September 19, 2023

Growing innovation in the agricultural sector | Waterloo News

Ceragen is a biotechnology company that is innovating in Canadian agriculture and has the potential to transform the global agricultural sector. Their most recent product, for lettuce crops, was launched in September. They are now focusing their attention on eight additional crops, including kale.

Danielle Rose
Former student, Faculty of Sciences
>Founder of Ceragen

“Our main goal is to develop products for the hydroponic production of fruits and vegetables,” says Rose. “Greenhouses and vertical farms that use hydroponic systems can produce 10 times more food per acre and use up to 90% less water than conventional farming techniques. Our goal is to help further increase the sustainability of hydroponic production by increasing the amount of food farmers can produce with the same resources.

Combining engineering with traditional science

The startup Velocity is based on basic research conducted by its technical advisor, Dr. Bernie Glick, who is a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo. While in graduate school at Waterloo, 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 her research on how different combinations of microbes designed for specific crops could help the plant grow better. These products work by improving nutrient uptake and regulating plant stress.

Rose knew this solution could solve a critical problem in the agricultural sector as more and more farms seek to increase their agricultural production to meet growing consumer demand.

The preliminary research done at Waterloo laid the foundation for the technology,” says Rose. “For us to bring it into the industry, we needed to incorporate engineering principles to help us scale it.” She enlisted the help of her brother, Matthew Rose, who had just completed his undergraduate studies in mechatronic engineering at Waterloo. He became CTO of Ceragen and together they built a bioinformatics pipeline that incorporates machine learning to bring automation into their science lab.

Partnership with large-scale agriculture for R&D

Ceragen was incorporated in April 2021 and already has two products, ACCelerate and FerraGrow, on the market for use with hydroponic tomatoes and lettuce.

Ceragen achieved rapid success in part because it integrated growers throughout research and development (R&D).

“We have welcomed several producers to be part of our R&D to ensure that our products provide value and meet their needs. We wanted to find out which plant traits were most commercially relevant to growers and which enhancements gave them the most economic value,” says Rose.

They have several commercial pilots underway for their two existing products and are already seeing great success.

“Our ACCelerate product showed average yield increases of 10% in commercial hydroponic tomato production, and our FerraGrow product showed average yield increases of 20% in hydroponic lettuce,” Rose says.

“At the end of the day, we have a tailor-made solution to a problem producers are facing. And for me, it’s the best way to do science.

Danielle working under the lights in her pop-up culture tent

Rose working in her pop-up grow tent located in Velocity’s main incubator workspace

Turning science into a business solution

Since childhood, Rose knew she wanted to start her own business. “I’ve also always been environmentally conscious and want to have a positive impact on the world and leave it better than I was,” she says.

The combination of her love for biology and microbes with her passion for business is what led her to pursue her graduate studies at Waterloo.

“The school where I did my undergraduate studies doesn’t have the same start-up infrastructure as Waterloo. Hearing about the community and resources available in Waterloo, I knew I had to come here for my Masters.

Rose began attending Wednesday evening workshops at Concept — The Velocity Innovation Center in Waterloo that helps turn ideas into businesses.

“I learned to assess the commercial viability of an idea and how it plays out in an ecosystem. It’s great to have an interesting science idea, but until you understand the business side of it, you can’t have real-world impact with it,” she says. “We have to teach the business side of things to scientists. I think that’s what Waterloo does well.

The other big draw for Rose was Waterloo’s policy on creator intellectual property that allows researchers to commercialize their discoveries.

In 2021, Ceragen became a resident member of Speed — where Rose and her team are currently working on the development of new microbial products. But Velocity is more than a space for his lab, it’s a support network and his first investor. Velocity is Canada’s most successful incubator and has helped grow over 400 companies.

“Velocity has provided me with world-class mentorship and guidance that has been fundamental in moving Ceragen forward. They have given us fantastic space and early investment. The lab facilities and equipment we have access to would cost us a lot money as a leading biology company. Velocity has allowed us to scale and realize the impact I know we can have in this industry.”

The future ahead

With two products launched and many more on the horizon, Rose looks forward to increasing sales in Canada and the United States and developing new products for other types of crops. As Ceragen continues to grow, Rose cites two key elements that are critical to their success.

“You need a market-ready product and a great team. Product market fit is what drives a company’s rapid growth from a sales perspective. A great team full of people you can rely on is how the company continues to drive growth beyond what the founders could achieve on their own.

Funding is also a critical factor, but often difficult to obtain. “It can be difficult in Canada to get seed funding for technology development when you’re just starting out. Matching funding programs are amazing, but only if you have some initial funds to get started,” Rose says.

Continued investment is therefore essential if Canada is to see continued growth within its innovation ecosystem. “I think additional grants in the range of $250,000 to $500,000 for initial business development would go a long way in getting more startups to a point where they’re ready for institutional investment.”