Phytelligence™ Announces New Vice President of Operations

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SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Phytelligence, a leading agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing the way food crops are grown, today announced the hiring of its new Vice President of Operations, David LeBreton. LeBreton will lead the company’s lab, greenhouse and pre-production teams in North America.

In this new role, LeBreton will ensure operations are functioning efficiently to meet grower demand, oversee the integration of pre-production technology, and spearhead the implementation of infrastructure systems and processes to support rapid company growth.

David has quickly demonstrated strong leadership and earned respect from our teams in Portland and Seattle,” said Ken Hunt, CEO of Phytelligence. “We are thrilled to have his support managing and advancing the company’s growth. His experience in strategy development, performance and operation management, coupled with his drive for service improvement will be extremely valuable as we continue to expand and provide growers with the highest quality food crops.”

LeBreton has been working with Phytelligence for the past nine months, evaluating research functions and developing an operational strategy for pre-production before stepping into his new position. In his prior role, he created a framework and procedure for assessing and introducing new products into the company’s sales portfolio.

Prior to joining Phytelligence, LeBreton built a strong career in a variety of fields, including as the principal at LeBreton & Sons, a family owned residential real estate company, where he oversaw capital investment and expansion. He also spent time as the managing director at Popskull, an advertising startup. In addition, LeBreton held the role of chief performance officer for Cook County government in the greater Chicago area, where he led a successful performance management initiative. LeBreton has also supported several political campaigns as a campaign strategist and organizer.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with some transformative leaders and groundbreaking organizations throughout my career and during my first year at Phytelligence,” LeBreton said. “I am eager to apply my knowledge around strategy, performance and operations to my new role as we continue to build on the already impressive and disruptive growth.”

About Phytelligence

Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company that is revolutionizing the way food crops are grown. Utilizing its MultiPHY™ proprietary growing techniques to provide superior quality crops, Phytelligence enables higher grower profit by increasing speed to harvest and reducing input costs. Phytelligence provides additional value to food crop growers and plant breeders through the application of advanced testing enabling guaranteed delivery of accurate plants, disease screening, plant repository services, securing of intellectual property, and the ability to co-develop new varieties of food crops. The company has a growing pipeline of biological and compound solutions aimed at improving returns throughout the food crop value chain. Phytelligence was founded by Dr. Amit Dhingra in 2012 out of his Horticulture Genomics and Biotechnology Research laboratory at Washington State University and is headquartered in Seattle with facilities in Pullman, Wash. and Portland, Ore. Learn more at


PR for Phytelligence
Janae Frisch and AnnMarie Henriksson
206-282-4923 ext. 125

The Push to Make Pears the New Apples

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The_Atlantic_magazine_logo.svgAMSTETTEN, AUSTRIA - MAY 02: Giant must pears (symbol for the Lower Austrian called so called "Must District") is seen at the radial highway to Amstetten , the town, where a father imprisoned his daughter for 24 years and had seven children with her, on May 2, 2008 in Amstetten, Austria. According to police Josef F. kept his daughter Elizabeth, now 42, imprisoned in his basement and sexually abused her. Three of the children, now aged 5, 18 and 19, had never seen the light of day until the eldest was recently taken to hospital because of a severe illness. (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

The Push to Make Pears the New Apples

Taryn Phaneuf

Amit Dhingra is on a mission to make America fall in love with the pear. In a lab at Washington State University, the 45-year-old horticulture researcher has dedicated much of the last decade to the shapely fruit. Building off relationships with pear growers who say their businesses are held The Push to Make Pears the New Apples A horticulturist wants a different fruit to rule America’s grocery aisles.

Building off relationships with pear growers who say their businesses are held back by a lack of scientific understanding of their product, Dhingra has mapped the pear genome, bred new trees, and even found a way to ripen the notoriously stiff fruit.

Throughout this work, Dhingra—who is affectionately known to some fruit growers in the Pacific Northwest as “Yogi Pear”—has been adamant in making the case that the pear is distinct from, and maybe more delicious than, its sexier, more successful sister: the apple. Pears can’t compete with the longstanding agricultural pinup in convenience and variety, he says—but only because they ’ve been pushed to the sidelines in research and marketing.

