Chattanooga start-up focused on helping increase crop yields for small acreage farmers
Soubantika (Sou) Palchoudhury learned a great deal about the challenges that farmers with small acreage face during her years growing-up in India. Now, the Assistant Professor of Civil and Chemical Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) is focused on helping significantly increase crop yields for those same farmers.
“I grew-up in the eastern part of India where my grandparents were farmers,” Palchoudhury says. “I saw the problems in small farms on yield. Later on, I wanted to use my expertise in nanochemistry to form a new and sustainable technology that can increase agricultural yield.”
Now, she’s combining that knowledge with her passion for sustainable technologies in a start-up that also is providing a learning experience for students. Founded in mid-2020, S&J NanoChemicals Inc. was one of the participants in the 2020 edition of the “AgLaunch Bootcamp” hosted by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and the Memphis-based AgLaunch organization which have been supported by Launch Tennessee to create the Tennessee AgTech Mentor Network as described in this post from today’s edition of teknovation.biz.
S&J was co-founded by John Melnyczuk.
More recently, Dell Zimmerman, one of her UTC students who is part of the team at S&J NanoChemicals Inc., presented the start-up during the UTC “Hatch It” competition in November (see our teknovation.biz article here). He is one of three UTC students involved with the company; the other two are Syed Tareq and Armel Boutchuen.
“My vision has always been to engage students in research (to) give them a real-life experience,” Palchoudhury says in explaining how her roles at UTC and as the Founder of S&J NanoChemicals are perfectly aligned.
“I always have wanted to develop new materials,” she told us in a recent interview. After earning her undergraduate degree at the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, in her native country, Palchoudhury came to the U.S. where she earned both an M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering at the University of Alabama. She then did postdoctoral work successively at Yale University, the University of South Carolina and Alabama before arriving in Chattanooga as a Visiting Assistant Professor at UTC in 2015.
Throughout all of those stops, the challenges faced by people like her grandparents who have small farms has never been far from her mind, so Palchoudhury decided several years ago to do something to help. The result was a new fertilizer formulation, developed in March 2018, that enhances growth while also being environmentally friendly and less costly. The UT Research Foundation filed for a provisional patent in March 2020, and Palchoudhury formed S&J NanoChemicals in mid-2020.
“It (the fertilizer) is added into the seed,” she says, explaining that the material does not leech into the environment. “It’s highly effective on a variety of crops – corn, soybeans, potatoes and other legumes. We’ve also seen it work on grass for golf courses.”
How effective is the micro-formulation and micronutrient?
Palchoudhury says just one drop has resulted in growth rates of 230 to 800 percent over the lifetime of a plant. Equally significant is the cost-benefit, costing somewhere between $2 to $8 an acre compared to $154 for other options.
S&J NanoChemicals has been self-funded, although Palchoudhury is looking for investors and sponsors of field trials. She’s also exploring applying for a Small Business Innovation Research grant.
As a participant in the “AgLaunch Bootcamp,” she says she learned a lot about the lab to market pathway. Another program – Bundled that is supported by Launch Tennessee – provides units to help start-ups like S&J NanoChemicals with services like legal and accounting.
PYA, the power behind teknovation.biz, is a participant in the Bundled initiative managed by Courtney Jones. “That has been highly helpful,” Palchoudhury says. She also praised the guidance and mentorship provided by Jennifer Skjellum, a Commercialization Counselor at UTC.