‘Leafy’ Plant Moisture Sensor Wins 2014 Ag Springboard

April 21, 2014

A five-student team known as “Leafy,” marketing a wireless sensor that detects moisture directly from plant leaves, won the $7,500 first place prize Thursday in Ag Springboard 2014, a student business plan competition to spark and nurture innovation in agriculture.

The Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences sponsors the Ag Springboard competition, with the support of Earl & Kay Harbaugh.

Five finalist teams presented their business plans throughout the day’s final round to a panel of entrepreneur judges familiar with the food, agriculture and bio-renewable energy sectors.

The Leafy team’s plant moisture sensors attach directly onto plant leaves without damaging them, and use technology to gauge moisture that makes them more accurate than other devices that measure moisture from parts of plants, says Amin Afzal, a graduate student in agronomy, who invented the device.

“It’s a great win for me and an opening of new opportunities for me,” says Afzal. “It’s a turning point, a switch from the academic to commercialization.”

Farmers can use the sensors, which integrate with crop management software, to optimize watering their crops. Afzal studied agricultural machinery engineering at the Isfahan University of Technology in Isfahan, Iran. He has developed the plant sensor over the past decade and is in the process of patenting it.

For Ag Springboard, he worked with four MBA students on finance, marketing and distribution plans — Masoud Ghayoumi, Iqbal Asim, Marcus Cullen, and Ankit Mahajan — to develop strategies toward commercialization.

Based on analyzing acres of U.S. cropland in drought-affected areas like California’s Central Valley, Leafy estimates potential sales of more than $1 billion.

Leafy’s presentation was impressive, says Dr. Mark Gagnon, Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Scholar & Entrepreneurship Coordinator. “They took this technology that Amin has been working on for 10 years and have developed and packaged it into an extremely compelling business case.”

This competition wasn’t just an academic exercise, says Gagnon. “This team has the makings of a profitable, viable business.”

As he announced winners, Earl Harbaugh, an alumnus, and creator of five Illinois businesses including Ditch Witch Midwest, said the team presentations were impressive and judges struggled with a close call between first and second place. Earl and Kay Harbaugh are lead donors for the E&I program.

Judges awarded second place to Vine Roofs, which offers vegetative roofs at a lower-cost than conventional green roofs. The caliber of the teams and their presentations has significantly increased from prior Ag Springboard competitions, says Gagnon.

“We’re starting to build a following of students who are growing active companies and ventures from Ag Springboard. Students are building on the momentum and creating companies and non-profits,” says Gagnon.

Previous winners of Ag Springboard spoke during the evening’s festivities, including members of Green Towers — which is working to create consumer-friendly hydroponics products. Fengchun Yang described his experience learning and exploring business opportunities with the larvae of black soldier flies.

Keynote speaker Anne Yorks, CEO of Flour Box Bakery in Zion, described the creation and success of her online, specialty cookie decorating business — without taking on debt.

“We started slow and small and used any opportunity to re-invest in the business,” says Yorks.

Yorks told the story of how she and her husband, and friends and family converted her two-car garage into a two-car bakery, over time and doing a lot of the work themselves to save money. “We were surprised at how much we were capable of doing,” she said.

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