Genetically engineered crops have been in our food system since the 1990s and are closely monitored by the FDA. Crops like corn, fruits, cotton and others are genetically changed to enhance nutritional value and increase resistance to damaging weather patterns, pests and plant diseases.
The process behind genetically engineering crops interested Dr. Hans Waldenmaier‘s attention during his years studying biochemistry and botany, first while working with plant tissue cultures to make genetically-modified rice. He noticed that the process of genetically-modifying plants is challenging, as the plants are “often plagued with contamination and the plants themselves are incredibly fragile.”
“What’s hard about it is that it’s mind-numbing work and the contamination is often the researcher that’s doing it. I knew immediately that automation is the solution to making the transformation easier,” says Waldenmaier. “I came back to it with a project about a year ago, where I had to take a genetic modification done in one plant and then try to apply it to as many other plant species as possible. The idea of doing all of the manual tissue cultures kept me up at night.”
He came up with the idea of a benchtop robotic device that would automate the genetic transformation process and help researchers create the plants they want more efficiently and with less contamination. He founded Ocsnah Botanical Robotics to build his prototype.
“With this, you can free up your researchers from doing mind-numbing tasks, where they’re most likely contaminating everything, and allowing them to do gene design and downstream analysis of the plants they’re growing in the lab,” says Waldenmaier. “We want to allow researchers to get their gene designs in their plants, faster.”
The researcher selects what plants they’re using and what product they want to get out of it on the machine’s interface. When prompted, they load in their starting plant material — that can be seeds or cuttings from the leaves, depending on the project. After adding nutrient solutions, a few days or weeks later, the machine will ask for the new gene vector to add to the plant.
The researcher gets a text message when the plant is ready.
“The researcher can always check on the status, but it’s largely autonomous from there. The machine itself will monitor the plant, observe them through the transformation process and adjust the nutrient solution as needed so that it can be successfully genetically modified,” says Waldenmaier.
The prototype is in its final phases and Waldenmaier hopes to move into beta testing and taking pre-orders in 2019. He has been reaching out to local labs in the Greenville, SC area to test his prototype and gain insight into their preferences. He mentions that labs that work with rare plants, as well as non-consumable products like lumber, have shown the most excitement for the technology.
“I can see this going beyond research labs, as it can also help out farmers directly. If they know how to speak DNA, they can start genetically-modifying their own plants with the machine. It allows them to be creative and differentiate their product from others,” says Waldenmaier. “They can do it themselves versus outsourcing it for a significant amount of money.”
The startup joined the manufacturing-focused PivotSC incubator to accelerate their prototype building and was one of the 14 finalists recognized at the AgTech Conference of the South pitch competition this summer.The team is actively looking for funding and strategic partners for product development.
“As speaking DNA becomes more common with people that are growing food, we’re enabling farmers and researchers to create their own designs. We’re entering an era of genome sequencing. The availability of the data is out there, now it’s time for people to start applying that information to novel and interesting things,” says Waldenmaier.