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Real-time plant monitoring based on bioelectrical signals

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PhytlSigns (Real-time plant monitoring based on bioelectrical signals)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2018-02-28

What is the problem being addressed?

Plant physiology is studied rather less than that of animals. In fact, there are very few instruments, and none that are easy to use, that enable us to understand, in real time, the health of a plant or its response to environmental changes. For animals we have an array of such instruments from stethoscopes, through ECGs and X-Ray machines, to CAT scanners. PhytlSigns biosensors for plants measures and records small electric signals within the plant, translates them into digital form and visualizes them for further analysis. PhytlSigns allows researchers to investigate plant electrophysiology and enables growers of greenhouse crops to detect plant stressors, such as drought, salt stress or insect attack, while damage is still limited, allowing earlier interventions thereby saving growers thousands of euros per greenhouse and growth cycle.

Because the electrical activity of plants is negligible compared to the electromagnetic interference around them, measurements were only possible in laboratories with Faraday cages and other expensive equipment, which severely limited their practical application. Vivent has developed biosensors that work in plants’ natural environments, without Faraday cages, opening up research possibilities and importantly, applications for crop growers.
PhytlSigns is currently used by plant researchers (such as University of Lausanne, Sao Paolo & Tel Aviv, Agroscope, INRA) to measure responses of experimental plants and greenhouse crops to biotic and abiotic stressors.

Why is it important to society?
World population will grow to 9bn people by 2050. It is a certainty that food production will have to grow by 50% over current levels without consuming any more land or water. At the same time, existing agricultural technology is vulnerable to serious blights that can decimate production. Examples include the spread of Xylella Fastidiosa through Europe’s olive groves and the devastation of the Florida orange production through Citrus Greening. A technological transformation of horticulture is required with the objective of significantly increased yields. Understanding plant physiology is key, and the PhytlSigns biosensor provides an easy-to-use, relatively low-cost instrument which spans the needs of researchers and growers.

What are the overall objectives?
The overall objective of this project is to develop a European based, global business that will develop markets and supply products that use electrical signals in plants to increase understanding of plant physiology and help growers increase yields. Our current prototype product (TR6) is already widely acknowledged to be world-leading by the academic community of plant electrophysiologists. Our challenge is to turn this position into a sustainable, commercially stable and profitable business.

PhytlSigns aims to achieve 12% share of the €100m total target market for equipment for plant researchers and 3% share of the €600m market of smart agriculture equipment for plant producers (in greenhouses) Vivent forecasts €35m+ revenues, €250k R&D spending & 80+ employees, with more than 80% of those in Europe by 2023 for an investment of €1.8m.
This Phase 1 project evaluated the technical and commercial viability of launching biosensors for researchers and for growers of crops in controlled environments such as greenhouses. During Phase 1 progress on two patent applications continued and Vivent’s IPR strategy was confirmed. Technically, product specifications were tested and refined in preparation for the development of commercial sensors and research results were presented at a conference with many leading plant electrophysiologists.

A detailed market analysis which verified the commercial potential of the product was completed. The global smart greenhouse market which is our primary market is currently estimated at €350m with a CAGR of 13.2% between 2018 and 2023. Our commercial goals and understanding of the market and competitive landscape were reinforced. A go-to-market plan has been developed for both plant researchers, using direct sales in Europe and North America and distributors in the rest of the world and plant growers which is focused on first approaching high margin, low volume segments such as tomato seed and rare breed producers in conjunction with existing suppliers to this sector. The go-to-market plan changed significantly because of Phase 1 research and feedback from our business coach. Trials with leading tomato seed producers, required for references, are built into the Phase 2 program and a plan for phased market entry to specific market segments has been developed and costed.

Finally, an execution plan for a Phase 2 project has been developed including management, organization, risk analysis and budgets. An electrophysiology sensor for plants opens new research possibilities and enables growers in controlled environments to directly monitor their crops for a/biotic stressors and intervene earlier than is currently possible, thereby reducing costs and increasing yields.

Globally, PhytlSigns will contribute to wider adoption of smart agriculture addressing global food security & sustainability issues, as well as fostering novel agricultural research.

Benefits of this grant were disseminated internally to all of Vivent's collaborators and publicly via social media, including LInkedin, Twitter and Facebook and on Vivent's and PhytlSign's websites.
Current PhytlSigns technology is world-leading in plant electrophysiology and through the project we have continued to make massive strides. The US Department of Defense agency DARPA funded us to develop theory around plant electrophysiology. Academic papers from this work will soon be published, which will reinforce our position as the leading provider of plant electrophysiology equipment. We have already built the prototype for our next generation of instruments which will:
1. Have 8 channels instead of 1
2. Incorporate data-logging and amplification in the same device
3. Be based in more capable (24bit) smaller, cheaper and more modern A to D chipsets.

We were proud to be invited, in March, to an informal workshop of the world’s leading plant electrophysiologists at CNRS, Gif-sur-Yvette in France, hosted by Prof. Jean-Marie Frachisse. We gave two presentations which were well received.

The Phase 1 study has enabled us to choose, from many options, the most appropriate marketing and financing approaches for commercialization of innovative plant electrophysiology sensors. We expect to help growers improve food security and reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture through the deployment of PhytlSigns sensors.

We are grateful for the support that the H2020 Phase 1 grant has provided.
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Use of PhytlSigns device in vineyard
Printed Circuit Boards Used in PhytlSigns Prototypes
Use of PhytlSigns device in Phytotron
Greenhouse Environment