development of carbon footprint calculator.
  4. New West Genetics: Genomics-assisted breeding for the hemp industry. Creating proprietary, stable, high-yielding breed varieties for sustainable hemp production, delivering a highly productive crop that can support food, feed, biomass and specialty products for an expanding population. Danforth Center Principal Investigator Chris Topp, PhD, will evaluate root architecture and rooting ability of a number of New West Genetics proprietary hemp varieties.  Growth will be assessed under greenhouse-controlled environments and cultivation systems.  This data will guide New West Genetics as they continue to develop high performing hemp varieties for indoor and outdoor growth.
  5. SunPath: Fiber optic indoor lighting. Improving lighting efficiency through its patented fiber optics technology, which saves energy and increases crop yield and quality to make indoor agriculture more economically viable and environmentally sustainable. In this IN2 project, Danforth Center Principal Investigator Ru Zhang PhD, will explore SunPath’s effect on plant growth including photosynthetic parameters, germination rates/harvest time, chloryophyll content, shape/size, to infer energy savings potential for indoor agriculture. Furthermore, SunPath hardware will log available daily sunlight during the project to enable an estimate of direct energy savings/sqft that SunPath’s technology can provide to greenhouse operations
Meet the 2020 Cohort
  1. AgroSpheres: AgroSpheres is developing biobased encapsulation and delivery technology to enhance the effectiveness of crop protection products against economically important fungal disease pests. This technology could reduce the amount of expensive biological compounds needed for crop protection. For AgroSphere’s IN2 project, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (Danforth Center) is testing delivery and mode of action of two types of active biological pesticides encapsulated in minicells: 1) double-stranded RNA and 2) peptides developed by the Danforth Center. Principal Investigator: Dilip Shah, PhD and Kirk Czymmek, PhD.
  2. EarthSense: EarthSense is developing robots for autonomous and automated field data collection to improve accuracy and reduce labor and energy consumption in agriculture. The EarthSense IN2 field trial project with the Danforth Center compared data being collected manually against its prototype robot in-field trials of corn varieties and provided further validation of analytical algorithms needed to extract meaningful biological patterns. Data collection focused on below canopy traits that cannot currently be observed in images taken above the canopy.  The trait analysis algorithms will used to provide R&D tools for more rapid crop breeding and field agronomy.  Principal Investigator: Todd Mockler, PhD.
  3. mobius: mobius is developing renewable biodegradable polymers from food, forestry, and agricultural waste streams. The Danforth Center is testing the functions of these polymers to optimize the release of nitrogen containing compounds into the root-growing region of young plants. This will improve below-ground plant health and root growth in controlled environments. Principal Investigator: Christopher Topp, PhD.
  4. Plastomics: Plastomics is developing a novel delivery technology to introduce beneficial traits into the chloroplast of plant cells, creating crops that can better withstand the pressure of insects, diseases, and weeds while delivering higher yields and environmental benefits. The IN2 program will enable Plastomics to achieve more rapid and focused product development by partnering with Danforth investigators to evaluate the fundamental molecular mechanisms of novel chloroplast-expressed RNAi traits.
  5. Pluton Biosciences: Pluton Biosciences is developing safe and effective pesticides from microbial sources for agriculture and human health. Pluton’s IN2 project with the Danforth Center is providing validation for its platform technology that mines populations of microbes to identify specific microbes that harbor compounds with beneficial pesticidal activities. The project is identifying the active pesticide molecule(s) capable of killing mosquitos that harbors Zika virus by sequentially fractionating and testing biological samples. This test case will accelerate the development of crop protection applications from other microbes. Candidate compounds in the anti-mosquito application may include proteins or other metabolites. Principal Investigator: Toni Kutchan, PhD and Brad Evans, PhD.
  6. TerViva: TerViva is commercializing the oil seed, climate resilient tree legume, pongamia. Together TerViva and the Danforth Center is investigating root-to-shoot compatibility among TerViva’s elite scion varieties and target root stock candidates. These rootstocks and the knowledge of grafting compatibility will enable TerViva to produce more resilient and cost-effective trees through the production processes of grafting, rooted cuttings, and micropropagation, and to accelerate scaleup of its production processes. Principal Investigator: Allison Miller, PhD.
Meet the 2019 Cohort
  1. Aker Technologies: Aker Technologies’ TrueSense™ technology automates the crop-scouting process that captures and analyzes the presence and intensity of pests and pathogens below the crop canopy.  As part of its 2020 field trials, the Danforth Center helped Aker with early validation of early detection of two bacterial pathogens based on digital imagery and analytical algorithms.  Aker will continue building this state-of-the-art imaging methods for disease detection, identifying additional disease signatures that can be incorporated into future generations of TrueSense™ for enhanced field scouting. Principal investigators: Malia Gehan, PhD and Rebecca Bart, PhD.
  2. CoverCress: CoverCress has developed a crop from pennycress that covers soil between growing cycles, protecting it from harsh conditions while producing a low-carbon intensity crop for renewable fuel and cooking oil. To enable the development of different varieties of pennycress, through IN2, the Danforth Center helped CoverCress shorten the breeding cycle of the crop by transient expression of floral pathway genes to accelerate flowering and has validated specific antifungal peptides whose genes will be incorporated into future generations of CoverCress varieties to provide effective fungal pathogen protection. Principal investigators: Dmitri Nusinow, PhD and Dilip Shah PhD.
  3. Intrinsyx Bio: Intrinsyx Bio plant probiotics increase crop yield, reduce excess fertilizer, and improve soil and water conditions. To work, the probiotics must successfully “colonize” a crop. Intrinsyx’s IN2 project focused on better understanding how to entice plants to accept the probiotics and what varieties of crop respond positively to the probiotic microbes. Principal Investigators: Ivan Baxter, PhD and Rebecca Bart, PhD.
  4. RNAissance Ag: RNAissance Ag produces safe, effective, and environmentally sustainable insecticide for precision pest management. Its technology disrupts the internal microbiome (gut) of targeted insect pests. Through its IN2 project, the Danforth Center has helped RNAissance Ag accelerate and validate its current methods for identifying and testing anti-insect RNAi products, focusing on fall armyworm and diamondback moth for its initial product development. Principal Investigators: Noah Fahlgren, PhD.
  5. SolGro: SolGro has created a nanoparticle film for greenhouse windows that coverts the broad whole spectrum wavelength of sunlight into more efficient wavelengths that improve the process of photosynthesis. Its technology aims to help farmers increase crop productivity and improve the overall quality of their produce. Through IN2, the Danforth Center has helped SolGro obtain data on how much its materials can improve plant growth and under what precise conditions. Principal Investigators: Ru Zhang, PhD and Jim Umen, PhD.

