Innovator Spotlight: SensIT Ventures, Inc. builds miniature chemical sensors for agriculture and food system sensing and optimization

September 26, 2018 | By Leanna Sweha

Photo provided by UC Davis

SensIT Ventures, Inc. uses proprietary technology to develop, build and sell custom chemical sensors for many industries, including food and agriculture. The sensors are miniaturized, inexpensive and require minimal power, so they can be widely distributed and embedded in complex systems, such as wireless data transmission with associated cloud-based management and analytics.

We visited with Cristina Davis, Co-founder/Scientific Advisor at SensIT Ventures and professor in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, to learn more about the company and the value it creates for sensing, processing and acting on the chemical information present in the agriculture and food system.

Can you tell us about the invention that is at the center of your company?

SensIT Ventures is based on patented ion mobility spectrometer (IMS) technology developed by my lab group at UC Davis.  

I’ve been involved with IMS for years. It’s a great technology for many different market sectors. Its mainstay is in defense and environmental protection. My lab showed it can be used in human health and agricultural monitoring applications.  

But, there were limitations to the current technology, like physical dimensions and high power consumption – what the industry calls “SWaP” (“size, weight and power”).  This limited commercialization beyond the defense sector.

So the lab worked on ways to make an adaptable mobile version. We developed a low power IMS technology that operates on a fraction of the power requirement of traditional IMS devices. Imagine a chemical sensor that runs on a 9-volt battery.  This opens up a wide new application space for IMS that did not exist before.

Our IMS devices can be deployed in form factors that were not possible before due to better SWaP and much lower cost. This allows them to be massively-distributed in many new market segments, such as in IoT applications.

What is an example of traditional ion mobility spectrometry in use today?  Are there any current food and ag applications?

A great example that everyone is probably familiar with is airport security screening machines. These machines use IMS to screen for narcotics and explosives. When security personnel swab down a person’s hands or luggage for testing, they are also using IMS. These airport devices tend to be in the microwave oven range size.

IMS has not been exploited in agricultural field applications because of SWaP.  But, for example, our technology would be ideal for unmanned aerial systems (or drones) over large acreage applications. Nothing like this is being used right now, so you can see there are a lot of potential new applications.

Can you give us another potential ag and food application of your technology?

Sure, take for example, refrigerated trucks. Those typically have not used chemical monitoring systems to detect freshness, ripeness, and for temperature control functions because of SWaP issues.

With our technology, trucks now can employ sensors to reduce waste and power consumption. You can also capture robust measures of quality and aroma.

And this information also can be moved out to the point of sale. Right now consumers rely on brand names, but what is lacking are objective measures of quality at the point of sale.  Sensors can provide a product’s volatile organic compound (“VOC”) profile, which is a measure of ripeness and quality.  If you had ability to brand by VOC, then you have opportunity to directly attribute these metrics to food products.

What are some specific market applications you are looking at in California?

There are a lot of stakeholders, including growers who need good chemical sensors out in the field. And like I just explained, post-harvest applications start with trucks and go all the way to the point of sale.

Our sensors can provide directly actionable data for growers. For example, we know that when systems are infected with disease causing pathogens the result is loss of market value. We know from our lab work that such pathogens cause the odor profile of the plant to change. So, if we monitor these VOCs with mobile chemical sensors, we can provide early threat warnings to growers.

Our sensors can be integrated into other sensor and diagnostic systems. For example PCR is a great technology to diagnose an infestation but is cost prohibitive for multiple tests over large acreage.  However, to spot check, you may still need PCR. By layering our technology with PCR, you can cut down on PCR testing costs. This way, growers can dial in type of testing they can most afford.

I understand the company has pending contracts, bids and grant proposals to serve different initial customers- what can you tell us about these?

As an early stage startup, we are looking at many application areas and seeking early stage partners with extensive domain knowledge to develop prototypes suitable for specific application areas. We foresee building those prototypes in partnership with other companies.

We are interested in collaboration with both private and public entities for prototype development. We have several potential partnerships in the works, and are looking for more.

What we have seen so far is that our low power miniature sensors can go in many places, but we know it is critical to have partners with specific application area expertise to make sure prototypes are suitable.

You teamed up with Technology Innovation Group (TIG) to found the firm. Who is on your team?

I’ve known Tom Turpen (founder and principal at TIG), through the ag research community for many years. He was aware of the technology my group was developing. As it reached maturity, we met and spoke. He shared his thoughts and we soon saw that we had complimentary background and experience. We decided to take the next step and start the company.  Tom and his partners at TIG – Jim Dukowitz and Dan Hanson – and I are all co-founders of SensIT.

Do you have any advice for first time entrepreneurs?

I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to realize their strengths and areas where they need to partner. For myself, having experience in technical areas, I’ve focused on ensuring our research was ready to transition out of UC Davis. It was clear to me that I needed partners with expertise that complimented mine. I sought a business partnership that would provide us with that expertise across a wide area of coverage.

I also realized that it’s important to have experienced partners who are also local. Tom Turpen is in Davis. As Scientific Advisor at SensIT, my focus is to make sure the technology is ready and working. As CEO, Tom has the experience for overall leadership of the company. .

What sort of resources in the California agtech innovation ecosystem have you found useful?

It is an exciting time at UC Davis, because there is a growing entrepreneurial culture there. UCD now encourages professors to think about entrepreneurship when appointed, which is much different from when I first came to campus 14 years ago. There are also a lot more resources and new initiatives to help faculty understand how to make the right choices for them about starting a company. There’s a lot of great support.

SensIT is headquartered here in Davis, not far from campus, and is member of the UC Davis Venture Catalyst DRIVE program.  We are also a tenant at Inventopia, a local makerspace.  We look forward to growing in the Sacramento region, as we have a lot of talent capital here.

The first company I co-founded, XTB Laboratories, also received a lot of support and assistance from the local innovation ecosystem.

John Selep (President, AgTech Innovation Alliance, the non-profit sponsor of AgStart), was one of my assigned mentors for XTB Labs through a LARTA program. He gave me some early stage advice about how to shape and refine a pitch, and we went on to win a Sacramento Region Innovation Award in 2017.  The Sacramento Business Journal also featured XTB Labs in 2017, which was great exposure.

With all of the potential supply chain applications for its technology, SensIT Ventures stands ready to capture a critical market need. We look forward to following the company’s development.

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New Innovator Spotlights will appear soon, featuring the innovators and change makers in the sustainable food and ag innovation space. If you know of someone we should be covering, please email us at hello@thevine.io

About the author: Leanna Sweha is an attorney with an agtech background and is Program Director for AgStart. She is passionate about promoting new sustainable agriculture companies.


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