Plant tissue culture growth system wins award

University of Guelph innovation simplifies plant propagation

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A tissue culture growth system was recently awarded the People’s Choice Award at the first annual Gryphon’s LAAIR innovation showcase and pitch competition.

We Vitro, a new company that evolved out of research at the University of Guelph’s Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation (GRIPP), received $5,000 to further commercialization efforts. Its growth system is a low labour, low maintenance and space-saving tissue culture device for researchers and smaller tissue culture producers, including cannabis growers, to make the process more consistent and cost effective.

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Why it matters: Technological advances can reduce the costs of micro-propagation and make plant genetic improvements easier and faster.

The system was developed by graduate student Kevin Piunno while working in the lab of Max Jones, a plant agriculture professor at Guelph and member of GRIPP who specializes in tissue culture and propagation. Jones and GRIPP’s Mukund Shukula now serve as We Vitro’s scientific advisors.

“There is a lot of focus on innovating in tissue culture, but nobody has been focused on the hardware side of it,” says Piunno.

His system is modular, combining functionalities of various existing systems into a single one and letting users select only the pieces they need.

The base is a container called the We-V, designed to be picked up with one hand and featuring an easy-to-remove lid that doesn’t require the user to set down tools they are already holding, which speeds up a process called subculturing — transferring cells from a previous culture to a fresh growth medium.

The container also holds about five times more plants than competing conventional models, and can accommodate both solid media and liquid rooting.

“The idea is that you can insert things, like a scaffold that holds plants upright so that you can also root in liquid using the same container,” he says.

Other add-ons include a gravity well — a reservoir of media that discharges only a thin trickle of liquid when needed, similar to an upside down pet watering bowl — and a small micro rocking machine that keeps the plants moving. An LED-light system can also be added.

Piunno says the We-V offers the best value for available surface area compared to other systems at 56 cents per square inch. We Vitro holds a patent for the gravity well, and the rocking machine he’s developed costs 50 per cent less than competing systems.

More add-ons are in the works, including one designed to control humidity inside the container or manage CO2. Another module is a packet that scrubs ethylene, the ripening hormone in plants, from the inside of the container. It can build up inside a small, sealed environment, stressing the plant and causing leaves to fall off.

“Our end goal is full control over the environment in the box,” he says. “Currently we can control CO2 or humidity, but we can’t do more than one at a time.”

It’s a bit of a niche, he admits, but estimates there are about 10,000 to 15,000 small labs worldwide that could benefit from his technology. He’s already made sales as far away as Brazil, Spain and the United States, and is seeking a partner to help grow the venture.

His systems are also starting to catch on with local cannabis companies, as they use tissue culture in their production systems.

Valuable help has come from the University’s Research Innovation Office, where Piunno participated in the Accelerator Guelph incubation program.

“This program is designed specifically for researchers who have identified commercial opportunity in their academic work,” says Dana McCauley, associate director of New Venture Creation. “Besides helping to amplify the impact of university research on the economy, we also want to help our researchers to understand demand so that they can create meaningful projects in the future.”

Weekly workshops focused on topics from finance and intellectual property to building customer relationships expose the entrepreneurs to key topics they need to consider as they move their innovations through commercialization, and meeting time with experts provides one-on-one mentoring.

“When I started I hadn’t yet started selling so I was learning about things like return policies and warranties for example,” Piunno says. “Everything I’ve learned about business came from them and from Dragon’s Den.”

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