There’s a lot that goes into the planting process and most of it happens before the seed even hits the soil. For food safety purposes as well as yield-boosting measures, seeds are frequently disinfected prior to planting.
Various strains of bacteria and fungi can reduce seed germination rate, while diseases carried on the outside of seeds can contaminate the soil they’re planted in. That can lead to a chronic infection in the soil that affects future crops, Ralph Weir, CEO of seed sterilization startup Zayndu, tells AFN.
The UK-based company’s devices use a non-toxic plasma disinfectant to kill pathogens while boosting germination rates at the same time. Launched in January 2019 and built around several decades of research carried out at Loughborough University, Zayndu has so far been funded through limited debt finance, investment from the founders, and loans and grants from the UK government’s Innovate UK.
“We are now in the grey zone of pre- or post-revenue,” Weir says. “We have early orders for evaluation systems, but in terms of funding, we would still class ourselves as seed. And yes, there are many, many jokes about a seed company needing seed funding and having field trials in a real field!”
Read on to hear more from Weir about Zayndu’s startup journey.
AFN: How does your technology work?
Ralph Weir: The cleaning technology we refer to as ‘activated air’ functions by running a very small amount of electricity through a closed chamber of air. We place the seeds in a sealed rotating drum, and the seeds tumble around. We then run the current through the air to create plasma in the drum, which creates what we call ‘activated air’.
[This] cold plasma, which splits oxygen and nitrogen molecules into individual atoms, [is] technically a blend of RONS [reactive oxygen and nitrogen species] which is a powerful disinfectant.
The RONS are desperate for something to latch on to and tear apart bacteria, fungi, or viruses present in the chamber. The seeds are not affected as they are protected by their comparatively thick seed walls. [At the end of the] process, the ‘activated air’ just converts itself back to air – so coming out of the drum is just seeds and fresh air.
What makes this unique is that it’s a process designed for scale. Our plasma does not require any fancy atmosphere, vacuum, or elevated temperatures.
Why is this solution needed when there are already many alternatives out there?
Our method of seed decontamination exists for two reasons.
The first is the elimination of chemical seed treatments – because chemical usage is becoming heavily restricted and costs of use are rising – and also because of documented cases of environmental harm due to chemical seed treatments.
The second is to treat seeds that are otherwise untreatable. There are some seed diseases for which no effective chemical treatment has been developed – for example, mucilaginous seeds like basil, where any moisture-based treatment causes seeds to clump into goopy bricks which are useless for planting or further processing. There are some seeds for which chemical treatment is not viable. For example, fast-growing salads – where you can’t put chemicals on them because there’s no time for the chemical to dissipate. If it goes from germination to plate in a couple of weeks, the chemical is still there, and it’s on somebody’s plate. So this is something that we can disinfect that nobody else can.
Who is your target customer?
Targets are the big seed producers, so very much B2B. The goal is to establish the cold plasma technique as the de facto approach to disinfecting seeds. For completeness, we’re based in the UK, which has a decent local market for us. But the Netherlands is the epicenter of vegetable seed production, and in normal times, we can drive to key hotspots [there] in a few hours.
Do you have a lot of competitors? What does the landscape look like?
We’re not aware of any other viable plasma technology that can process seeds at a factory scale. There are research groups working on a teaspoonful in a vacuum or in a noble gas, but that doesn’t work if you need to process a ton or more of seeds – which is where we are heading! The real competitors are the technologies we are displacing like chemicals and ‘physical’ processes, like dipping seeds in hot water.
Our edge here at Zayndu is that the chemicals are becoming persona non grata by either being banned or just being seen as unwelcome and untrusted by consumers, while hot water can devastate germination rates, and simply cannot be used on some seeds.
If you could change one ag policy, law, or regulation, what would it be – and why?
At the moment, it’s regulatory. There are treatments that are approved for disinfecting seeds for intercontinental shipments, and they are mainly chemical. Plasma is not one of them, despite being more effective than many treatments that are approved. Domestically, that’s not an issue. Shipments within the US or within the EU are unaffected, but shipments to say Australia from the EU are. So, a focus for the Zayndu team in the coming year is to engage with the regulators and prove that plasma is safer, cleaner, and more effective than the approved options so that we can get it approved.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now?
We are about to start fundraising, so that feels like it will be my biggest challenge for the next few months!
The other challenge is keeping all the potential users happy. Our launch machine is great for high-value crops, but we’re being asked for a smaller machine targeting the extremely high-value crops like tomato seed, and larger machines that can handle throughputs of tons-per-day.
The important thing is to take small steps, but quickly. So, we have a machine that is an order of magnitude larger than the launch machine running, and another order of magnitude in design. But we’re learning lessons from each, and using that to manage the risks of each machine development.
How has Covid-19 impacted your operations and growth plans?
Zayndu has been fortunate in that we have three main workspaces: a biology lab, which already adhered to high standards of sanitization to eliminate contamination of seeds by operators. The team was already wearing face masks to protect the seeds. Then there’s the workshop, which is a relatively large space where machines are developed and tested and which has significant social distancing, just because of scale. Office work can largely be performed from home.
What has been more challenging is working with customers. Many of our customers are in the EU, particularly in the Netherlands. Travel from the UK to the Netherlands has been seriously restricted. We have had to train customers to install their own machines and to provide remote training on operation, which was not our intention but has actually been relatively easy, and is probably a permanent benefit. We have also upgraded the remote monitoring capability of the systems, which helps diagnose any issues before they arise. Again, that is a permanent benefit. We miss the face-to-face contact and unquestionably we would have been bringing more partners into our early adopter program but generally, we’ve suffered less than many businesses.
Any advice for other agrifoodtech startups out there?
I’ve been involved in several successful startups, and the best advice is to talk to potential customers early, pin back your ears, and listen! Even when you do talk to potential users, it’s very easy to hear what you want to hear. I see founders who tell industry experts they are wrong or stupid, rather than understanding their problems. You have to walk a mile in their shoes, really understand what they are trying to do, and be part of the solution – not just an irritation. That way you’ll get engagement.
The current Zayndu architecture is nothing like the first proposals we showed potential users. It was refined with their input and is now something that is incredibly well-received. Had we pushed on with our first concepts we would have failed to generate any traction even with the same core technology.
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