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By Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona 


University of Arizona alumni entrepreneurs Ricardo Hernandez and John Jackson ofGrafted Growers, LLC have been awarded a $100,000 Phase I USDA-SBIR grant. Small Business Innovation Research grants support technology innovation by providing federal research funds to help grow small, technology-based businesses.

With the award, the two are working in collaboration with Chieri Kubota from the School of Plant Sciences and Murat Kacira from the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering at the UA, as well as with team members from the Arizona Center for Innovation and Tech Launch Arizona. The multidisciplinary team will commercialize novel crop-production strategies that got their start — and are continuing to develop — through UA research.

The company received the USDA-SBIR grant for its use of innovative methods and equipment for planting, growing and harvesting food crops. In addition to helping improve the process and resource efficiency associated with growing vegetable transplants, these same methods can be utilized for improving agriculture, horticulture and floriculture operations. The goal is to create a sustainable indoor growing system, or SIGS, that will produce affordable, higher-quality grafted vegetable transplants with fewer resources — such as water, fertilizers and pesticides — while maintaining a smaller land footprint than existing greenhouse and open-field agriculture systems.

Hernandez received his Ph.D. from the School of Plant Sciences, and Jackson received his M.B.A. from the Eller College of Management. As they were pursuing their academically separate studies, they met in the highly ranked McGuire Program for Entrepreneurship, where they began collaborating on their idea for Grafted Growers.

The commercialization potential of the project is high because the growing systems and their output (high-quality vegetable transplants) can be commercialized as unique, innovative products for different markets. With the ban of methyl bromide, an ozone-depleting fumigant, the adoption of grafted vegetable plants by hydroponic growers and field growers for increased vigor and disease resistance is growing. It has a market size of $2 billion a year in tomato transplants alone. Additionally, the indoor farming market is booming and the availability of affordable, functional indoor growing systems is limited.

“The SBIR Program is a critical piece in the puzzle of converting scientific knowledge into impactful products and services that address problems facing American industries,” Jackson said.

Grafted Growers hopes to become the only closed-system, globally local supplier of high-quality grafted vegetable transplants to U.S. and international growers of specialty crops.

The grant also represents a win for the UA, Tech Launch Arizona and the state. This past year, TLA started SBIR/STTR Tech House, a program designed to drastically increase the region’s economic competitiveness by putting the power of research behind new and small businesses. STTR stands for Small Business Technology Transfer. 

Under the leadership of TLA, the University has set a goal to increase competitiveness and become one of the top 10 regions per capita in the nation.

Jen Watson leads the SBIR/STTR Tech House program for TLA.

“Grafted Growers did an excellent job building a team with complementary skills and creating a winning proposal,” Watson said. “TLA’s SBIR/STTR Tech House is available to assist companies in connecting to resources and partners that will help them improve their chances of being successful at SBIR/STTR.”

More information on the connections and services available through SBIR/STTR Tech House is at http://techlaunch.arizona.edu/sbirsttr-tech-house.

Along with his entrepreneurial efforts with Grafted Growers, Jackson also serves asmanager of business intelligence at TLA.

Top photo of Hernandez (right) and Jackson (left) by Tech Parks Arizona.