Global fertilizer company acquires Cornell digital agriculture tech

Scientists have long recognized the crucial, and potentially damaging, role of nitrogen in the food cycle. If farmers don’t add enough of the fertilizer to their fields, crops are less productive. But if too much is added, excess nitrogen runs off into waterways, where it can cause algal blooms that kill fish, contaminate drinking water and contribute to global warming.

Harold van Es, professor of soil science in the School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS), began studying the problem two decades ago. He recognized early on that computational solutions lay at the heart of problems facing agriculture. By harnessing the power of data and innovative modeling, van Es saw that digital agriculture could help farmers be more efficient, profitable and better stewards of the environment.

Now, Adapt-N – the technology van Es and his team developed at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and operated by Agronomic Technology Corp. (ATC) has been acquired by Yara International ASA, one of the world’s largest fertilizer companies. Yara plans to invest significantly in Adapt-N to make the tool available worldwide.

“It’s a dream come true as a scientist to have your work going global and to have a company believe in the technology,” van Es said. “We realized that commercialization of technology started here at Cornell was critical to the long-term growth of Adapt-N and the solutions it offers farmers. A public-private partnership was key to fully deploy the power of this technology into the world.”

In 2002, van Es and his team – including Jeff Melkonian, senior research associate in SIPS, and Art DeGaetano, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences – received funding to study computational agriculture, and from those studies they developed Adapt-N (N for nitrogen). The tool relies on U.S. Department of Agriculture soil databases, field-specific soil and management information, and high-resolution weather data developed with help from the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell.

Nitrogen poses challenges for farmers. It’s expensive, and there are considerable environmental impacts from its use, in terms of water quality, greenhouse gases and energy.

“How you manage nitrogen is a complex problem,” van Es said, “and also very dependent on the conditions in a field each year: how much rain you get, your soil type, when you planted the crop, when you added fertilizer or manure, how much organic matter you have in the soil that’s where models and data become really helpful.”

Adapt-N uses this information in a dynamic model that gives farmers precise nitrogen recommendations for every section of their fields. Since its inception, Adapt-N has focused exclusively on corn, but it will soon be available for wheat and someday other crops as well, such as canola and cotton, according to van Es.

First introduced as an outreach tool for New York growers in 2008, Adapt-N quickly proved to be a popular and robust tool. By 2013, van Es began looking for commercial partners. After a year of research and discussions with various companies, he teamed up with Greg Levow ’04, a graduate of the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, who worked with business partner Steve Sibulkin to create ATC.

“I was immediately attracted to the idea that this technology could help farmers be more profitable, and be better environmental stewards at the same time,” Levow said. “Things are usually a zero-sum game: You might make money and hurt the environment, or else help the environment and lose money. But this technology was win-win.”

The Center for Technology Licensing (CTL) and the McGovern Center for Venture Development were in-house partners, helping van Es, Levow and their teams navigate the complex commercialization process.

CTL provided advice on how to protect Adapt-N’s intellectual property, and developed a commercial license that respected the public-interest component of the technology. “I wanted to make sure that the license wouldn’t create hurdles for farmers to actually use it. And CTL did a good job of that,” van Es said.

The McGovern Center, founded in 2013, provides an incubator for early-stage Cornell life science startups. The company worked with the McGovern Center to grow and, in 2014, became its first graduate.

Three years later, ATC and the Adapt-N technology were acquired by Yara, a Norway-based fertilizer giant with a strong corporate commitment to sustainability.

“It’s a bold statement for a fertilizer company to say, ‘We’re not just looking to sell as much fertilizer as we can,’ because sometimes our software recommends less,’’ Levow said. “And Yara, at the highest levels of management, is committed to feeding the world responsibly. It’s just an ideal fit.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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