April 10, 2023—In 2021, combining experts from both the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) launched a cohort of five startups focused on indoor agriculture. Working toward breakthroughs in lighting, water use, sensors, and more, three of the five participants benefit from assistance in research at both NREL and the Danforth Center to achieve their goals.
Here is a spotlight on the participants, including the two that have finished their projects with IN2:
CarbonBook CEO Daphne Preuss wants the industry to pay more attention to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in indoor agriculture—to tackle climate change. Agriculture accounts for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and indoor agriculture emissions can be significantly higher than outdoor agriculture. Carbonbook developed a solution to provide cradle-to-shelf sustainability accounting in order to help solve that problem.
“Much of the focus in the media, policy makers and consumers is on outdoor agriculture because current agriculture practices contribute greatly to global greenhouse emissions,” Preuss said. “However, produce grown indoors can have 10 times the carbon footprint as produce grown outdoors. What we’re trying to do is help people be mindful of that.”
To accomplish this, CarbonBook created a carbon calculator that allows indoor farms to track their carbon emissions that come from day-to-day operations.
“You don’t know how to improve until you know where you are,” CarbonBook Chief Marketing Officer Aline Glick said. “Our results will show growers where they are having the biggest problem, so they know what to focus on. In the future we will incorporate some of the artificial intelligence (AI) intellectual property (IP) we’ve created, and we’ll be able to give them recommendations.”
The carbon calculator takes into account some of the major factors that create emissions from indoor agriculture. Unlike outdoor agriculture, greenhouses require electricity to power lights, and depending on the geography, that could come from a coal-powered plant instead of from solar panels or other clean energy sources. Another contributor is the use of fertilizer because the production of nitrogen fertilizer uses natural gas. Furthermore, a greenhouse may dump byproducts into wastewater streams instead of recycling and/or using just what’s needed at the right time.
The calculator also includes items such as when an employee drives to the store to pick up supplies, marking emissions from that mileage. Additionally, it factors using plastics to wrap items instead of cardboard.
“We look at that holistically and add it up and provide a comprehensive report card for the entire facility, but also the different aspects of the facility to see how it can be improved,” Preuss said.
The IN2 program gave CarbonBook great insights starting with the questions asked during the review process. During the program, the Danforth Center team performed a trial in a greenhouse to help the team develop CarbonBook’s software. Now, NREL is generating information on energy efficiency measures in CarbonBook’s new and existing operations.
“The combination of NREL, the Danforth Center, and all of the network that IN2 has, really catapulted us forward,” Preuss said. “We came in with an idea, a concept, and we left with a finished product that’s in the market now.”
Taking a concept from the drawing board to prototype to production through the IN2 program is a dream for most participants, and the CarbonBook team is very grateful it happened.
“It feels great,” Preuss said. “We’ve got an amazing team of people who are very experienced at doing this and we just pulled together and pulled it off. I think many times small companies try to do too many different things and make things too complicated before launching a product. We believed in getting generation 1 ready and out the door, because once it gets in people’s hands, and they start using it, we are more informed about what generation 2 needs to look like. Users give us the best information. We like to get something out there we feel is good, but we know it’s not perfect, and then through iterations, it will get better.”
Because CarbonBook is a software-as-a-service business model, little set up is required—clients can install the product and understand their carbon emissions very quickly and easily. This allows CarbonBook to scale the business without requiring significant resources.
CarbonBook believes its calculator hit the market at just the right time given the trends in the grocery industry. Large retail grocery chains are trying to hit targets for clean emissions, and many have worked hard over the past few years on becoming greenhouse gas emissions compliant.
“And it still has not gotten them to net zero,” Preuss said. “Now, they are looking at their suppliers and putting pressure on suppliers to reduce emissions. A simple tool like CarbonBook can help.”
New West Genetics
As part of the IN2 indoor agriculture, New West Genetics (NWG) was able to gain an understanding of the variation within a hemp crop’s ability to sequester carbon. NWG and scientists at the Danforth Center evaluated root traits, an important factor in plant physiology that impacts carbon sequestration. The research revealed substantial variation of root system architecture across NWG’s diverse pedigree database.
Why hemp? NWG discovered that hemp has a deeper root system, can be planted at a higher density, and can sequester more CO2 per year compared to other crops.
NWG investigates and identifies traits at the genomic level to improve the sustainability of crops, specifically hemp. The work with IN2 enabled the identification of breeding lines to be used as parents for enhanced root systems needed for nutrient use efficiency and soil carbon sequestration.
“Understanding underlying genomic traits enables breeders to quickly forward lines, in this case to select lines that are better able to respond to climate change,” CEO of NWG Wendy Mosher said. “You can select traits to improve the crops’ response to stressors encountered across the world. Additionally, we select to get the best yield possible.”
NWG’s time at the Danforth Center allowed them to do much more phenotyping than they could do on their own. They took a broad swath of genetic lines and analyzed them for sustainability and yield traits, looking for more resilient and higher-producing elements.
“It’s a little luxurious honestly,” Mosher said. “The research team at the Danforth Center used a deep trough so we could see what the lines look like indoors and outdoors and looked at the roots for carbon sequestration. This allows us to see all the differences across the germplasm and then we know which plants to select to move forward for both yield and carbon sequestration. The more massive the roots, the more carbon it sequesters and the longer it sequesters.”
The research provided NWG with a huge amount of data on several families, letting them select ones that have the best traits in their breeding selections.
“An exciting development on the yield side is a game-changing trait called AMPLIFY™. This past season we field tested this trait by crossing it into multiple lines. It successfully crossed into every single line, and most of those, doubled the yield. In some lines we even saw more than doubling,” Mosher said.
NWG has developed products since 2020 and will release AMPLIFY in 2024.
“Last year was the demonstration plot, in 2023 we’ll multiply seed from it and in 2024 it will be officially released,” Mosher said. “We’re really excited about pushing the R&D forward into commercialization. We’re almost there now.”
While AMPLIFY is meant for outdoor use, much of NWG’s R&D work can apply to indoor use as well. Outdoor crops tend to be more sustainable, but the company recognizes it’s important to keep driving the options for indoor use for certain parts of the world.
“There are certain regions where you just can’t produce enough food outdoors because of the extent of climate change,” Mosher said. “Having food grown locally in challenging environments makes it essential to increase the sustainability of indoor ag. In the past, hemp utilized very inefficient indoor production, but in recent years has prioritized sustainability even more broadly than more traditional indoor crops. We’re proud of the gains the hemp industry has made. I’m grateful for the acknowledgement across crops that there’s work to be done to improve sustainable production.”
Mosher says she’s grateful overall to the IN2 and St. Louis communities for supporting sustainable agriculture.
“I’m so grateful, and we’re ready for what’s next,” she said.
Other cohort participants
The other three participants in the indoor ag cohort continue to work with Danforth on their projects.
Atlas Sensor Technologies now has a prototype of a smart-water quality sensor. The conductivity sensor was developed for use inside homes and commercial buildings, focusing on detecting nitrogen. With this sensor, water treatment plants and other locations can better detect toxic nitrates in the groundwater. Atlas and Danforth scientists are now testing the sensor in greenhouses.
GrowFlux is working with Danforth Center researchers on next generation lighting controls to make greenhouse production more energy efficient. Horticulture lighting consumes 1.8% of the US electricity grid, and GrowFlux’s IoT device paired with their app can provide immediate savings to their customers. Testing is underway and will be completed in 2023.
SunPath aims to develop a next generation solar panel and continues to work on a prototype.