Technology Transfer & Innovation

We have a variety of technology licensing opportunities available, including antimicrobial peptides, steroid alkaloids, oil seed crops, and genome editing and mining traits.

Through our collaboration with the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator, (IN2), our scientists are helping five early-stage startups validate their technologies and make progress towards commercialization.

Antimicrobial Peptides

Fungal, oomycete and bacterial pathogens are a major challenge in modern agriculture. Despite the continued release of resistant cultivars and chemical fungicides, an estimated 10-15% of crop yields are lost due to these diseases on farms while post-harvest losses caused by fungal diseases lead to even greater losses in some developing and under-developed countries.

Fungal and bacterial infections also pose a major threat to human and animal health. Multi-drug resistant bacterial pathogens and infections by fungal pathogens are associated with significantly high morbidity and mortality in immunocompromised humans. There are a limited number of antifungal and antibacterial drugs available clinically to treat systemic fungal infections in humans. New antibacterial and antifungal agents with new modes of action are urgently needed in animal health and medicine.

Danforth Center investigators have identified novel peptides that exhibit broad-spectrum antifungal and anti-oomycete and anti-bacterial activity at low concentrations. These peptides have potential applications for control of fungal and bacterial infections in crops, animals, and humans.

Steroid Alkaloids

Plants and microbes are an important source of natural compounds for new drug discovery. To produce enough of these valuable compounds without reliance on the plant or natural microbe, the biosynthetic pathways need to be identified and reproduced to develop a sustainable production system. For example, the demand for opiate treatment drugs continues to rise and sustainable manufacture has become more urgent. The current process is expensive, energy intensive, and requires the use of hazardous chemicals that can cause respiratory problems for workers. 

These challenges have led scientists around the world to pursue alternative methods for opiate treatment production. In addition, an anti-cancer compound discovered from a plant species not amenable to cultivation cannot currently be produced in quantities to meet market demand. Now, after decades of research, the Kutchan team has identified natural enzymatic pathways that can provide the basis for new drugs and sustainable production systems for these compounds.

Oil Seed Crops

Vegetable oils are not only major sources of calories and essential nutrients for humans, but also important feedstocks for biofuels and renewable industrial materials. Plants show a phenomenal degree of adaptation and phenotypic plasticity in response to different environmental conditions. Membrane lipids are central to  this plasticity with their roles in cell structure, metabolism, and growth regulation.

Danforth scientists have discovered mutants in different pathways that increase plant oil and biomass production.

Genome Editing & Mining Traits

The application of genetic diversity mining and genome editing for crop improvement has been hampered by the lack of tools and process to address the low frequency of Homologous Recombination (HR) that occurs in plants. Editing and replacing an endogenous sequence with a user-defined sequence is inefficient, has a low success rate, and is very labor intensive.

Danforth scientists have discovered a process that allows programmable nucleic acid modification and targeting at specific genomic site.

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Meet the Team

Erica Agnew

IP Manager

Minna Onken

IN2 Project Coordinator

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