I-CORPS guides irrigation management tool to market

jbrehm2, August 2, 2012 | View original publication

I-CORPS guides irrigation management tool to market

In the midst of the worst drought in more than half a century, U.S. farmers are drawing on their best defenses — the center pivot and their experience dealing with some of the harshest conditions Mother Nature can deal.

Now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln computer engineer is preparing to give them a new tool for their irrigation management arsenal — one that has the potential to decrease costs, conserve water, and improve yields.

Mehmet Can Vuran, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, has spent years developing wireless underground sensor networks to give agricultural producers real-time information about soil moisture and changing conditions that would allow them to more efficiently manage irrigation. He’s had the help of doctoral student Xin Dong, as well as a five-year, $418,760 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program to further develop the technology.

Now, a new grant will help them take the idea to market. Vuran, Dong and their entrepreneurial team have been awarded a $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps award. Known as the I-Corps, the program’s goal is to guide toward commercialization promising scientific discoveries that offer great benefits to society.

The team will use the grant to assess the viability of the technology for a new start-up enterprise. The team also will complete a specially designed training curriculum and present their products to venture capitalists at the end of the six-month program.

NSF specifically sought out discoveries that offer near-term benefits to society or the economy.

The team also is working with NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit corporation responsible for the university’s technology development, to commercialize this technology.

While sensors are not new technology to agricultural fields, current tools available have significant limits, Vuran said. His wireless technology can transmit information from the soil to a center pivot irrigation system or even a base station up to 25 feet away. Such information will determine when and how much to water crops. Existing technology, meanwhile, is limited to just a few feet of transmission, lacks the ability to get the data in real time, and is still largely focused on observing atmospheric conditions, he said.

“If you look at most of the technology for irrigation management, we’re still looking at the sky,” he said. “But with this technology, we’re basically trying to get into the soil and let the soil tell us what to do.”

The I-Corps award represents one more vote of confidence for the technology’s promise for the future, and it’s also a unique learning opportunity, Vuran said.

“That’s huge because one of the challenges we have with any type of research is the gap between the technology developed in research labs and the technology that is used in the world,” he said. “This program aims to minimize that gap.”

The UNL team is among 55 winners nationwide in this round of the program that was established by NSF in 2011. A team led by UNL chemist Stephen DiMagno was among the inaugural winners and has since gone on to establish a startup company that develops new imaging agents for staging and management of certain cancers and neurological disorders.

In their pursuit, Vuran and Dong are joined by two other expert team members. Stephen Reichenbach, professor of computer science and engineering, will serve as mentor. He has experience as a successful entrepreneur and in transitioning academic research into real world applications. Suat Irmak has been named team adviser. Irmak is a professor of biological systems engineering, interim director of the Nebraska Water Center and he leads the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network. He is well connected to Nebraska farmers and the irrigation industry.

Dong, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Computer Science and Engineering, will fill the role of entrepreneurial lead. The experience will offer him the training necessary to lead a start-up company built on the technology. Dong has worked with Vuran since 2009, including conducting field experiments in Clay Center, Neb. Dong even took agriculture classes to learn more about the properties of soil and water to help him develop the antenna technology that could work through all of it.

“For me, this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Dong said. “The I-Corps grant gives me the opportunity to put my research into real life and use it to help other people — to help farmers.”