“Entrepreneurship is riddled with discomfort because it has to be. This stuff’s not easy. Any innovation by its nature is controversial. If it isn’t controverisal, you’re not being innovative enough. You’re not trying hard enough”.
Jason Wargent, BioLumic
BioLumic is shining a light on the untapped potential that already exists in the crops we grow. Their focus is on the plants, not the people who grow the plants.
BioLumic UV technology delivers ultraviolet light to seeds and seedlings to trigger biological mechanisms that increase plant growth, vigour and yields. Their world-first technology is clean and green.
When people think about Agritech they tend to think about shiny, state-of-the art robots and automation that eliminates the human element from farming. BioLumic is bringing it right back to the basics: how can we give plants the best start possible.
“Robots are exciting, but there’s a bunch of other stuff that’s less visible with huge potential to transform the industry,” says Jason Wargent, the founder of BioLumic. “I studied ecology at university and we used to joke about the lopsided focus on ‘charismatic megafauna’ — the large animal species with popular appeal. It’s similar in Agritech. There are definitely some categories that are ‘shinier’ than others.”
The company has tested the technology on more than a dozen crops to date including cannabis, corn, canola, lettuce, soybeans and strawberries.
“We can come up with a light recipe to unlock a plant’s potential at different stages, starting with the seed,” says Wargent. “We call it a light recipe because it’s essentially like baking a cake. You need to combine the right ingredients for the magic to happen. We’re not talking about zapping seeds and plants with a laser. It’s more like a smart biological nudge to push a plant down the right path.”
“There’s gas in the tank that is untapped and the more ways we can find to unlock the potential in crops, the more sustainable the sector will be. Growers won’t need to use so many chemicals or GM crops, not that I’m anti either of those. But our focus is on developing cleaner, greener, cost-effective options to get the most out of crops without having to rely on environmentally unfriendly chemicals, or costly, time consuming GM.”
According to Wargent, BioLumic is the only company in the world using UV light in this way.
“I’m tempted to say that’s because it’s bloody hard,” he says. “It’s a paradigm shift. We’re building a whole new biological understanding and biology is hard. But you have to ride the roller coaster if you want to have a real, meaningful impact on the world.”
“Growing up, I was always asking questions, like ‘Where’s the edge of the universe?’ and ‘How do my uncle’s prize-winning pumpkins grow so big,’” says Wargent. “While I was at uni I became increasingly aware of climate change and the depleted ozone layer and this feeling that we don’t have time to mess around. I’ve had that feeling my whole life, a sense of urgency to tackle big issues.”
For his Masters degree, Wargent studied leafy greens to understand how ultraviolet (UV) light affects pests and plants. He learned that plants exposed to UV light are less enticing to pests.
“UV light switches on signalling pathways in plants,” he explains. “This was the first inkling we had that UV light treatment made plants pest-resistant. It stimulated a self-defence response. An added bonus was the fact that the defence compounds or ‘eau de plant’ triggered by UV light attracted the good bugs that attacked the pests that were eating the plants.
Wargent went on to study how UV exposure affected plant disease and the results were equally positive. “There are still things we don’t know but the research showed that plants exposed to UV light were less susceptible to disease,” he says.
Wargent left Britain in 2010 to take up a faculty position at Massey University in Palmerston North, which is where BioLumic was born. By this stage he was a world-leading plant UV photobiologist. The next step was considering how UV photobiology could be harnessed to improve yield and productivity.
Wargent discovered light programming has so many benefits in terms of crop improvement and sustainability, pest and disease defence, stress protection against heat and drought, and nutrient use efficiency.
“While I was at Massey, I saw the opportunity to harness and control UV light in an agricultural system,” he says. “The very first UV light-emitting diodes (LEDs) came on the market around the same time so instead of relying on UV in sunlight, which is not dependable or controllable, we started exploring if LEDs could deliver controlled, accurate UV treatments. We started by treating lettuce seedlings with UV light. The results were impressive and that’s when I realised the commercial potential for the idea.”
Riding the roller coaster
Wargent describes himself as a scientific entrepreneur and he’s an advocate for academics to engage more with the commercial sector.
“I know many academics are reluctant to go down that road because they invest so much time and effort into climbing the ladder to become a professor or whatever. It’s a risk to jump from academia into industry because it’s so challenging.”
“But if you’re an expert on a particular piece of science with huge commercial potential, to not be intimately involved in its commercialisation is something of a cop out. It’s about having the courage of your convictions, grasping the enormity of the challenge and not being overwhelmed by it.”
With the help of a great team and support from Massey University and outside investors, Wargent has married great science with commercial capability. BioLumic’s largest R&D facility is co-located with Massey where the knowledge and expertise of the students and staff has been a key factor in the evolution of the technology. However, Wargent realised that New Zealand was not the largest scalable market and so BioLumic worked with overseas partners to trial and validate the technology.
“If you want to solve global problems there’s a balancing act between testing the technology in your backyard in New Zealand and being ready to test at scale for larger overseas clients,” he says. “There’s a big difference between ‘we’ve done some tests, so we have a product’, as opposed to, ‘we have a product that is ready to test at scale in many different environments.”