Meet the Activator: Clean Crop Technologies

Meet the Activator is a regular series designed to highlight the incredible and diverse solution builders activating capital for regeneration across the agriculture and food system. 

Activator: Dan White

Company: Clean Crop Technologies

Description of Company: Clean Crop Technologies (“Clean Crop”) stops crop loss at the source, removing pathogens from seeds before they are planted, increasing yields, reducing in-field waste, and improving food safety. Clean Crop’s Clean Current technology combines electricity and food-grade gases to create cold plasma, inactivating a broad spectrum of contaminants from seed surfaces in a dry, automated, and residue-free process. Clean Crop’s vision is to deploy its Clean Current system as the first line of defense against crop disease globally.

Clean Crop is based in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where they have a 14,000 square foot facility, including an R&D laboratory, in-house rapid prototyping machine shop, and biological laboratory. Last year, we started commercialization through our seed treatment tolling service. Customers send their seeds to Holyoke, Clean Crop treats the seeds to remove contaminants, repackages them, and sends the decontaminated seeds back to customers (this business model is standard in the seed industry).

Founded in: 2019

Funds Raised: Clean Crop has raised over $13M spanning several sources since inception, including equity rounds, convertible note, SAFEs, along with venture debt. Clean Crop has also leveraged broad ranging support from local and state governments in Massachusetts.

We caught up with Dan White Co-Founder of Clean Crop Technologies. Read on to learn about Dan’s journey as a founder, lessons learned, and what lies ahead.

What prompted you to start Clean Crop Technologies?

Dan: Clean Crop was founded by myself and co-founder Daniel Cavanaugh, VP of Business Development, after spending a combined 20+ years working in global agricultural supply chains. We met in Quelimane, Mozambique on a project building export opportunities for smallholder producers to access higher value markets. Unfortunately, these efforts faced recurrent setbacks attributed to contaminants in the supply chain, resulting in substantial export market bans and significant cost implications.

In response to this real-world challenge, we actively sought scalable solutions that would reduce contaminants plaguing global agricultural supply chains. We conducted a landscape assessment to identify a broad spectrum application technology that could reliably turn back the clock on contaminants in multiple food and seed applications. We reviewed solutions spanning high pressure pasteurization, to ozone, to UV light. We eventually met with Dr. Kevin Keener, a leading expert in plasma for food safety. Dr. Keener, our former Chief Science Officer, developed a novel high voltage, atmospheric cold plasma. We partnered with Dr. Keener in 2019 and within a span of 4 years, we have built a multidisciplinary team, 14,000 square foot purpose built facility, and evolved Clean Crop’s Clean Current technology from academic concepts to commercialized hardware technology, currently tailored for seed treatment.

What problem are you solving for?

Dan: Every year, 30% of food is lost to toxins, pathogens, pests, and molds before it ever leaves farmer fields, costing farmers $220 billion in lost revenue. The seeds themselves are often the culprit for contaminating a field, bringing these diseases from elsewhere. Incumbent solutions such as chemicals or hot water treatments (often powered by fossil fuels) present the customer with a difficult tradeoff: while these tools can reduce contaminants, they can also harm seed quality in the process. In addition to harming quality, incumbent solutions require large footprints, are often labor intensive (driving up costs), and are powered by fossil fuels.

“Every year, 30% of food is lost to toxins, pathogens, pests, and molds before it ever leaves farmer fields, costing farmers $220 billion in lost revenue. The seeds themselves are often the culprit for contaminating a field, bringing these diseases from elsewhere.”

Clean Crop’s Clean Current technology eliminates this historical tradeoff: customers can have clean, decontaminated seeds without any harm to quality, and in many instances, customers see an improvement to quality after treatment.

Clean Current is a novel, high-voltage cold plasma that combats these contaminants by removing them from food and seed surfaces. It works without harming food or seed quality and is up to 10X more energy efficient than incumbent technologies like chemical or hot water treatments. Clean Current is a residue-free process, unlike chemical coating treatments that are used today, so there is no chemical run-off after planting or long-term environmental impacts. Clean Current technology uses a reactor that generates a much wider range of reactive chemistries than peers in the space, thus enabling quality preservation while decontaminating food and enhancing seed performance.

Clean Current technology offers a modular, scalable, industrial solution, able to meet a wide range of customer throughput requirements and needs. The core reactor system is built as a lego block and can be stacked in parallel or in sequence, making them easily adapted to a variety of manufacturing line speeds with minimal facility retrofits. It is a fully automated, dry process, replacing labor intensive, wet treatments such as hot water and chemical treatments.

Clean Crop offers these growers a dry, automated alternative that provides flexibility in scaling, no chemical or water additives, and preserves (and in some cases improves) yields. Global seed companies are interested in Clean Crop’s treatment for decontamination, to generate differentiation from competitors, and to unlock desirable traits for their seeds in their offerings to growers.

How do you characterize the impact of your work?

Dan: Our goal is to unlock more food with the same land, water, and energy resources as the new standard first line of defense for seed health globally.

For customers, we have seen that the $78Bn crop protection market is in a period of transition. Existing fungicides and other seed treatments are facing increasing regulatory headwinds, and many growers interested in transitioning to regenerative practices find limited options for soil-friendly crop protection products. Clean Crop’s vision is to reduce in-field plant disease pressure through removing contaminants from the seeds before planting that leaves no residues. At scale, we can reduce the need for intensive spraying through reducing disease transmission via the seed from field to field, increasing yields and reducing in-field waste across a wide range of categories.

Our mission is to mitigate at least 1 gigaton of GHG emissions from the ag and food space by 2050, and we have two impact pathways to achieve this goal: (1) reducing crop loss and waste; and (2) boosting crop climate resilience.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced on your fund-raising journey?

Dan: We signed our seed round term sheet in February 2020, right before COVID began, which was a uniquely challenging time to close a fundraise. Since then, we have been fortunate to build a diversified syndicate of mission-aligned climatetech and agtech investors supporting our product development. Today, at the early stages of commercialization, we have a significant backlog of customer demand that we do not currently have bandwidth to absorb, and are trying to figure out the best capital stack for project financing to absorb this backlog.

What are your next steps as an organization? 

Dan: 2024 is the year of scale at Clean Crop–we’ve validated our technology, done the hard work to build the flywheel for manufacturing, and are now focused on deploying more machines at our commercial tolling facility and for customers on-site at their facilities later in the year.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned on your journey so far?       

Dan: The only constant in successful startups is change–if you’re doing it right, expect that you will need to reinvent your company culture, risk/reward decisions, and priorities many times over. Because of this, hiring for adaptability and resilience is more important than strategy any day of the week.

Learn more about Clean Crop Technologies here.

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