Growing innovation in the agriculture sector
Ceragen is helping farmers engineer the plant microbiome to increase crop yields
Ceragen is helping farmers engineer the plant microbiome to increase crop yieldsBy Stephanie Longeway University Relations
Danielle Rose works under a pop-up grow tent inside Velocity’s main incubator workspace. It’s an unusual sight in the buzzing open-plan room amongst fellow tech founders.
Rose is harvesting lettuce, a common crop that her startup, Ceragen, is trying to improve. What makes her lettuce unique is a microbial technology that promotes the plant’s growth and helps to increase crop yields.
Ceragen is a biotech company that is innovating Canadian agriculture and has the potential to transform the global agriculture sector.
“Conventional agricultural techniques often harm the plant microbiome and the soil structures,” Rose says. Soil erosion and degradation are estimated to be a $10 trillion problem globally. “I want to reverse the negative impacts and help farmers harness the power of these microbiomes so they can grow more food on less land. This will help sustainably intensify agriculture so we can feed our growing population.”
The Velocity startup was inspired by foundational research published by University of Waterloo professor Trevor Charles and professor emeritus Bernie Glick. During her time as a grad student in Dr. Charles’ lab, Rose conducted market research on the industrial potential of using plant growth promoting microbes to develop probiotics for plants. These probiotics are applied to the roots of the plant and help improve both plant growth and food production. After forming Ceragen, she began to further research how different combinations or microbes designed for specific crops could help the plant grow better by improving nutrient uptake, regulating plant stress and producing growth promoting hormones.
Rose knew that this solution could solve a critical problem in the agriculture sector as more operations look to scale their crop productions to meet increasing consumer demand.
“The preliminary research that was done at Waterloo laid the foundation for the technology,” Rose says. “In order for us to take it out into industry, we needed to incorporate engineering principles to help us scale it up.”
She enlisted help from her brother, Matthew Rose, who had just completed his undergrad in Mechatronics Engineering at Waterloo. He became Ceragen’s Chief Technology Officer and together they implemented a bioinformatic pipeline that incorporates machine learning to bring automation into their science lab.
Ceragen was incorporated in April 2021 and already has one product on the market for tomatoes — the world’s largest crop grown in greenhouses.
“We have three multi-million-dollar operations in Canada and the U.S. currently using our product,” Rose says. “Our microbes can help farmers increase their tomato crop yields by 10 per cent on average.”
Ceragen has achieved fast success in part because they’ve integrated growers throughout the research and development (R&D) process.
“We’ve welcomed several growers to be part of our R&D to make sure that our products provide value and meet their needs. We wanted to know what the most commercially relevant microbes to growers were, and what will provide the most economic value to them.
“In the end, we have a tailored made solution to a problem the growers are facing. And for me, that’s the best way to do science.”
Ever since Rose was a child, she knew she wanted to start her own company. “I have also always been environmentally minded, and I want to make a positive impact on the world and leave it better than I came into it,” she says.
Combining her love for biology and microbes with her business passion is what led her to pursue her grad studies at Waterloo.
“The school I did my undergrad at doesn’t have the same startup infrastructure as Waterloo has. Hearing about the community and resources available at Waterloo, I knew I needed to come here for my masters.”
Rose began attending Wednesday night workshops at Concept — Velocity’s innovation hub at Waterloo that helps turn ideas into businesses.
“I learned how to evaluate the commercial viability of an idea and how it plays inside an ecosystem. It’s great to have a cool science idea but until you understand the business side of it you can’t make a real-world impact with it,” she says. “We need to teach the business side of things to scientists. I think that is what Waterloo does well.”
The other big draw for Rose was Waterloo’s creator-own intellectual property policy that allows researchers to commercialize their discoveries.
In 2021, Ceragen became a resident member of Velocity — where Rose is currently experimenting with her lettuce crop. But Velocity is more than a space for her lab and grow tent, it has been a network of support and her first investor. Velocity is Canada’s most productive incubator and has helped scaleup more than 400 companies.
“Velocity has provided me with mentorship and advice that has been fundamental with pushing Ceragen forward. They have given us a fantastic space and early investment. The lab facilities and equipment that we have access to would cost us a significant amount of money as a deep-tech biology company. Velocity has allowed us to scale and realize the impact I know we can make in this sector.”
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