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ASU startup tech replacing bees as pollinators

(AP Photo)

To produce almonds, Tom Rogers needs bees to pollinate his 175 acres of trees that flower each season in California's Central Valley.

But the cost of importing bees to do the job has shot up in recent years as a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder has spread, making Rogers look for alternatives.

Enter Pollen-Tech, an Arizona State University-based company offering a technology that spreads pollen through a solution sprayed on plants.

"We're always looking for a way to help Mother Nature produce a better crop," Rogers said.

Developed from an MBA student's business plan, Pollen-Tech won a grant through ASU's Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative and is now housed at the university's SkySong Innovation Center and the MAC6 manufacturing incubator in Tempe.

"Pollen-Tech is definitely one of our stars in terms of its long-term potential impact," said Gordon McConnell, associate vice president of ASU's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group.

Mentors at SkySong help startups such as Pollen-Tech refine business plans and strategies. The mentors helped guide the company toward which customers and crops to focus on, McConnell said.

"Part of our job and our mentors' job is to help focus their idea and team on things that make sense, the markets they'll be able to get into first, to create the sustainability for these companies to stand on their feet when they leave us," he said.

Pollen-Tech CEO David Wade said he believes this technology is the next big thing in agriculture behind irrigation and fertilization.

"The new third wave here is addressing all of the risk and issues that revolve around pollinating crops," he said. "By taking the process and controlling it mechanically, we can optimize how much it is."

The patent-pending cocktail, which includes refined pollen, is delivered by a spray device hitched to a tractor. The device generates an electrostatic shock that mimics the static energy a bee generates flapping its wings during pollination. This energy helps the pollen stick.

In tests, Pollen-Tech's technique has produced up to a 6.5 percent increase in crop yield compared to plants that weren't treated, Wade said.

In its first year of sales, Pollen-Tech is focusing on mechanical farms that grow almonds, cherries, peaches and apricots.

Rogers used the slurry on 36 acres of his farm last year and doubled the acres this year. He said Pollen-Tech's technology was relatively simple to use.

"It's just one more trip through the field with the sprayer," he said.

It now costs about $370 to treat an acre of almond trees with bees, while Pollen-Tech's technology costs $240 an acre, according to the company.

"Even if I don't eliminate the bees altogether, if I can reduce the number of bees per acre and get better pollination, it's a win-win for us," Rogers said.

Tom Brown, Pollen-Tech's chief technology officer, said a combination of Pollen-Tech's slurry and bee pollination could be used to help effectively and inexpensively pollinate.

"You can't just throw your pollen wherever you want," Brown said. "Pollen is a scarce and costly resource, so you want to be strategic in how you use the pollen and make it as worthwhile as possible."

According to Brown, the Pollen-Tech method is around nine times more effective than similar products, which use a dry-blowing method to disperse pollen in the fields.

Rogers, who uses the dry-blowing technology as well, said he thinks Pollen-Tech has the edge.

"I honestly think we get a better job moving the pollen through the tree with the Pollen-Tech system," Rogers said.

Longer term, Brown said Pollen-Tech could expand abroad and help small farmers, such as coffee growers in Brazil, improve their productivity.

"If we can go there, it will be pretty big," he said.

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