15 Jun 2023
Penn State spin-out has developed a field-deployable, hand-held spectrophotometer platform to check crop health in real time.
Croptix, a startup company in Pennsylvania aiming photonics-based technology at precision agriculture applications, has attracted new investor support for its seed funding round.
The Penn State University spin-out, which was previously known as Atoptix, said its planned $3.5 million round is now being backed by consultancy firm Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA), alongside previous investors 1855 Capital and Ben Franklin Technology Partners.
Founded a decade ago, Croptix has been developing a field-deployable, hand-held spectrophotometer sensor platform through a series of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the US National Science Foundation (NSF).
The approach is intended to provide farmers with an early warning of nutrient deficiency or water stress, as well as specific problems such as Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, which affects citrus crops, before they become apparent by eye.
“This disruptive platform enables the detection of crop health faster and easier than legacy practices, resulting in improved crop quality and yield [and] providing better financial returns for farmers,” claims the company.
Destructive crop diseases
Founded by Penn State optical engineers Perry Edwards and Zhiwen Liu, Croptix says that by combining its miniature spectrophotometers with “big data” and artificial intelligence (AI), the approach can provide a new tool in the field to improve global food security.
“This investment round allows us to accelerate our development and market penetration efforts,” said Edwards, the firm’s CEO. “We’re eager to add nutrient testing to our suite of solutions for in-field assessment of crop health to our customers.”
According to its only US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) filing so far, Croptix had managed to raise around $1.6 million of the aimed-for $3.5 million by March this year.
The spectroscopy platform is said to feature patented in-field sensors that, when combined with AI analytics, cloud-based data, and a mobile app, provide rapid, actionable results for farmers.
“Croptix's initial solution has been beneficial for citrus growers to identify early indications of HLB citrus greening, one of the most destructive citrus plant diseases in the world,” said the company.
“With this new investment round, Croptix is accelerating its expansion into the larger nutrient segment while continuing to add to its disease detection solutions for growers of high-value permanent crops such as apples and grapes, in addition to citrus.”
The additional funding will also be used to scale in-field testing across a broad range of crops, both in the US and internationally.
Regenerative agriculture: less pollution
AEA, which provides “regenerative agriculture” consultancy services for large-scale farming, believes that the technology will add a new dimension to its offering by providing farmers with rapid, data-driven analysis.
Its CEO Jason Hobson added: “This technology will help farmers quickly understand potential issues related to their crops and solve nutrient deficiencies before they become a problem.”
In an article coinciding with the funding release, AEA founder John Kempf wrote: "Croptix has emerged with an innovative plant health platform that aims to revolutionize how we analyze and manage plant health.
"Leaf tissue analysis from a laboratory can fall short in providing timely and accurate data, but this is where Croptix’ plant health platform excels."
Kempf added that the photonics technology had undergone successful greenhouse and field tests on various crops aside from citrus, including apples, soybeans, potatoes, and cassava, with plans to test additional crops in the forthcoming growing season.
"This advancement has the promise to reduce fertilizer usage, particularly for nitrogen and potassium, resulting in decreased water pollution caused by nitrates," Kempf wrote. "Moreover, it can effectively mitigate disease and insect pressure, stemming from excessive fertilizer applications, and thus reduce the reliance on pesticides."
Abstracts for two NSF-backed projects with Edwards as principal investigator show funding for a Phase I project to miniaturize high-precision optical spectrophotometers in 2017, followed by a Phase II effort aimed at rapid screening of HLB specifically.
“For each spectral measurement, the sensor simultaneously records a self-referenced spectrum, retaining the sensitivity and reliability generally reserved for costlier and bulkier spectrophotometer designs, but also enabling a non-technical user to collect data in the field at the push of a button,” states the Phase II abstract.
“Distinct from surface reflection methods, the proposed sensor enables pre-visual detection of a pathogen, as it only captures light that has penetrated inside of a leaf and interacted with internal structures.”
By lowering the cost of the optical sensor through patented designs, and increasing ease of use via a smart phone and cloud-based data analytics, the Phase II project aimed to enable widespread adoption of the technology by growers in disease-prone regions, where community-wide screening is seen as critical to protect grower assets.