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Start-Up Spotlight: InnerPlant

Crop pests and diseases have plagued farmers for decades. While experts say it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact figure, it’s estimated that pests and diseases destroy an estimated 20% of the world’s crops annually.

“The best technologies take weeks to detect when a plant is experiencing a specific stress,” says Shely Aronov, CEO and cofounder, InnerPlant. “By that point, entire fields are affected.”

Giving Plants a Voice

What if a plant could tell you – even before it started showing symptoms  – when it wasn’t feeling well? By recoding DNA, InnerPlant is giving each plant a voice to alert farmers when it’s sick.

“To make farming more profitable and sustainable, we believe farmers need to start by listening to what a plant is saying,” Aronov says. “Plants communicate all the time, sending chemical signals to warn each other about threats, which triggers their neighbors’ defense mechanisms.”

The California company’s genetically engineered plant sensors make these natural signals visible to people by adding a safe protein to the plant’s natural capabilities. Viewed through an iPhone, drone, satellite, or other optical device, the fluorescent proteins produced in plant leaves appear in a different color, alerting farmers to fungi, pests, drought, or nutrient stress within hours of a problem emerging. 

Using machine learning, InnerPlant’s vision is for its software to integrate the proprietary plant signals with other data sources to provide farmers with clear, stress-specific recommendations on how to manage the affected crop. The goal is a reduction in widespread crop disease, less use of pesticides and chemicals, and an increase in yields.

InnerPlant’s first sentinel plant, InnerTomato, launched in September 2020. The idea behind the sentinel plant is to create an effective defense system; only a small cluster of plants are needed per field.

The technology is also being applied to soybeans. Carl Peterson is hoping to bring a real-world perspective to InnerPlant’s product development path.

“A farmer’s perspective is critical to a company like InnerPlant,” says Peterson, who started Peterson Farms Seed with his wife, Julie, 25 years ago in Harwood, North Dakota. “Far too many Silicon Valley tech companies have developed products for ag without that perspective. Most are not working out.”

What excites Peterson most about this technology is akin to a Star Trek trick. “They would pull up to a planet, do a scan, and Spock would announce the exact percent of gases in the atmosphere, a summary of flora and fauna, etc. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do that with our fields? It’s something to dream about while chisel plowing wheat stubble on the night shift.” 

Having a hand in developing and driving InnerPlant technology is thrilling, Peterson says. “What kind of a nerd would I be if the potential of this technology didn’t excite me!”

About the Company

Company: InnerPlant

Founders: Shely Aronov and Rod Kumimoto

Headquarters: Davis, California


Background: Launched in 2018, InnerPlant has developed living plant sensors that can detect disease within hours of onset, so farmers can quickly take corrective measures to protect a crop.

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