So he has taken it upon himself to level the playing field. With some better approaches, he believes, pears could step out from behind apples and come into their own. “Getting a nicely ripened pear is harder than winning the lottery, ” Dhingra says. “The true nature of the fruit hasn’t been explained.”

Agriculturally, pears have long sat in apples’ shadow, in large part because they haven’t been considered different enough to merit any special attention. “For decades, a lot of researchers have told [growers], ‘We’re going to study apples, and pears are like apples, so we’ll learn something about pears by studying apples, ’” says Tyson Koepke, a molecular plant scientist who works at a plant biotechnology company that spun out of Dhingra’s lab. “But pears are pears. They ’re not apples.”

In just one example of how scientific funding is allocated, the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, which doles out money for fruit-related projects in Washington, approved more than $1.7 million for apples in 2016. Cherries received nearly $800,000. Pears got about $590,000. The commission funds research based on how many tons of fruit are produced in the state. Industry groups pour additional funding into research, and because researchers’ time follows the money, they spend more man-hours developing new varieties and better trees for apples.

The success of Gala or Honeycrisp then sends more money back into the industry, which fuels more research, and so forth. The pear market has been flatfor the last 30 years. Fruit growers know consumer trends matter just as much in the produce bins as they do in the cereal aisle, so a lot of their efforts in breeding new varieties are dedicated to new gimmicks, like an apple that doesn’t brown.

Growers wait years—sometimes decades—for better trees whose fruits stand out from the other 600 fruits and vegetables in grocery stores. But the pear market has been flat for the last 30 years. Working against better funding and more diverse breeding practices is the fact that pears just aren’t that popular among consumers in the first place. “Pears are much more difficult to get out to the consumer at the right stage to eat, ” says Kate Evans, who runs WSU’s tree-fruit breeding program and focuses mostly on new and better apple varieties. That’s because, unlike apples, pears don’t ripen on the tree.

Ripening happens when starch converts to sugar—a process that isn’t activated for most pears until after they ’re picked and stored at a cool temperature for a certain length of time. Anjous, a popular variety, take 30 to 60 days of storing before they ’re ready to eat. “The apple doesn’t have to go through that post-harvest conditioning in order for it to soften and ripen and be really nice and edible, which makes the apple a much easier piece of fruit to work with, ” Evans says. In other words, pears are stuck. People don’t eat more pears because it’s difficult to tell when they ’re ripe and they don’t seem as versatile as apples. Marketers try to teach people how to pick pears and draw attention to recipes and health benefits, but so far it hasn’t worked. And that means there’s less money to find ways to make pears more appealing.

That’s where Dhingra comes in. He says it’s time to address the consumption problem by offering pears in a more convenient package. And sliced pears are his ticket to success.

Dhingra grew up in New Delhi, India, where he was surrounded by the struggle for food. While his parents wanted him to follow them into the medical field, he thought it would be more useful to help feed more people. He spent the last year of his Ph.D. in plant molecular biology at Rutgers University, and then went to the University of Florida, where he studied strawberries. In 2006, he joined WSU’s faculty for two reasons: to make a name for the school’s tree-fruit genomics research and to serve the needs of the fruit industry.

This suits him well; he’s become known for his conviction that basic science should go hand-in-hand with applied science. It’s important to him to explain how and why something works, as well as to find a way to change or leverage that feature for growers.

Dhingra’s research is tangible, says Kevin Moffitt, president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest, the marketing organization for fresh pears grown in Washington and Oregon. “He definitely has a soft spot for pears. He’s recognized a void where there hasn’t been a champion.” In a push to introduce sliced pears, Dhingra joined with Crunch Pak, the same company that popularized sliced apples—the ones that became the healthy alternative to chips or fries at fast-food restaurants. In the last couple of years, they’ve tested a ripening compound that helps pears ripen more predictably. Federal funding last year is allowing them to conduct taste tests.

