Dan McDonald and Ron Michaels start a tour of the Phenotype Screening Corporation facility off Papermill Road in West Knoxville by saying simply, “We’re a root lab,” and conclude the tour and interview by emphasizing that “we’re the root guys.” For the novice, being a “root lab” is more complex than it might sound.
As we toured the lab on a Monday morning, Phenotype’s co-founders showed two varieties of canola plants and four varieties of cotton plants growing in patented containers in an engineered substrate under specially-controlled lighting to simulate whatever condition is desired and with carefully-controlled watering, depending on the experiment. (A more complete explanation of the Phenotype process can be found at http://www.phenotypescreening.com/products.html.)
Phenotype has developed a non-destructive way of imaging plant roots that McDonald says is “unique in the world.” The “secret sauce” is a one-meter container and engineered growth media made of expanded polystyrene that is transparent to X-rays at frequencies the company uses.
“The key to our patented process is the part of the X-ray spectrum that picks-up the soft tissue in the roots,” McDonald. This allows Phenotype to provide reliable data and images to its customers showing how a plant’s roots perform under very different conditions.
The company can simulate geographic differences such as temperature, moisture, length of daylight, nutritional composition of the media (i.e., soil), and introduce stressors including living organisms like insects and nematodes. The company can change any of these factors at any time and follow the impact to the root system’s development.
McDonald emphasized that “everything we do is triggered by the developmental stage of plants. In modern farming, plant developmental stages determine when crops get various treatments.”
Understanding how all of these factors impact a plant can mean big bucks for an international company. McDonald said that plant breeders typical invest about $10 million to bring a new crop variety to market. This generally takes seven to 10 years. The US seed industry is a $12 billion business representing 38 percent of the global seed market.
Phenotype is, in essence, a contract research organization, serving commercial seed companies, agro-chemical manufacturers, and industrial consortia, helping its customers pick winners and cull losers based on solid data and high-quality images.
“We’re filling a niche . . . conducting post-screening after they (the customers) go through thousands of plants,” McDonald explained. “They pick the (initial) winners and have us further evaluate the selected plants.”
The average consumer will never directly know about Phenotype’s work. “Everything we do is covered by secrecy agreements with our clients,” McDonald says. The result of the Knoxville company’s work, however, will be found in the performance of seeds that farmers purchase and plants that homeowners buy for their yards.
All of the research is done in the building that has been Phenotype’s home for the past three years. Getting to the Papermill Road location was not an easy task, particularly with the economic downturn just three years after McDonald and Michaels founded Phenotype in 2004.
They started with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, but soon shifted to federal Small Business Innovation Research grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.
“We sold the first alpha version of our technology in 2006, just ahead of the recession,” he said. The initial focus was on academic researchers, but they decided to make “our first big pivot – away from academic to commercial.” This was “a great move for us,” McDonald believes.
The three-year period of 2006 through 2008 was focused on improving image quality and development of a customer base. The next three years were focused on developing the proprietary software to quantify the root system.
Today, Phenotype does its contract research work, but also leases and services its equipment domestically and sells units directly to China.
“The hardest thing to do is to go from nowhere to somewhere,” McDonald said as he reflected on his eight-year journey. “Once you’re somewhere, you can pivot or change. We’re somewhere, and we’re experimenting with the marketplace on the best way to grow the company.”
Whatever path he selects, one suspects McDonald will be guided by the fact that “roots lay the foundation for successful yields” After all, he is the “root guy,” and Phenotype is the “root lab.”