Electro-Hacking Plants: Sylvarum’s Yield-Boosting Breakthrough

Stimulating plants with electricity may sound like a twenty-first-century pursuit, but the roots of the concept took hold back in the nineteenth century with innovations like the “electro-vegeto-meter” and Darwin’s carnivorous vegetables. Fast forward to today, and the combination of AI, biotech, and a deeper understanding of electricity has made the electro-stimulation of plants more sophisticated, though the goal remains largely the same: to improve plant yield and enhance characteristics such as smell and taste using electricity.

Guadalupe Murga, cofounder of San Francisco-based startup Sylvarum, describes their approach as “electro hacking” plants. “Plants have a nervous system where electrical signals control the metabolic processes that happen inside the organism,” Murga explains. “Sylvarum is intervening in this communication using external electric and magnetic fields. This can improve germination, increase ion uptake capacity, increase tolerance to stress, and accelerate growth.” Sylvarum’s innovative work has garnered attention, landing them a spot in the fifth cohort of the AgFunder GROW Impact Accelerator in Singapore.

The market opportunity for indoor agriculture in Asia is enormous, says Murga, who hails from Argentina. Sylvarum is currently applying its electro-stimulation system to tomato plants in greenhouses and aims to build crucial relationships in the Asian market through participation in the GROW accelerator.

Murga’s journey from biotech to agtech is a testament to her commitment to making a tangible impact through science. “My background is not in business. It’s not even in agriculture. I’m a bio-engineer with experience in biotech research and development,” she explains. Initially focused on biomedical engineering, Murga realized that her research efforts were not translating into real-world solutions. A pivotal moment came when she was working on a project related to measuring glucose in blood for diabetic patients, inspired by her sister’s condition. The realization that her work might never reach the market led her to seek a different path.

A serendipitous phone call from Manuel Sobrino, now her cofounder, changed everything. Sobrino, a hydroponic grower, was interested in exploring plants’ electrophysiology to improve yields. “His idea was to build a startup and raise some venture capital to develop the technology,” Murga recalls. Combining her expertise in electrophysiology with Sobrino’s agricultural insights, they embarked on a journey that led to the founding of Sylvarum.

Sylvarum’s primary objective is to validate their technology and improve yields for growers. While currently focused on tomato plants, the potential applications of their electro-stimulation technology are vast. “We can intervene in the whole metabolic processes of plants, including their defenses and ion uptake capacity,” says Murga. The startup has already validated their technology at the lab scale using Arabidopsis thaliana, a small plant commonly used in scientific research due to its rapid growth cycle.

Navigating the controlled environment agriculture (CEA) market has its challenges, especially as the sector undergoes a correction. Investors have been cautious, given the technical risks and market instability. Consequently, Sylvarum has decided to focus on greenhouses that are already operational. “It’s easier for us to showcase this market,” Murga notes. While the vision of electro-stimulating plants on the moon is tantalizing, the immediate goal is more grounded: optimizing greenhouse operations.

Sylvarum’s connection to Asia began with their participation in a competition at Singapore Management University. Recognizing Asia’s significant market for controlled environment agriculture, particularly in China and Singapore, has been a strategic move. Singapore, in particular, is striving for food sovereignty, making it an ideal market for Sylvarum’s technology.

As Sylvarum continues to push the boundaries of what’s possible with electro-stimulation, their journey from a small basement lab to the global stage underscores the transformative potential of combining science with entrepreneurial vision.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top