Sliced apples changed the game by finding a way for fresh fruit to compete with novelties like Go-Gurt. Between 1980 and 2005, apple production jumped from 4.9 billion pounds to 6.6 billion pounds, thanks in large part to the introduction of apple slices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Sliced apples contribute more than $250 million, or a tenth, to the apple market each year.

Crunch Pak claims Americans eat enough apple slices each year to average 65 whole apples per person. Pears are difficult to slice, package, and sell because of the way they ripen. But Dhingra has found a way around the problem using a two-step chemical approach. First, he applies SmartFresh, a compound already used on apples that blocks the ripening hormone ethylene.

This puts fruit into a state of “ suspended animation, ” Dhingra says, which allows them to be stored yearround. But treated pears never get soft and juicy like they should (“You can play baseball with those pears, ” Dhingra says). So Dhingra’s lab developed a second compound that reverses the effects of SmartFresh after it’s been applied. The idea is that pears can be treated with SmartFresh to be stored and sliced while they ’re hard, then brought back to life long enough to be sold.

Using industry funding, Dhingra has been working with Crunch Pak to test sliced pears. After figuring out how much of the compound to apply, they performed a large-scale taste trial at the Food Innovation Center in Portland. So far, he’s seen a positive response. They ’ll conduct tests for another year while waiting for a patent to be finalized. From there, his hope is that it gets licensed for production. Moffitt, who is optimistic yet conservative in his expectations of what slices could do for the pear market, guesses they could help the market grow by 9 percent in the near future. “It really depends on which variety and which sizes are pulled out, ” Moffitt says. Growers will sell fruit in whatever form they can, whether fresh or processed, like in a fruit cup.

Fresh pears make the most money, but not every pear makes the cut for grocery stores—it depends on the size and condition. So selling sliced pears may not fetch a higher price than selling a fresh, whole pear, but it could still mean a higher price than other processing options.

In Washington’s Wenatchee Valley, Josh Koempel turns his pickup onto a gravel path flanked by pear trees. His orchard is a picture of progress in the pear world, he says: Three generations of trees exist in this one area, and the differences in how they were planted are startling if you know what to look for. Like everything else about pears, the best way to grow the fruits is poorly understood.

For decades, apples and cherries have benefitted from trees bred to be small, because shorter trees are easier to work with. Growing systems that space their branches uniformly apart have allowed apple growers to plant trees closer together in ways that capture more light, so they produce more quality fruit in less space. Koempel doesn’t wantto be content with a consistent but underwhelming output; he wants pears to be stars. Pears, meanwhile, still grow on taller trees that take up more space.

The lack of innovation stems partly from how reliably pear trees produce fruit in the first place. “Pears are pretty steady in terms of return. … Apples are more volatile. Cherries are crazy, ” Koempel says. “If it comes over and rains today on top of a cherry crop, the cherries will absorb water so fast, they ’ll crack.” Because growers are content with the fruit’s stability, they ’re less inclined to change and innovate. “Sometimes your greatest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses, ” Koempel says.

But like Dhingra, whom Koempel met in 2007 and convinced to map the pear genome, Koempel doesn’t want to be content with a consistent but underwhelming output; he wants pears to be stars. He’s trying to see how densely he can plant pear trees to get the best, most consistent fruit while making picking as efficient as possible. In his orchard, the oldest section of pear trees includes plenty of elbow room and gnarled branches jutting out in every direction; the aisle is probably big enough for Koempel’s pickup.

Another block, which his dad put in about 20 years ago, includes trees planted a little closer together with branches that grow with slightly more uniformity but still cast shadows on fruit growing lower on the tree. The newest section is an experiment. It consists of a few rows of one pear variety, then another, in a system that’s used by apple growers but doesn’t exist for pears. The trees are trained to grow two-dimensionally on a trellis, with branches reaching to the sides but not to the front or back.

As they grow, Koempel coaxes them out diagonally, leaning toward the open aisle between rows, so the fruit captures light more evenly. “A lot of what’s driving what I’m doing in pears right now is making people more efficient by the way we manipulate the system, ” Koempel says. “The problem with agriculture, at least in the tree world, is it takes a long time to change.

