October 21, 2020

Six university projects that could generate a greater yield in agribusiness

GRA’s Greater Yield initiative, launched in October 2020, is designed to seed and shape more university startup companies around inventions that benefit agribusiness.

Here’s a look at the first cohort of “companies in the making.”

Project: CytoNest
University of Georgia

Agribusinesses looking to pursue cultured meats — grown from animal cells, with no need for animal slaughter — require platforms called 3DCC (3-dimensional cell culturing).

CytoNest uses nanofiber technology to create 3DCC platforms that overcome some of the limitations of other commercial-grade systems on the market.

The CytoNest suite of prototype devices and fabricated 3-D scaffolds increase yields of cultured cells and improve scalability of operations. The scaffolds are more porous, allowing for nutrients and metabolites to be continuously exchanged.

And CytoNest can quickly customize the platform and reproduce scaffolds to expand cell culturing.

From the inventors: “Preliminary cell culturing studies are promising with the clear observation of cell diffusion and/or migration, anchoring, and proliferation through the scaffold’s 3D spacing.”

Project: BIRD
University of Georgia

Some fruits and vegetables are harvested and processed by hand because machines are too hard on the produce. That’s especially true of blueberries: It’s estimated that 78% of mechanically harvested blueberries are severely bruised.

If farmers and equipment manufacturers knew more about how this damage between fruit and machine occurs — specifically, the quantity and location of the “mechanical impact” on the fruit — they could reduce damage. BIRD provides this vital information.

An acronym for “Berry Impact Recording Device,” BIRD provides a sensor that can measure and record the mechanical impacts on blueberries. Because the BIRD sensor has similar physical properties as the fruit in terms of size, weight and surface property, it experiences the mechanical process just as the fruit does. The impact recorded by the sensors can represent the real impacts of the fruits.

An accelerometer inside the sensor measures the mechanical impacts, and the measurements are stored in onboard memory (and later downloaded for deeper analysis).

From the inventors: “Although the sensor was initially designed for blueberries, it can be used for many other fruits and vegetables, such olives, strawberries and avocados.”

Project: InversAI
University of Georgia

When you combine modern sensors with industrial robots that operate alongside people — then add artificial intelligence — you get a “cobot” that can handle more complex tasks.

That’s what's been engineered in the InversAI project. The cobots are being put to work grading and packing onions at the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Lyons, Ga.

Sorting onions can be handled by existing automation, but grading onions and packing them into containers are more complex tasks. InversAI handles this complexity by using high technology to watch human behavior and apply what’s learned.

Through the InversAI system, high-resolution cameras and laser range finders observe humans performing a task, then feed the data into software. InversAI then codifies the task data so it’s remembered later.

From the inventors: “The software will be packaged as an intuitive application programming interface for use by robot programmers.”

Project: MycoLogic
Kennesaw State University

Farmers have the potential to add a year-round crop — mushrooms — while using agricultural waste instead of farmland to grow the product.

MycoLogic converts 20-foot shipping containers into environments optimized for growing culinary and commodity mushrooms. In these environments, temperature and humidity are carefully controlled, and farmers can monitor conditions remotely.

The mushrooms are grown on substrates comprised of bagged agricultural waste such as peanut shells or spent brewing grain.

From the inventors: “This approach is also highly modular, allowing for production to be placed according to market need and moved and expanded as trends shift. The underlying systems and software support a wide diversity of mushroom varieties allowing for further adaptability to market demands.”

Watch a short video about this project >

Project: Metabolic Valve
University of Georgia

In fueling industrial processes, naturally produced biochemicals have advantages over standard chemicals. They’re uniquely structured and typically have a lower impact on the environment. They’re also becoming more cost effective.

It takes microbes to generate biochemical products — to do so, the microbes convert sugar raw materials. But in nature, some of this raw material conversion goes to growing the microbes’ cells, thus competing with the goal of generating useful biochemicals.

UGA’s Metabolic Valve project partly suppresses the flow of raw materials to the microbial cells so that they’re directed more to potential biochemical products. The technology does this by changing how a key enzyme (citrate synthase) functions during the metabolism of microorganisms.

Beyond helping to generate more biochemical products, the Metabolic Valve technology slows down cell growth, creating several industrial advantages — including costs associated with temperature control and oxygen supply to cells.

From the inventors: “As a development strategy, we propose broadening the scope of the Metabolic Valve technology while targeting a single novel compound that has potential application 1) in the production of polymers and 2) as a precursor to a large-volume, commodity chemical.”

Project: Tarazyme
University of Georgia

Keeping golf courses and athletic fields richly green requires frequent aeration. Managers of these venues typically perform core aeration twice a year, which is costly because of the labor involved, and because the venues often must close during the process.

But using a special enzyme to dethatch turf can save enormous amounts of money. The Tarazyme project has engineered patented materials and methods for this dethatching technology — at $1,200 per application, compared to the customary $10,200 per core aeration.

The material is a crude enzyme product with laccase (copper containing oxidase) as its main functional component. Applying it correctly helps limit the accumulation of thatch and reduces water repellency.

From the inventors: “The technology has been tested in lab studies, in greenhouse studies and at the field scale. All studies exhibited positive results in general, and also identified appropriate ranges of enzyme dosages and application frequency.”