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MIT Better World

By Kara Baskin

Climate change is damaging soil through erosion and salinization, forcing farmers struggling with crop yields to rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to boost production. It’s a vicious cycle: these soil additives require an energy intensive manufacturing process that releases carbon, which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Augustine Zvinavashe ’16, PhD ’21 is hoping to change this through his startup, Ivu Biologics. With key support from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program, Ivu seeks to disrupt approaches to farming with a microbe-delivery platform that aims to reduce pollution, build seed resilience, and increase crop yields.

“We’re trying to solve a societal problem: We know that by 2050, we’re going to have a 30% increase in our population. We need to increase food production by about 70%. We know we need to find more sustainable agriculture,” says Zvinavashe, who launched Ivu in 2020. He collaborated with Owen Porth, an MIT PhD student in biological engineering, and Mira Kingsbury-Lee, an undergraduate at Harvard University. Zvinavashe earned his PhD in civil and environmental engineering under Associate Professor Benedetto Marelli and is now a postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.

Coating seeds with microbes

Today many farmers use fertilizers comprised of synthesized chemicals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and sometimes micronutrients. “While effective, they can cause harm to the soil and surrounding environments over the long term,” Zvinavashe says.

As an alternative to synthetic additives, Ivu has found a way to enrich the soil using living microorganisms, or microbes. In the lab, Ivu creates seed coatings that hold these fragile microbes and release them into soil when planted. This process promotes the uptake of essential plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium— even in inhospitable soils. The problem has been ensuring the microbes stay alive, and Ivu’s technology solves this challenge, Zvinavashe says.

Importantly, the coating is biodegradable and climate-resistant. Farmers will reap the benefits such as higher crop yields, reduced fertilizer costs, and better soil quality. Zvinavashe notes that 33% of soil is currently degraded worldwide; 90% could be degraded by 2050 due to climate change, according to UN data. “We need to change how we’re farming. We need to reduce carbon emission and adopt climate-resilient technology. As weather becomes more volatile, soil nutrients will become more depleted,” he explains.

The startup is an outgrowth of his doctoral thesis on engineering seed micro-environments, a project Zvinavashe traces back to his childhood , when he worked on his grandmother’s farm.

“We grew up in nature, learned how to coexist with animals domesticated or wild, and hiked for fun. Farming incorporates a lot of skills: you learn hard work, people management, how to count, and money management. The idea of running my own company was seeded at an early age,” he says.

Crucial seed funding

In the effort to save Earth’s soil, Ivu is in a race against time, but MIT Sandbox has played a crucial role in accelerating its development with seed money (no pun intended) and lab space. Sandbox provides up to $25,000 as well as mentorship that enables student innovators to explore ideas, take risks, and prepare for the launch of their businesses. It accepts teams at any stage of the startup process that demonstrate strong commitment and a willingness to invest in initial research and planning.

“At MIT, you have a lot of people interested in making the world a better place. Sandbox gives you capital to explore your idea, and you have mentors and entrepreneurs who have done it before. If you have the energy to chase your idea and what you believe in, you can do it here,” Zvinavashe says.

In particular, he adds, MIT allowed Zvinavashe to use its Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space, which provided a key advantage. “Lab facilities are so expensive in Boston. Having had an opportunity to use the maker facilities was amazing, because it lowered our development costs pretty significantly,” he says.

The future looks bright: Zvinavashe completed his doctoral work this fall, and Ivu is currently in the process of a material transfer agreement with a Fortune 500 company in the hopes of reaching areas with particularly compromised soil, starting in the United States.

“This is exactly what MIT Sandbox was designed for: providing seed funding and mentorship to student innovators looking to find great applications to their research and using entrepreneurship to explore ways to get those innovations to the market.

Augustine has fully embraced the educational goals of Sandbox,” says Jinane Abounadi SM ’90, PhD ’98, executive director of the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund Program.

Zvinavashe is confident that this idea, grown at MIT, will someday take root worldwide as farmers and distributors realize the long-term economic and environmental benefits of biologics.

“I believe this is how we’re going to be doing agriculture. Biologics will be super-important. And as it becomes more challenging to farm because of climate change effects, we’re going to need technologies that are climate resilient,” he says. “Everyone needs to eat.”