Computers double every six months. For us to go from here to there is a 10-year endeavor. By the time you get things changed and up to speed to where we think we’re doing good, you’re always gambling. Did the American consumer decide to go somewhere else?” Dhingra thinks expanding the pear market through sliced pears could work backwards and invigorate the rest of the growth and distribution system. Developing a new product is faster than addressing the more basic needs of growers.

But it’s only one of many projects he’s pursuing that might be able to bring pears closer to apples’ level—and that could shape the fruit-growing industry on the whole. In addition to wanting more people to eat pears, the pear industry wants new rootstocks—the bases of trees that genetically determine their characteristics. When a grower plants an orchard, he buys rootstocks, then takes cuttings from other trees and grafts it onto them.

The cutting dictates which variety the tree will produce, like Bartlett, Anjou, or Comice; the rootstock determines the tree’s size, the spacing and angle of its branches, when it will first produce fruit, and so forth. Pear growers are on the hunt for rootstocks that give them hardy, dwarfed trees that produce fruit early, with branches at nearly 90-degree angles.

But planting new pear varieties hasn’t been a priority for growers, in part because they don’t have rootstocks with the features they want. Since new orchards are expensive, growers don’t want to take that step until they ’re certain that they—and the public—will like the result.

Traditionally, the process of developing new rootstocks that can be used by growers takes 20 years or more. But time is an impediment Dhingra has already found a solution to.

During his research, his lab stumbled upon a way to grow plants more quickly without soil. He commercialized the method and formed Phytelligence, an agriculture biotechnology company, in 2012. The company grows plants in jars in a nutrient-rich solution. After a month, each plant can be cut and multiplied into two or three pieces.

In a year, one bud becomes 250,000 plants. Where it takes three to five years to get new trees from a nursery, Phytelligence could provide new rootstocks ready to be budded in 12 to 18 months.  “Ten years ago, when I started touring the industry, I didn’t want them to tell me one problem. I wanted to see how does this all connect?” Dhingra says. “We’re not solving one problem at a time. The only thing I think I did is connect the dots.”

Come see Phytelligence next week at one of three events

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Phytelligence will have a booth and staff at the NW Hort Expo in Yakima, the Great Lakes Expo in Grand Rapids, and the Almond Conference in Sacramento next week.

The NW Hort Expo runs from Dec. 7th-9th and is hosted by the Washington State Tree Fruit Association at the Yakima Convention Center in Yakima, WA. You can find more information about the Expo and vendors here.

The Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable, and Farm Market Expo runs Dec. 8th-10th at the DeVos Place Conference Center in Grand Rapids, MI.

Finally, we will also be attending the Almond Conference at the Sacramento Convention Center Dec. 8th-10th.

This will be our 4th year attending the NW Hort Expo and first visit to the Almond Conference and Great Lakes Expo. We can’t wait to see our colleagues as well as meeting new friends and customers. We look forward to answering your questions, taking your orders, and helping you ‘Know What You Grow’. Come say hi!

Sliced Pears Coming to Stores

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Dr. Amit Dhingra and his lab at WSU are being recognized for their work with sliced pears. Below is the article written by Geraldine Warner. It can also be found on the Good Fruit Website.


Sliced pears show potential

Treatment with a ripening compound ensures that sliced pears stay juicy and flavorful.

Picture of bagged slices: 1-MCP-treated d’Anjou pears sliced and treated with the a proprietary ripening compound at 1%, 2% and 3% concentration by Crunch Pak. Note the browning of the slices at 3% concentration, indicating that the 1-MCP treated sliced fruit can be ripened by the ripening compound. As Crunch Pak does not yet produce sliced pears commercially, apple bags were used for the experiments. WSU photo

Picture of bagged slices: 1-MCP-treated d’Anjou pears sliced and treated with the a proprietary ripening compound at 1%, 2% and 3% concentration by Crunch Pak. Note the browning of the slices at 3% concentration, indicating that the 1-MCP treated sliced fruit can be ripened by the ripening compound. As Crunch Pak does not yet produce sliced pears commercially, apple bags were used for the experiments.
WSU photo


Sliced apples account for ten percent of the U.S. apple market. A Washington State University scientist believes sliced pears could give the pear industry a similar boost if technical challenges can be resolved.

