Bringing real-time testing to the farm
Bioenterprise Canada supports Harvest Genomics’ mobile lab development
By Lilian Schaer for Bioenterprise Canada
Over the last two years, the concept of easy, at-home-testing for disease has become commonplace for Canadians due to COVID-19 and the development of rapid at home tests. Chris Grainger’s vision is to make that same simple, easy to use approach to testing available for farmers to quickly identify whether they have a certain disease in their plants or fields.
A funding grant from the SmartGrowth program, administered by Bioenterprise Canada, has helped bring his company, Harvest Genomics, a few steps closer to making that vision a reality.
“This project is targeted at rethinking how we deploy DNA testing technologies. A longstanding model in genomics is that you have a large core facility and samples flow into it but they’re all in big cities or urban areas and agriculture happens in rural areas,” explains Grainger. “This project funding is letting us develop on-site and on-farm testing capacity to make sense of data in real-time.”
After winning the University of Guelph’s Gryphon’s LAAIR competition two years ago, Harvest Genomics partnered with researchers at Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to develop a brand-new test for early detection of Tomato Brown Rugose Fruit Virus (ToBRFV).
ToBRFV is a plant virus affecting tomato and pepper crops that was first detected in Ontario greenhouses in 2019. It can spread rapidly before symptoms are visible, so early detection with Harvest Genomics’ swab test kit is an important part of the industry’s response and the company now has clients all over North America.
Harvest Genomics also works on genetic testing for herbicide resistant weeds, offering rapid screening for different mutations related to resistance to different target herbicides in Ontario, and helps seed companies speed up crop and variety development to get new crop varieties to market faster and more efficiently.
Technological advances mean the capacity now exists to take complex samples of soil or water and extract and sequence DNA from every organism at the same time. At the greenhouse level, notes Grainger, this means a grower can send in a single swab and Harvest Genomics can identify the presence of rugose as well as a host of other pathogens from that single sample.
“We had the foundation of the infrastructure we wanted to test and the SmartGrowth funding from Bioenterprise helped us optimize protocols, do testing and establish how to carry out these tests in commercial environments,” Grainger says, adding the support was essential to getting the concept from paper into real beta testing.
“It’s not always easy in private business to access funding for research and development, so it’s critically important to have an organization like Bioenterprise to offer funding after the discovery phase and to help with commercialization,” he says. “We need organizations like Bioenterprise, who are there to support and provide help to get early-stage technology going – that’s so important.”
As Canada’s Food & Agri-Tech Engine, Bioenterprise Canada brings two decades of industry experience and a national and international network of research institutions, academia, mentors and experts, funders and investors, government, and industry partners to help small and medium-sized businesses in the agri-food sector nationwide connect, innovate, and grow.
For more information on SmartGrowth and how to apply for the next cohort, visit https://bioenterprise.ca/programming/bioenterprise-smartgrowth-program/ or contact Alexandra Burdett at Alexandra.firstname.lastname@example.org.