Pollination is critical to a successful corn crop, but a short reproductive window and challenging environmental conditions make the process very inefficient when left to Mother Nature. An Iowa-based startup has developed ground-breaking new technologies and equipment to bring more precise and efficient pollination to seed companies and farmers.
PowerPollen developed a first-of-its-kind scalable technology to successfully collect corn pollen, preserve it, and then apply it at the proper time to overcome the inefficiencies of natural processes. The on-demand pollination technology can increase yield by 20% or more in commercial hybrid corn seed fields compared to today’s standard practices, while also boosting seed purity and sustainability. The three main commodity crops the company has targeted for initial pollination are corn, wheat and rice and their patents include additional crops as well.
“For the first time in history, we were able to extend the lifespan of pollen at a commercial scale and then apply it on-demand” said Dr. Todd Krone, co-founder and CEO of PowerPollen. He continued, “Preserving pollen expands plant breeding opportunities, improves land utilization and helps improve global food security.”
Research experience drives startup technology
In addition to their commercial preservation process, last fall the company announced results of an in-field study to pollinate corn plants using pollen preserved for an entire year using cryogenics. PowerPollen became the first to use cryogenically preserved corn pollen across dozens of in-field female varieties and the results have shown good seed quality and yield. PowerPollen maintains a cryogenically preserved bank of pollen for even longer-term studies.
Co-founders Krone and Jason Cope brought their experience from careers in the seed industry to the startup, beginning work in Krone’s garage in Ankeny, Iowa, in 2015. By 2018, the company had scaled its pollen collection, preservation and application process and expanded field operations using custom designed machinery to handle the pollen. The following year, they applied the technology at corn seed production fields across Iowa, Indiana and Illinois. The machinery was developed and manufactured in cooperation with Iowa-based engineering and manufacturing companies.
“Preserving pollen in crops, such as corn, wheat and rice, has been the holy grail for many plant breeders so our customers were excited to implement our technology,” said Krone. After proving its technology in corn, the company plans to expand its technology for wheat and rice, as well as expand to other geographies.
Footprint provides access to potential customers
The company has grown to include office, laboratory and greenhouse spaces in Ankeny and Ames as well as research operations in Texas and Puerto Rico. In 2020, the company closed a $13 million Series B funding round and secured several U.S. patents for their innovations. PowerPollen also announced important partnerships with leading seed companies including a commercial agreement with Corteva Agriscience and a hybrid wheat research collaboration with BASF.
“For the first several years, the most important thing for PowerPollen was access to potential customers, smart money, talent, and people who could advise us. We were really able to prove our technology and grow faster than we could anywhere else,” said Krone. “While Iowa is at the heart of U.S. agriculture, it is also very connected to global leaders such as Brazil, China and key European countries.”
Resources from Iowa Economic Development Authority were also key as the company conducted research, completed the proof-of-concept phase and began to scale for production.
“Iowa has provided a great growth ecosystem for us, and it is exciting to see that ecosystem continuing to grow and expand to provide opportunities for other companies that can bring new innovations and ideas to agriculture,” said Krone.
Published February 2021.