If the pear market could be expanded by 10 percent, by delivering high-quality sliced pears, that would translate to a $40 million positive impact on the pear industry, says Dr. Amit Dhingra, WSU geneticist. Importantly, it would increase the demand for small fruit, in the less-preferred 120 to 135 size range.

Challenges to supplying fresh sliced pears include difficulties of transporting a soft, ripened product; lack of consistency in ripening; and a short shelf life, which increases the risk for retailers or foodservice distributors who handle the product.

If unripe pears are used, the slices remain hard and dry and are unlikely to result in repeat purchases, Dhingra said.

However, Crunch Pak, a major supplier of fresh-sliced apples based in Cashmere, Washington, reports that juicy pears that have reached eating quality are not amenable to slicing, either, so pears need to be sliced while firm and ripened afterwards to develop good flavor and texture.

1-MCP (1-methylcyclopropene), which blocks ethylene perception in the fruit and prevents ripening, has been used on whole pears to maintain firmness and reduce scuffing and browning, but some treated fruit never softens and ripens.

“The 1-MCP treated pear looks pristine,” Dhingra said. “It’s in suspended animation. It’s never going to ripen, but it looks good.”

So, Dhingra and colleagues at WSU began doing research several years ago to find ways to reverse the effect of 1-MCP so that treated pears would eventually ripen. They identified nine ripening compounds, one of which is being patented by the university.

“While we were testing whole fruit, we decided to test also some sliced pears,” Dhingra explained.

They found that the ripening compound was effective on both sliced and whole fruit that had been treated with 1-MCP.

Proof of concept

That led to the idea of working with Crunch Pak to develop a sliced pear product. Last year, Dhingra obtained funding from the Fresh Pear Committee for proof-of-concept research.

Crunch Pak sliced the pears for the experiments and WSU did the scientific analysis. The ripening compound is water soluble and can be applied at the same time as the non-browning treatment that Crunch Pak applies after fruit are sliced.

In tests, 1-MCP-treated Bartlett pears were sliced at 17 pounds pressure, treated with the ripening compound, packaged in a four-ounce bag, and stored at 42.6°F for 21 days.

Dhingra said the fruit developed good flavor, juiciness, and aroma, and outlasted the two weeks of shelf life required by retailers and food-service operators. Sliced fruit treated only with 1-MCP, and not the ripening compound, remained firm and crunchy with little to no flavor throughout the 21-day period.

“The concept of the sliced pear has to be a little different from a whole pear, which is supposed to be juicy and melting, because that kind of product is impossible to deliver in the bag,” Dhingra said. “We have to think of a sliced pear as a product that retains its integrity. It’s not soft, but it gives you the flavor, aroma, and juiciness. That’s what we’ve been able to accomplish with 1-MCP and the ripening compound.”

Crunch Pak provided some of the sliced pear samples to Walmart and believes there is good potential demand for the product.

Another experiment that Dhingra conducted in collaboration with WSU food scientist Dr. Carolyn Ross, showed that the ripening compound can also be used to enhance the quality of pears not treated with 1-MCP.

In the experiment, untreated d’Anjou pears were sliced at a pressure of 15 pounds and treated with the ripening compound.

Consumers were asked to evaluate the slices during the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual conference last December.

Although the quality of the pears was variable before slicing, the ripening treatment enhanced the overall acceptance, flavor, and texture of the slices.

More trials

Encouraged by their results so far, WSU and Crunch Pak will do further trials in the coming season with almost $70,000 in funding from the Fresh Pear Committee.

One of the goals: find out how much of the ripening compound to apply, based on the initial firmness and physiology of the pear.

At high doses, the slices ripen rapidly and the edges of the slices turn slightly brown.

WSU will purchase two pieces of equipment to measure ethylene and carbon dioxide levels, one of which is a hand-held device that can monitor ripening fruit in the bag without needing to break the bag open, so the same slices can be monitored over time.

