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Sylvarum co-founders Manuel Sobrino (COO) and Guadalupe Murga (CEO).

Deeptech startup Sylvarum’s co-founder on improving food security in Asia by “electro hacking” plants

June 18, 2024

Stimulating plants with electricity may sound like a twenty-first-century pursuit, but the roots of the concept took hold back in the nineteenth century with innovations like the “electro-vegeto-meter” and Darwin’s carnivorous vegetables, to name just a couple.

AI and biotech, and indeed a deeper understanding of electricity, make the electro-stimulation concept more sophisticated nowadays, but the goal remains much the same as it did a couple hundred years ago: to improve plant yield along with characteristics such as smell and taste using electricity.

Guadalupe Murga, cofounder of San Francisco-based startup Sylvarum, calls it “electro hacking” plants.

“Plants have a nervous system where electrical signals control the metabolic processes that happen inside the organism,” she tells AgFunderNews. “Sylvarum is intervening this communication using external electric and magnetic fields. This can improve germination, increase ion uptake capacity, increase tolerance to stress, and accelerate growth.”

Sylvarum’s work turned the heads of those selecting startups for the fifth cohort of the AgFunder GROW Impact Accelerator, which just kicked off in Singapore. [Disclosure: Agfunder is AgFunderNews’ parent company.]

There is a huge market opportunity for indoor agriculture in Asia, says Murga, who is originally from Argentina. Sylvarum is currently applying its electro-stimulation system to tomato plants in greenhouses, and, says Murga, hopes to build vital relationships in the Asian market through participating in the GROW accelerator.

Below, Murga discusses her journey from biotech to ag tech, why Sylvarum chose indoor ag, and what’s next.

Sylvarum cofounders Manuel Sobrino (COO) and Guadalupe Murga (CEO).

AgFunderNews (AFN): How does Sylvarum’s technology work?

Guadalupe Murga (GM):  We work in a specific field of precision agriculture called electro culture, where you can stimulate plants using just electricity. Sylvarum uses electric and magnetic fields to hack the metabolic system of a plant, and we do it by [targeting] the nervous system.

Plants have a nervous system where electrical signals control the metabolic processes that happen inside the organism. Sylvarum is intervening this communication using external electric and magnetic fields. This can improve germination, increase ion uptake capacity, increase tolerance to stress, and accelerate growth.

We deliver very specific signals that depend on the moment of application, the intensity of the stimuli, etc. It depends on the stage of development if it is fructification or is just vegetation stage. So it depends on a lot of different variables not only in the plant but also in the environment. If you have high temperatures one day, it is totally different. All of these variables are controlled by the algorithms we have behind the electro-stimulation generator.

AFN: How did you wind up in agriculture and agtech?

GM: My background is not in business. It’s not even in agriculture. I’m a bio-engineer with experience in biotech research and development.

I was the typical researcher inside the lab. When I started my career, I was super focused on the idea of making impact with science. I was sure that studying biomedical engineering and mixing biologicals with electronics in an interesting way could [provide] answers to a lot of different problems.

That was my objective when I started studying, then I started doing research and realized that I wasn’t aligned with my directors. They were looking for impact, but the impact they were talking about and my impact were totally different. They were looking for good publications and a lot of referrals. [That] absolutely wasn’t my objective.

I was working specifically in one project related to measuring glucose in blood for diabetic patients. My little sister is a diabetic patient, and I realized that development [being researched in the project] would never change [someone like] my sister because [it would] never reach the market.

I said, Okay, this is not the place I want to be, but I was absolutely lost. At least in Latin America, it is not common to know what is a startup, what is venture capital, how to build something based on science and research and then get it to the market — the transition of the science to the real world.

I returned to Argentina [from studying in the US], where I received a phone call. It was a crazy guy called Manuel, now my cofounder. He said, “Hey, you don’t know me but I’m a hydroponic grower and I’m interested in exploring plants’ electrophysiology, because I know this can improve my yields.”

His idea was to build a startup and raise some venture capital to develop the technology. I didn’t know about startups and venture capital, but I [could] help with the research and development. I was working with bacteria and electrophysiology at that time, so I knew something about electrophysiology in general. Of course, plants and materials were totally different.

I started helping my cofounder and spent hours per day just thinking about how to apply electric stimulation to plants. My cofounder was in the same boat, so he killed his [hydroponic growing] company and I quit my two jobs. We started in a really, really small lab — it wasn’t a lab actually. It was a basement in the university.

His objective was to make an impact in controlled environment agriculture, knowing already the limitations and pain points. On my side, the [motivation was] the frustration of the academic ecosystem not generating the real impact I was looking for.

Team Sylvarum.

AFN: What is Sylvarum’s main objective right now?

GM: To validate the technology and improve yields of growers.

We’re focused on tomato plants, but then we know that working with electrophysiology, we can intervene the whole metabolic processes, so we can intervene the plant defenses and we can intervene also in the plants’ capacity to uptake ions from the substrate. So there are a lot of different things and super, super interesting things to work with just using electricity.

AFN: In which markets are you focused right now?

GM:  We’re focused on controlled environment agriculture; it’s easier to apply our technology in controlled environment agriculture because of the way we implement stimulation. But there are people in China, for example, working on electrophysiology in a different way using cables with high voltage in electric stimulated open-field crops. It is possible.

AFN: Where is Sylvarum at in terms of stage and development?

GM: We are in pre-seed stage. We already validated the technology at lab scale.

We started working with Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant that’s just used for science processes.

We use this plant because it’s small and grows in one month and is super, super known in scientific fields. So it was easy for us to develop the technology using this plant. Tomato plants for example are huge, they take six months to grow. So we decided to use Arabidopsis thaliana to show that we can actually regenerate something using electro-stimulation and we can control the metabolism of plants.

AFN: How are you navigating the controlled environment ag market, given that it’s in the middle of a correction right now?

GM: Investors were super worried about the vertical system. Mixing our technical risk with a market that is not really stable was hard for them, so we decided to focus only on greenhouses that are already working. [With greenhouses], it’s easier for us to showcase this market. Then of course we can think about electro-stimulating plants on the moon: it is necessary, we’ll get to it. But for now, the realistic vision is greenhouses.

AFN: What is your connection to Asia?

GM: Last year, we were part of this competition at SMU [Singapore Management University]. It was the first time for us thinking about the Asia market.

Asia has one of the biggest markets for controlled environment agriculture because of China and Singapore, [the latter of which is] looking for food sovereignty. The only way [to achieve this is through] controlled environment agriculture for these kinds of countries. They have no space.

China is a huge market. That’s the main reason for us to be part of something like GROW: to understand how to build relationships with the Asian market. We know [that market] will be super, super important for us, but we don’t know how to approach it.

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