phyto wants our factories to work smarter, not harder. The San Francisco-based company is developing both hardware and software to automate and scale the production of aquatic plants, or what founder and CEO Jason Prapas calls “super plants,” in a controlled environment as a more resilient option for feed, food and soil health.

Prapas launched Phyto from MIT in 2019, explaining that he considers these plants “super” because of the speed at which they can grow, in part because of an in-depth plant science. Their ability to grow at scale is about automation and engineering.

Phyto’s technology uses a farm’s waste streams as inputs to enable farmers to increase productivity and improve nutrient management, while reducing production costs, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions – in some operations with more than 50%, Prapas said.

In most cases, farms can produce 10 to 20 times more protein per acre using five to 10 times less water than crops — for example, alfalfa, the largest water consumer in California, according to Drought management data from University of California, Davis

Add to the data shown 77% of the world’s soy is fed to livestock for meat and dairy production† That is an important reason why the company started with feed for dairy cows. In 2021, Fyto piloted a dairy farm in Northern California to prove that its technology could grow the plants, in this case Lemna, using manure as a raw material.

The company’s technology is twofold: the first is shallow ponds where the plants grow in a water basin. Then the farmer can manipulate the crops using robotic automation and scooping equipment to make them flow and move because they are not embedded in anything.

Phyto employee calibrates and activates Phyto’s automated cultivation system on a pilot scale. Image Credits: Bill Reitzel

There are also no seeds – the plants reproduce in a way Prapas calls “vegetative,” with the “mother” plants dividing into the next generation. The benefits of this are no land preparation and the plants will double every few days, in a controlled environment, all year round.

The pilot concluded that the plants could be harvested all year round and that they were nutritious with amino acids, energy, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids that were shown to be highly palatable and digestible for cows.

“We had a very educational summer last year, feeding the cows on an active dairy farm where we grew the plants,” Prapas told australiabusinessblog.com. “Another big problem globally, but getting attention especially in California, is where you can see nutrients — primarily nitrogen — going into groundwater from livestock farming. It’s going to be a big state-wide challenge, but if you can introduce a process that takes that nutrient away and makes plants grow from it, then that can be fed to those cows. It is a very exciting process with a closed loop.”

The company has pre-revenues but plans to launch and sell its products later this year, he added. However, the pilot program revealed the need for Phyto to raise funds so it could help scale the farm.

Today, the company announced $15 million in Series A financing, led by GV, with existing investors AgFunder, Refactor Capital, First Star Ventures and Bolt participating. The company has now raised a total of $18 million. As part of the investment, GV general partner Andy Wheeler joined Fyto’s board of directors.

The funding will enable Fyto to produce the robotic shallow agricultural pools, further develop the automation technology and employ more people. Prapas is looking for talent with expertise in deep commercial experience, bringing new feed ingredients to market, liaising with food manufacturers and learning how to solve major problems in the agricultural sector.

“Most of our time has been focused on cow feeding, but the breadth of what we can tackle is a really exciting space for opportunity,” he added. “We have a biological library of different crops that we can draw from, which have been shown to be excellent for example for poultry or others that are really good amino acid profiles for human food. We are certainly excited about what we can tackle.”

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