Ross will conduct more tastings to assess consumer acceptance, and WSU agricultural economist Dr. Karina Gallardo will do studies to find out what consumers would be willing to pay for sliced pears and to estimate the potential increase in per-capita pear consumption.

Dhingra expects the product will appeal to young people who value convenience but might not find it feasible to eat whole fruit on the go. “I think we have an opportunity now with a sliced product in pears to increase consumption.” •


Better Plantlets for Better Plants

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Phytelligence was featured in an article from The Better World Project by AUTM!

Original Source


Featured Story from Washington State University

Better Plantlets for Better Plants

Using a proprietary growing method developed at Washington State University (WSU), startup company Phytelligence is producing plants and trees faster than ever, offering a fresh alternative to tree farmers in an industry overripe for innovation.

“We can produce in one year what is typically produced in three years: a 10-foot tall tree,” says Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., associate professor of horticultural genomics and biotechnology in the molecular plant sciences graduate program at WSU.

The company’s soil-less multiplication system — which requires less water and no pesticides — combined with genetic analysis services to ensure the identity of tree species offers tree farmers a way to improve profitability and reduce their environmental impact.

“The company’s plant multiplication method can produce 250,000 plants in one year from a single plant in five-week intervals,” says Preeti Malik-Kale, Ph.D., Technology Licensing Associate in WSU’s Office of Commercialization. “DNA testing prior to shipment guarantees the authenticity of the fruit tree or plant species being supplied to growers.”

Tree Growing 101

Most trees are not grown from seed, but rather grafted on rootstocks — the root system and about 18” of tree stem — that are traditionally propagated in the ground at specialty nurseries. Once the rootstock is large enough, a branch from another tree representing a commercial plant variety (called a scion) selected for its fruit or another attribute is then inserted — or grafted — into the woody stem of the rootstock. After one or two years of growing time, the tree is uprooted and shipped to an orchard, where it takes an additional two to three years before the tree bears fruit.

“Nurseries are confined by the amount of land they have to grow with; 100 acres is a lot. It’s a limiting factor and [space for new trees] only opens up every two to three years,” says Dhingra.

Dhingra says traditional tree propagation is lengthy and rife with inefficiency: About 10 to 40 percent of rootstocks may eventually die, and 10 to 20 percent are not even the variety ordered — a nasty surprise that may come to light years after planting forcing the farmer to rip out trees from random spots in an orchard.

“This results in millions of dollars of loss to the industry,” Dhingra told attendees at a TEDxWSU event in 2014. “It’s a commonly accepted norm.”

Indian-Born Botanist

Dhingra had an affinity for plants at an early age, but growing up in India furthered his resolve to work in agriculture and plant sciences.

“There were food shortages in the early ‘80s in India and seeing people dying from famine made a big impression on me,” he says.

He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany in India followed by a doctorate in plant molecular biology from University of Delhi, India, and Rutgers University, New Jersey in 2000. Before joining WSU, he worked as a researcher at Rutgers, the University of Central Florida and University of Florida.

“From 1994 to 2015 my work has been in the broad area of photosynthesis, trying to change how plants grow and to produce them faster,” he says.

When Dhingra joined WSU in 2006, there was little gene-based information on apples, pears and cherries, so he mapped the genome of each in collaboration with colleagues from Chile and Europe.

“I was like a kid in a candy store; the field was wide open,” he says.

Meeting Farmers

Dhingra also traversed the states of Washington, Oregon and California — top producers of apples, cherries, raspberries and grapes — which gave him a better understanding of the problems faced by nurseries, farmers and fruit packagers.

“There were common themes everywhere,” he says. “Farmers would tell me they were waiting for a million plants and they’d maybe get 10,000.”

Neither traditional propagation nor a newer alternative called plant tissue culture or micropropagation were able to meet the demand for rootstocks. In micropropagation, cultivation occurs not in soil but in the laboratory, where a small amount of tree tissue (called an explant) is added to a sterile container filled with a gel-based mixture of nutrients and placed under artificial light.

