Summary:

As the planet reaches 9 billion people by 2050, technologies that reduce energy and water needs for farming will become increasingly important. A Silicon Valley startup called mOasis is working on materials that can help farmers produce more crops with less energy and water.

California canal

As the planet reaches 9 billion people by 2050, technologies that reduce energy and water needs for farming will become increasingly important. A Silicon Valley startup called mOasis is working on materials that can help farmers produce more crops with less energy and water.

mOasis is developing something called a hydrogel, which generally refers to a type of polymer that is super absorbent because it’s able to form a tight bond with water molecules. Hyrdogels are used in everything from diapers to insulation for underground cables to materials for retaining water in soil in farming.

mOasis’ hydrogel can reduce the amount and cost of water use for farming by 30 percent while increasing the biomass – or size and weight – of a crop by 30 percent, said Susanna Kass, CEO of the Mountain View-based mOasis.

The startup, founded in 2010, announced this week that it has raised a series A round from investors with the Roda Group, though Kass declined to disclose the amount. mOasis plans to use the new funding to complete the designs of its hydrogel so that it can launch its first commercial product by the end of this year.

The company’s tech development began at Stanford University with its founder and CTO, Nai Hong Li. Kass, who was the chief operation officer at smart grid company Trilliant Network and headed eBay’s international operation, joined mOasis last year.

mOasis will target California as its primary market first, before expanding to the rest of the country. California is a good proving ground for agricultural technology because the state leads the country in agricultural production and export. Water also accounts for a heavy use of the energy consumed within California. A 2005 report by the California Energy Commission found that 19 percent of the state’s electricity and about 30 percent of the natural gas went to producing, transporting and treating water for all kinds of customers, not just farmers.

A new kind of hydrogel

mOasis’s goal is to use non-toxic chemicals to create a hydrogel that is a more environmentally friendly and a more long-lasting alternative to the starch-based hydrogels that are currently available on the market for growers, Kass said. What, exactly, are those non-toxic chemicals and how they are able to be more durable – and less likely to be washed away or eaten by microbes in the soil – form the core of the company’s intellectual property and Kass wasn’t willing to divulge them.

mOasis is engineering its hydrogel to not only be able to form a tight bond with water but also with nutrients such as nitrate and potassium to promote plant growth, Kass said. So the startup could offer a hydrogel that is only for retaining water during irrigation and releasing it over time, or packing a fertilizer from another company into its hydrogel, or a third type of hydrogel that contains just  nitrate, she added.

The hydrogel could come in round, oval or other shapes, and when it’s filled with water, hydrogel particles look like the “pearls” in a bubble tea, Kass said. Farmers would put the hydrogel particles in the soil when they tilt the soil to prepare for planting. But to maximize its use – using hydrogel does add costs after all – farmers need to figure out, for example, where in the field and how deep into the soil they should place the hydrogel, Kass said. The goal is to deliver the water and nutrients for the most important growing period of a crop during each season.

The hydrogel particles “provide the moistures throughout the entire life cycle of the growth and when (a crop) needs the moisture the most to have a productive growth,” Kass said. “It’s not like we just spread them out and see how they go.”

The company is working with researchers at UC Davis, California State University at Fresno and farmers to field-test its hydrogel. Crops that the company is experimenting with include broccoli, lettuce and tomatoes. mOasis plans to outsource the production of hydrogel when it’s ready to launch it and market it to farm equipment suppliers and directly to growers.

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