Start-up spotlight: PowerPollen
Commercial seed production is a 100-year-old system that hasn’t changed much. Now, one start-up is revolutionizing the process with technology that maximizes the potential in golden grains of pollen.
Iowa-based PowerPollen was founded in 2015 by agriculture industry professionals who formerly worked in plant genetics, biology, and engineering. “Pollination is the most important biological process in agriculture. Without pollination, you won’t get the seed,” says Jason Cope, cofounder and chief intellectual property officer.
The foundation of the technology is a pollen preservation method, which increases the lifespan of corn pollen from about one hour to eight months (or 5,000-fold). Targeted delivery of the preserved pollen, when the plants are ready, increases corn seed productivity by 20% and can provide an additional value of $1,000 per acre to seed producers.
How It Works
Pollen-collecting machines drive through fields where plants are actively shedding pollen. The tassels in male rows are directed through the machine, pollen is pulled off, then brought back to the company lab for preservation. More than 80 liters of pollen can be collected in one day using this process.
Once the pollen arrives at the lab, it is conditioned with a proprietary additive, then stored. Throughout the process, the pollen is tested to ensure it remains viable for application later.
“Ordinarily, the male plants shed pollen when they are ready, and it goes where the wind and turbulence take it,” explains Mark Westgate, chief science officer. PowerPollen dispenses a concentrated dose of preserved pollen onto receptive female plants using machine applicators. As the applicators move through the field, they direct clouds of pollen to the plants.
With factors like wind, unpredictable weather patterns, and different fields with plants that mature at different rates, control over application timing and concentration are key to successful pollination.
Todd Krone, cofounder and chief executive officer, says, “In seed production, you have to have very precise plantings of males and females. If it rains and you can’t get in the fields in a predictable way because of the weather, you don’t get the pollination, and the seed company doesn’t have products to sell, which hurts farmers with fewer choices.”
Value to the Farmer
Seed companies utilizing technology like PowerPollen will be able to test a wider range of inbred combinations to make a wider range of hybrid products that perform effectively for farmers.
“Hybrids are highly expensive seeds to make. They’re crosses between unrelated lines,” Krone says. “Say a seed company sells to a farmer and a farmer plants one hybrid in a field. If it self-pollinates, it actually causes a yield decrease. If a farmer could take Company A’s product that is grown in one area and Company B’s in another and swap the pollen between the fields, it would increase the yield.”
PowerPollen is now making in pollination what may lead to another option for farmers: designer pollen. Instead of planting seed at the beginning of the season with traits that are set in stone, farmers could introduce pollen with particular desired characteristics at the time of pollination. That could mean restoring yield under adverse weather conditions, switching from commodity corn to ethanol, and increasing yield.
“Farmers are going to be able to think about actively managing their fields and the outcome of their fields way after planting, through pollen,” Cope says.
About the Company
Founders: Todd Krone and Jason Cope
Headquarters: Ankeny, IA
Background: PowerPollen developed a process of collecting, preserving, and dispensing pollen that maximizes yield potential and mitigates the risks of decreased crop output.