“Apple trees multiply in soil slowly, and tissue culture wasn’t efficient because they were using a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “A lot of tissue culture labs were using compounds formulated for tobacco. I knew that wouldn’t work, so I began developing my own formulations.”

Growing Formulations

Dhingra and students in his horticultural genomics laboratory went to work experimenting with different compounds in agar-based media in which explants of various plant species would quickly multiply.

“I was fortunate to have students who were open to a city kid from New Delhi who told them to come along with him and meet with farmers and who wanted to have a practical impact beyond learning,” he says.

Tyson Koepke was just beginning his doctoral work in Dhingra’s lab in 2007 when he was asked to work on a growing medium for sweet cherries alongside other graduate and doctoral students assigned to different plants. Five-and-a-half years later, the group had perfected four media packages and growing processes for apple, pear, cherry and grape species, each of which included specially customized compounds for four growth stages.

During each five-week growing period, explants multiply three- to five-fold and are divided and placed into containers with a new mix of customized nutrients. After several months in a carefully controlled laboratory environment, the plants are moved to a greenhouse where they continue growing for approximately 4-6 months.

“There are other tissue culture labs out there, but [our] group figured out how to make cultures more viable and developed protocols for growing higher quality plants,” says Koepke.

Going Commercial

When a pair of undergraduate students suggested that Dhingra explore commercializing the multiplication method, he met with representatives of WSU’sOffice of Commercialization to discuss the intellectual property management and commercialization plan. Because the growing compounds developed in Dhingra’s lab were essentially recipes, the Office decided to classify the intellectual property as trade secrets.

In 2012, Dhingra, four students and a laboratory manager founded Phytelligence — the first plant-focused biotechnology startup to come out of the university — and licensed the media packages and protocols as well as the software for verifying plant identity through high-resolution genetic analysis.

“When we started the company, it wasn’t just me, it was a group of co-founders,” says Dhingra, who now serves as CEO of Phytelligence. “It changed the paradigm on campus because this was the first group of graduate students to start a company in plant science. It has become motivation for other Ph.D. students to form companies.”

WSU’s Office of Commercialization also connected Dhingra with experts who could help draft a business plan as well as potential investors — 70 percent of the company’s $1 million in startup funding came from Washington growers and nurseries.

From Researcher to Entrepreneur

Two weeks after Koepke completed his doctorate, he became the director of operations at Phytelligence and began outfitting the lab and building the company’s team, which has grown from three full-time employees in early 2014 to 24 employees today.

After shipping 110,000 plants last year, the company is on track to deliver up to 300,000 plants in 2015. In addition to performing genetic testing on each plant it produces to ensure the rootstocks are true to type, Phytelligence also offers genetic analysis services to farmers and nurseries.

“Because of our genome sequencing and analysis expertise, we know how to assure each plant is true to type so it doesn’t have to be dug out of the ground and present a problem to a farmer a few years later,” says Dhingra.

Koepke says the company has also been able to achieve propagation rates that are in some cases two to five times faster than those of competing tissue culture labs.

“We’re able to improve the business cycle for the average apple farmer,” says Dhingra. “They get trees to plant one to two years after ordering, 95 percent survive and all rootstocks are as ordered, resulting in 20 percent extra income annually for the farmer.”

In addition to benefitting tree farmers, the Phytelligence multiplication system has significant environmental benefits: The process requires no insecticides, pesticides or fungicides and, compared to traditional propagation, uses 50 to 80 gallons less water per tree produced.

Fruits to Nuts to Forests

Phytelligence is now exploring ways to expand, including franchising or establishing partnerships with other tissue culture labs. Long-term, the company hopes to apply its soil-free multiplication technology to citrus trees, nuts and forestry. In addition to introducing a new media package for raspberry plants, the company continues to research growing compounds for other plant species.

“There’s an art and science to developing superior formulations, and we have to work all the time at improving, and now we have the engine doing that,” says Dhingra. “We’ve just started scraping the surface of how to improve growing trees.  The secret is to keep on innovating and leading the field with cutting-edge research.”

— Mary Henderson

Photo caption: Young plants avoid insecticides, pesticides and fungicides and use less water.
Photo credit: Phytelligence