Only scientific discoveries can prevent global hunger

In the past century, humanity’s water consumption has increased by more than 800%. As much as 70% of the water is consumed in the agricultural sector. Water has already become a deficit in some parts of the world, and water scarcity is also becoming a serious threat to people’s food supply.

PlantInvent is a University of Tartu spin-off company with the goal to significantly reduce water consumption in agriculture by using more accurate measuring devices. Since the second half of last year, the mentors of the development program North Star (Põhjanael), created by Estonia’s two largest universities and science parks, have contributed to the company’s development.

There is already too little fresh water in the world to quench everyone’s thirst and provide them with fresh food. The solutions seem obvious – using less water or creating opportunities to use ocean water. However, both solutions require new technology.

We asked Jaanika Unt, a member of the PlantInvent team and a University of Tartu plant biology specialist, to talk in more detail about the ongoing development of high-tech equipment.

What exactly does PlantInvent do?

PlantInvent is a company that has grown out of the plant signalling workgroup of the University of Tartu and develops and sells plant diagnostic equipment. We are currently focusing on two products that we want to bring to market. We have developed multi-chamber devices for measuring the characteristics of healthy plants under laboratory conditions. In cooperation with the University of Tartu, we have created a device for use on agricultural land. The assessment of plant characteristics is based on the gas exchange between the plants and the surrounding environment. For example, we study how much plants can sequester carbon dioxide and release water.

How far are you with your development?

The systems used in the laboratory are ready for the market, but we are also trying to develop them further. We should have the third prototype of the field measuring device completed at the beginning of spring. Validations and creating a mobile application are currently underway with other devices on the market to make data transfer as convenient as possible for the user. In addition, we are trying to find funding to develop our gas analyzer component, which would give us a decisive advantage in the market.

Tallinn University of Technology, the University of Tartu, Tehnopol and Tartu Science Park invited you to participate in the North Star development program for science-based companies. Why do you need such programs, and what does it offer you?

Generally speaking, researchers are far from entrepreneurial in every way – for example, they don’t know about business planning, sales or legal issues. Starting a business as a researcher, you feel that someone is throwing you into the water, and you don’t know how to swim. Development programs fill the gaps in starting a business and help the business side to catch up alongside vigorous technological development. The ultimate goal of the North Star is to help the company achieve market and investor readiness.

We have received the most help in developing teamwork. In our case, it is imperative to be clear about common goals and activities because the team includes young researchers who have just completed their master’s degree and top scientists and engineers with decades of experience. Indeed, the North Star program has also given us a broader knowledge of business development – our company’s vision, how to reach the customer base, what marketing solutions to use, how to build sales and much more.

Is there something in particular which the science-based companies need help with from such programs?

One of the key issues is how to deal with the protection of intellectual property. This process is time-consuming and requires more profound knowledge. As already mentioned, the program helps create a functioning team, focus the company and start sales activities, and carry out market analysis, establish the necessary contacts, and build production at a later stage.

How large is the market for your product, and how much economic impact will its introduction have?

The market of plant diagnostic equipment in 2019 was valued at 155 million euros. It is expected to increase to 400 million by 2027. For the size of our potential target market, the value of the equipment is currently € 70-80 million. In our opinion, however, this is still an emerging market.

PlantInvent’s systems bring direct economic benefits to customers, as the equipment is more favourable in terms of capacity and at the same time enables measurements to be performed significantly faster. As much data as possible in a short period of time speeds up the publication and implementation of essential results for practical purposes. Compared to the products currently on the market, measurements can be made up to eight times faster with our gas exchange system. Figuratively speaking, our devices allow you to do one day’s work in just one hour.

Is your product already in use somewhere?

Our first laboratory equipment has been in operation since 2005 at the Institute of Technology in the University of Tartu. Another such system can be found in Estonia in the building of the Estonian University of Life Sciences. Outside Estonia, the equipment created in our laboratory is also in operation in Helsinki.

When do you plan to reach the market with your product?

We have already flown the first laboratory system to the University of California, San Diego. Researchers at Saclay University in Paris have shown strong interest. So we have already made a start. It will probably take time for the field measuring device to reach the market, but we can say that we have set a goal to show our newer prototype already in the spring to one of the world’s largest corporations.

The University of Tartu (UT) is the oldest and largest university operating in Estonia. 42 out of UT researchers are among the most cited researchers in the world and more than 14,000 students study here. UT has been actively involved in the development of research-intensive and high-tech companies since the late 1990s. Today, UT has 57 spin-off companies with more than 500 top specialists. The sales turnover of these companies is more than 40 million euros per year.

As the only Estonian university of technology, Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) is the flagship of engineering and technical education in Estonia. The uniqueness of TalTech education lies in the synergy of technical, natural, precision, economic and health sciences, which contributes to the birth of new ideas. TalTech has initiated and participates in various activities supporting business and innovation (eg Adapter competition of business ideas, Prototron), the aim of which is to support the entrepreneurship of students and employees, as well as cooperation with companies.

Tartu Science Park Foundation has been home to technology- and science-intensive business for 28 years. The mission of Tartu Science Park as an innovation support structure is to support the creation, development and operation of science and technology-intensive companies by providing infrastructure and business development services in the Tartu region. The silicon quarter business district of 12,000 square meters operates more than 70 successful companies. The S2B Launchpad Incubator and Open Office is an environment where technology-intensive start-ups can grow into internationally successful companies with the help of experienced mentors and the community.

Tehnopol Startup Incubator is a door to the business world, offering meaningful and practical training and expert support from the best mentors in Estonia and Europe to companies that have joined the vigorous growth program. The purpose of the incubation program is to find an initial investment or reach export markets. Tehnopol Startup Incubator is part of the comprehensive business support service of Tehnopol, the largest science and business park in the Baltics. The aim of Tehnopol is to contribute to the emergence and growth of world-class technology companies in Estonia and to support their expansion into foreign markets by offering solutions from commercial real estate to needs-based business development services.