Mitigating frost damage nets biotech startup $25,000 Velocity prize

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Company a winner at competition hosted by University of Waterloo Velocity program
The University of Waterloo’s Velocity program saw startup companies vying for funding at a competition last week, the winners walking away with cash. [Submitted]

It can be the bane of a good harvest: the killer frost, and yet it is unfortunately a feature of the frigid Canadian landscape. While it is a problem as old as time, a local biotechnology company has been recognized for its innovative work in crop-protection.

Start-up Innovative Protein Technologies (IPT) was among the big winners at the Velocity Fund Finals held last week at the University of Waterloo, taking home a $25,000 prize. Velocity is a comprehensive entrepreneurship program at Waterloo.

During the competition, 10 companies pitched their businesses to a panel of judges representing the investment, startup and business communities. Judges considered innovation, market potential, market viability and overall pitch.

IPT got the nod for its work on an ecologically-friendly solution to the age-old issue of frost. Erin Laidley, company CMO and University of Waterloo alumnus, presented the company’s new development, Frost Armour, at the Velocity event July 20.

“(Frost Armour is) a non-toxic, protein-based spray that insulates crops from the devastating effects of frost. It’s organic and biodegradable, providing benefits to the soil that last far beyond its initial application, and it leverages recent biological advancements to eliminate the need for pesticides,” she said to a panel of four judges.

Laidley only had three minutes to present her ideas at the Velocity Fund, but in an interview with the Observer, she could elaborate on the Frost Armour.

“It’s designed to be applied in anticipation of a frost event. So farmers would spray it on their plants after checking weather patterns to see when they think a frost is going to occur, and then it’s like a foaming-based spray that goes over the plant leaves and then would harden providing a protective barrier.”

It simply needs to be sprayed onto crops with conventional farm equipment, and the protein foam repels the frost while still allowing sunlight to pass through to plant. A single application lasts up to five days, after which it can be broken down into nutrients for the soil with a second chemical spray.

The team says they were spurred on to create their product after seeing the effects of the harsh cold snap of 2012. With the freezing conditions that spring, about 88 per cent of Ontario’s apple crop was destroyed, according to the Ontario Apple Growers association, costing farmers about $60-million in lost revenues. With such an enormous cost to farmers, the IPT team saw the opportunity for a high-tech solution.

“Protein can be modified to have any number of functions, so they’re incredibly versatile,” explained Laidley. With careful engineering, proteins could be developed to act as insecticides, or for cryo-preserving like anti-freeze, as well as much else.

While the Frost Armour is making strides, it still has a ways to go before it goes to market. Laidley said that over the next 24 months, the company expects to finalize the lab-based testing of the spray, as well as apply for regulatory permits and patents. But she says the money will go a long way towards meeting those goals.

“The $25K prize will allow us to carry out field trials, accelerating our path to market by more than a year,” said Laidley at the Velocity Fund.

The protein spray has received significant acclaim from farmers, she noted, while three major agriculture businesses have given letters of intent. The company has also formed a partnership with the chairman of the Ontario Ginseng Growers Association for field tests on their crop.

Besides Frost Armour, which is the company’s flagship product, IPT also offers its services in custom protein production, consultation and product development. In particular, they boast an expertise in medical and agricultural related proteins “toxic to normal productions services.”

IPT was one of ten teams competing in the top $25,000 bracket, and of three other winners for the grant. Altius Analytics Labs, a health technologies company that works to alleviate pain from musculoskeletal injuries and help people recuperate. EPOCH, a “skills and services marketplace that connects refugees and community members.” And VIVASPIRE, that makes lightweight, wearable machines that purifies oxygen from the air for people in need.

The Velocity Fund is held every four months at the University of Waterloo, and invites local start-ups to pitch their creations for a chance at a series of cash grants. There are several smaller awards of $5,000 on offer for companies still in the early stages of their development; a single award of $10,000 for the company that showed off the best hardware; and four $25,000 grants for the top-tier companies. The idea behind the Fund is to foster scientific innovation in the area, and help local entrepreneurs flourish with their ideas.