Written by Rachel Cooper, rachelcooper.ca
The AscendBio program in Cape Breton helps build industrial biotech and agritech start-ups. It does this through the Verschuren Centre’s scientific and technical expertise and infrastructure, and Innovacorp’s sector expertise, business support and international networks.
Vertical farming and greenhouse systems are more important than ever in a world facing food shortages and skyrocketing fertilizer prices. These farming technologies and methods extend the growing season. They also grow crops more intensively, using less land, than traditional farming. However, a key to their success is ensuring the plants have the nutrients they need to thrive.
INTAG Bio was incorporated in early 2021 to sustainably produce plant nutrients that increase crop yields. The company has developed and patented a biodigester and a production process that transform organic wastes, such as animal manure, into a nutrient solution with the help of terrestrial earthworms and beneficial bacteria.
In simple terms, the company uses earthworms to digest and process animal manure that is then further broken down by beneficial bacteria. Unusually, everything happens underwater in a big vat. This bioreactor provides a favourable and consistent environment in which earthworms can live and reproduce. The company controls for factors such as dissolved oxygen level, temperature, pH and substrate.
“We’re taking a waste product, and we’re turning it into a highly valuable crop nutrient. We’ve had successes with both fish manure and cow manure,” says CEO Chris Nguyen.
The company already has two patents related to its process and has filed for another provisional patent. And, while these patents represent important milestones, the growth trials are even more significant. Early research results with hydroponically grown lettuce have shown a 25 per cent increase in fresh weight with over 50 per cent increase in root development, while using 40 per cent less of plant macro and micro nutrients.
INTAG Bio is a wholly owned subsidiary of INTAG Systems, based in Pennsylvania. “We created the subsidiary because of Innovacorp, specifically because of Paul Richards,” Chris says. “It was the combination of funding and expertise that Innovacorp provided that brought us to Nova Scotia. We are incorporated in Halifax, but our operations have been set up in Sydney and we lease space from the Verschuren Centre.”
Not including Chris, the company has two on staff in Nova Scotia and hopes to fill two more positions. Two scientists are in the United States, but the plan is to have all the company’s resources in Sydney.
INTAG Bio is now in the stage between research and development, Chris says. “We have a working prototype that’s producing a wonderful nutrient. As soon as we can work out certain components so that we can scale it, we’re going to start to commercialize it. In growth trials, our biofertilizer has performed significantly better than standard chemical fertilizers, so we know it works.”
Their initial target market will be technology-driven growers such as greenhouse operations and vertical farms. “We see more and more of our market being driven by sustainable agriculture requirements,” he says. “Europe is moving quickly in that direction, and Canada is also heading that way. We’re remediating waste and reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases associated with traditional fertilizers while significantly increasing crop yields. In the first half of 2023, I believe we will be selling nutrients to the United States. That’s my goal for the company.”
The Verschuren Centre is providing a lot of support, he adds. “They did some of our original research, and they’re providing personnel and analytical equipment to help us. Being able to leverage resources at the Verschuren Centre, and then draw on Innovacorp’s expertise, has made all the difference. We’ve also received significant financial commitments from sources such as ACOA, the Nova Scotia Innovation Hub, and Innovacorp. I can’t say enough about Paul Richards and Innovacorp and the help we’ve had from the Nova Scotian and Canadian governments. It’s a hard world out there. For folks to support us with expertise and help and money, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
June 14, 2022, Halifax, Nova Scotia