FloraPulse began in the orchards and vineyards of growers. Since the 1970’s, Alan Lakso, professor of Horticulture at Cornell, had been dragging around the heavy, manual pressure chamber to measure and manage water stress in apple trees and grapevines. Alan was documenting the levels of water stress and their effect on fruit growth and quality. Back then, winegrape growers understood that water stress was important to wine quality, but only had the pressure chamber to measure it.
Although it provides useful data, this instrument was a pain to use, literally (Google “x-ray of herniated disk”!). Soon Alan began to dream of a sensor that could be embedded in the trunk to directly, continuously and easily monitor water stress in plants. He tried many methods; all were promising but none good enough.
In a different building, Abraham Stroock, professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell, studied the physics of water under tension in plants. Abe’s research on plants, combined with remarkable nanotechnology methods, provided the breakthrough that led to the development of the microtensiometer, our flagship product. In 2007, Alan and Abe began a project that combined the knowledge of plant water relations, industry needs, and unique technology to design the microtensiometer as an embeddable sensor to continuously monitor water status.
During the next 10 years, Abe led the engineering work to develop and refine the sensor chip design, build the initial prototypes, develop the environmental protection, and begin field-testing. Two extraordinary graduate students led the detailed engineering work in the lab, the nanofab clean room and the field. Dr. Vinay Pagay, now at University of Adelaide, Australia began the project with initial sensor development and proof-of-concept. This work led to a key research paper and one patent. Dr. Michael Santiago, now our CEO, followed and refined the chip design, then designed, built and tested various probe configurations to hold and protect the sensor electronics. Michael now leads further improvements to ruggedize the sensor probe and test it in different crops and field conditions. Our unique cross-disciplinary research and development led to two patents and the current sensor prototypes.
Sensor development was supported by USDA and NSF grants. In 2016, the USDA awarded us the prize of Innovations in Food and Agricultural Sciences and Technology. The award supported our participation in the excellent NSF I-Corps program in 2016 to bring promising technologies out of the lab and into the market. In 2017, both the USDA and NSF awarded us Small Business Innovative Research grants to support the development of the microtensiometer.
We at FloraPulse continue our push to bring this amazing technology to the market, as a product that is useful to you, the grower. We thank you for coming along on this journey!