In the fourth of a six-part series on innovative start-ups, agribusiness firm Agro Genesis tells Francis Chan how it is taking a concept from lab to market with help from SPRING Singapore's Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme (Tecs).
CHEMICAL fertilisers have long replaced manure and other decaying organic materials to help farmers enhance soil fertility and crop yield.
But a fertiliser usually requires dissolving the substance in water before it is added to farmland and that leads to wastage as most of the nutrients get filtered away through soil.
Dr Sung Do Song, director and co-founder of local start-up Agro Genesis, said only a measly one per cent of nutrients in chemical fertilisers is absorbed by crops. "The rest of the 99 per cent? It's just all waiting on chance."
"The fact is, nutrients in common fertilisers - usually water-soluble - can be washed away by rain or get too tightly combined with the soil," he said.
That conundrum inspired Agro Genesis to come up with an alternative. It is field-testing Miracle Sweet, an environmentally-friendly fertiliser that not only cuts wastage but also substantially increases crop yield.
Test results from Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan and South Korea have been encouraging, said Ms Karen Kon, the firm's co-founder and associate director.
Latest test estimates show that 5kg to 10kg of Miracle Sweet can replace up to 100kg of common fertiliser used for one hectare of arable land.
"Conventional fertilisers have to be water soluble so that it can be uptaken by plants, but our invention is actually water insoluble, but yet it can uptaken by plants," said Ms Kon, who has been in agribusiness for more than 15 years.
The firm plans to roll out the product this year once final field tests are completed. Said Ms Kon: "It's a huge market out there but we're a small company, so we hope to work with the right distributors and the right partners to make it big."
Size does matter in the business of agriculture, a fact not lost on Dr Sung and Ms Kon, who first worked together at German chemical giant BASF.
But when it came to increasing the efficiency of fertilisers - what the industry refers to as fertiliser use efficiency (FUE) - Dr Sung knew that he had to go nano.
"The smaller the nutrient particle, the higher the chance of uptake by plants, and we know that," said Dr Sung, who has a PhD in agricultural science.
Miracle Sweet was developed using Micro Suspension (MS) technology, a process developed by Agro Genesis that breaks down nutrient and mineral particles further into "micro-size".
"That way plants can uptake the minerals faster and more easily, so it's like we cook the food for plants and it says, 'Thank you, I'll eat it now' - that is the idea," explained Dr Sung.
Miracle Sweet has been tested on various crops such as rice, corn, soya bean, sweet potato and tapioca in fields and greenhouses.
Dr Sung said the product reduces wastage and hence costs, because it can be applied directly to the seeds - a process called seed-coating - before planting.
"So if you have a large plantation, and you use the coating method, it can save you a lot of money," he added.
Besides promoting root growth and a marked increase in the size of crops treated with Miracle Sweet, Agro Genesis tests have also recorded increases in sugar and starch content in crops such as corn and potato and increased essential oil content in some herb plants.
"So on top of increasing crop yield, it also increases the sugar or starch content in crops by up to 20, 30 per cent and that's very important because of the growing demand for biofuels," said Ms Kon.
Another positive "green" factor was that unlike conventional fertilisers - which are typically composed of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or what farmers call NPK fertilisers - Miracle Sweet comprised natural elements.
While advocates say NPK fertilisers help improve plant growth, the synthetic substance's impact on the environment bothered Ms Kon.
"Phosphorus is taken from rocks and they are a depleting resource, plus phosphorus and nitrogen also run off from the soil into water bodies causing algae blooms like in China just a few years ago," she said.
The firm's Micro Suspension technology uses renewable resources like animal bones to produce Miracle Sweet.
Dr Sung said that because it is an insoluble phosphate and calcium liquid, the product is an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical fertilisers.
Although the firm's technology is under a patent review, Agro Genesis is already making headway into Europe, with several Dutch and German contacts expressing keen interest.
"We definitely saw a growing demand for agricultural technology solutions when we started in 2005," said Ms Kon.
"And our markets are not really confined to the Asia Pacific, because fertilisers can be used everywhere else in the world. That is why we applied for patents globally."
Revenue mainly from product sales and consultancy fees at the firm have grown consistently by about 20 to 30 per cent over the last five years.
The firm's innovative work earned it a $500,000 grant from SPRING Singapore under its Technology Enterprise Commercialisation Scheme in 2008.
Funding support from the scheme has helped the firm set up a 600 sq m farm in Seletar for product testing, and a quality control lab in Ang Mo Kio. Both facilities - where most of Agro Genesis' 15 research staff work - are helping to accelerate the development of Miracle Sweet.
"If we were just running our consultancy business, R&D would have to take a back seat or we would have to outsource it," said Ms Kon.
"But with the grant from SPRING, we could work on our innovations in-house and that helped a lot... and we are expecting revenue to more than double once Miracle Sweet takes off."