[Disclosure: Rainstick is in the inaugural cohort of AgFunder’s GROW Future Protein Programme.]
We’ve known for years that electrical storms can boost crop yields, says Rainstick cofounder Mic Black. “But try putting lightning in a box.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what Rainstick is doing: deploying super-high voltage electrical fields to increase seed germination rates in everything from wheat to leafy greens. Its tech can also boost growth rates in mushrooms, yeast, and other microorganisms, says Black. “We create electric fields to grow crops bigger, faster, and more sustainably.”
Rainstick’s device “looks a bit like a big photocopier with a bunch of treatment chambers that creates electric fields with extreme precision,” explains Black, who cofounded the company with Darryl Lyons in early 2022. “And because it’s so targeted, it’s also very energy efficient.”
“The simplest description of what we do is trying to mimic the natural effects of lightning in a controlled environment,” he says. “Why lightning? Because there are tiny biological switches inside plants that are sensitive to electric fields, which influence how the plants grow and adapt to their environment.”
But is electroculture—a term used to describe using electricity to stimulate plant growth— legit?
It depends how you’re doing it, says Black. A literature search on electroculture, for example, will yield “about 200 high-quality papers and maybe 2,000 that aren’t so great,” while a Google search will throw up everything from folklore around lightning sticks and thunderstorms to blogs from home gardeners that don’t really know what they’re doing, observes Black.
“There’s a big difference between the precision of what we’re doing and what you see on Tik Tok with people putting copper coils in the ground and doing incantations.”
A year ago, says Black, “We probably still sounded like crazies. But now people are at least becoming more familiar with the fact that electric fields influence biology.”
Which if you think about it, should not really come as a surprise, he says. “Every neuron that’s firing in your head right now is controlled by an electric field.”
According to Queensland, Australia-based Rainstick, which has raised about A$450,000 ($299,000) in SAFE notes and is currently raising a A$1.6 ($1.1 million) pre-seed round, variable electrical field technology can deliver:
- An increased germination rate, which increases the viable yield of the planted crop, and lowers the number of seeds required.
- Accelerated seedling emergence and conformity, leading to more consistent crops and a simplified harvesting process.
- Improved seedling ‘vigor,’ which increases plants’ ability to absorb nutrients, out-compete invasive weeds and withstand pests and bacteria.
Double-digit increases in yields
According to Black—a self-described “hardware and software engineer with a lifelong passion for weather events and unreasonable challenges in biotech”—Rainstick is probably a couple of years away from commercialization but is “well beyond the lab stage.”
It’s too early to say its tech can deliver a consistent and reproducible increase in yield for any specific crop, says Black, but preliminary data from trials with multiple crops from cucumbers to rockmelon (cantaloupe), wheat, and barley, are exciting, with wheat yields up by 10% in one recent trial. In a high-value crop such as capsicum, which Rainstick is currently working on, even a modest increase in yield could be very attractive, he says.
“We’ve also seen a 30% increase in leaf size [an indicator of yield] in wheat, and about a doubling in biomass with rockmelon, which is out of the park. But wheat is very difficult to measure because there is such a huge amount of variation within its own species.”
He adds: “There are two streams of activity. The academic stream where we have to show statistical significance and third-party validation through universities such as James Cook University, the National University of Singapore, and the University of Queensland. And then the practical stream where we’re now working with multiple farmers planting large numbers of seeds [that have been treated with Rainstick’s technology].”
Frequency, waveform, duration
So how does what Rainstick is doing compare to something like pulsed electric field technology, which can be used to pasteurize foods by inactivating bacteria at low temperatures?
According to Black, who notes that the electricity is delivered wirelessly: “What we found was that a lot of the approaches involved blasting a huge amount of power for a short burst and then resting and then doing that over and over again. What we do is super high voltage but it’s a very targeted charge with a very specific set of waveforms designed to encourage the plant to make its own changes and adapt to its new environment.
“It’s one treatment, but the length of treatment depends on the species variety and what you’re targeting,” notes Black, who can modify frequency, waveform, and duration depending on the species and what he’s trying to achieve. “If you’re aiming for boosting germination rates, or if you’re aiming for increased vigor, those things will alter what we call the Rainstick recipe.”
In Singapore, he says, “one of the one of the common leafy greens that they [a potential partner] grow has a germination rate of 70%, which means that often they’re putting two seeds in every punnet and then somebody has to manually go through and cut one of those seedlings out that isn’t growing as fast as the other one.
“If we could get the germination rate up to 90%, that would be a massive improvement to their unit economics.”
While much of the work at Rainstick has focused on treating seeds, the tech has also been shown to significantly boost growth rates in mushrooms and yeast, he said: “We know we have more than a single market.
“For example, independent experiments through the CSIRO Kick-Start program show we have broad applications of our technology into improving the unit economics of alternative proteins through a significant influence on microbial population biomass.”
While it’s early days, Black has little doubt that “when the cat’s out the bag, there’s going to be an enormous amount of interest in what we’re doing. We’ve got to plan for that, both by protecting our IP but also building a strong business model so that we maintain a competitive advantage when the fast followers come, and they will come, because this is crazy good.
“The overall trend [from trials conducted by Rainstick] is consistently positive. We just need to repeat these trials at larger quantities to get numbers that people can hang their hat on.”
But he cautioned: “As exciting as the early results are, and as cool as lightning in a box sounds, it’s still a long road ahead and one we must take with discipline, diligence and humility, learning from nature and from those who have fed us for generations past.”