27 Oct 2015

A smoke detector for farmers

FungiAlert, Imperial College London

www.fungialert.com

The problem: Fungal outbreaks wipe out approximately 30 per cent of soft fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, raspberries, grapes, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers and potatoes, at an estimated cost of $5-7 billion per crop, per year. Pathogens can lie dormant in soil for years at a time, before becoming active and destroying crops at a rate of hectares per week. To get rid of them, farmers use heavy doses of pesticides at high expense, exhausting soil, reducing crop value and often failing to prevent disease. Another alternative is high-cost lab tests conducted after infection is detected.

An answer: FungiAlert has built an early-detection method for fungal spores, such as Phytophthora. The device is planted in the soil and if in 24 hours a change of colour is detected, farmers are alerted that there is high risk of infection, and they should take measures to treat the soil.

The cost is £25 per device, whereas the cost of sending one sample to the laboratory is between £70 and £100, and if the sample is positive, it is often too late anyway, as the pathogen has already infected the crop.

The company: Angela de Manzanos and Kerry O'Donnolly started the company during their PhDs. The team has patented its cheap-to-produce detector. So far FungiAlert has only raised funding through competitions, financing their patent through Imperial's ‘Dragons Den’, and other competitions such as the university’s Venture Catalyst Challenge and The Althea Programme.

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