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The UVic-UCC has obtained a patent protecting the production process of a plant growth biostimulant made from non-hazardous bacterial microorganisms which have improved the growth of some plants by 30% in field studies. The patent is owned in equal shares by the Balmes University Foundation, the institution which owns the UVic-UCC, and two alumni of the University, Verónica Mosquera, a graduate in Biotechnology, and Rubén Hidalgo, a graduate in Environmental Sciences, who carried out the project as part of their Final Year Project (FYP). The two share responsibility for the project with the Biosciences lecturer Marta Cullell, who was their tutorial advisor.
This is also the first patent that the UVic-UCC has obtained since improving its regulations governing intellectual property to protect teaching staff, researchers and students in December 2014. According to the Vice-rector for Research and Teaching, Jordi Villà, this first patent "is the result of the University's commitment to excellence in research and to the transfer of real knowledge that is focused on businesses and society in general. We have opened up a new avenue of technological collaboration with the region". The UVic-UCC is currently in the process of applying for another patent that will be granted in the future.
Economic and ecological benefits of an innovative process
The biostimulant obtained in the patented process is applied to the soil in irrigation water, and increases plant growth by up to 30% in some cases. This effect is achieved thanks to the symbiosis that takes place between the root of the plant and the bacteria that adheres to it, which provide it with nutrients that it otherwise not receive or would not obtain in smaller amounts.
The use of products of this type in the agricultural sector is not especially common, but it is not new. The differential value of the patent lies in the economic and ecological benefit arising from the use of organic industrial waste in the biostimulant's production process. The product obtained from this process "achieves very good results when applied in the field, but it is also beneficial for the environment because it provides an outlet for waste that would not be recoverable," explains Verónica Mosquera.
Development through a company
The initial idea for the project which has led to the patent was developed by the students working on the optional in Biotechnology and Environmental Sciences subject of Creation of Bio-businesses, and took shape in the Startup Programme of the UVic-UCC's Entrepreneurship Unit, which supported and advised them for eight months while they developed their business plan. The project was also the UVic-UCC's finalist in the Interuniversity Start-Up Entrepreneurs Competition in the Startup Programme, which took place in Madrid, where they won the award for the project's viability. The students subsequently based their FYP on the project, with Mosquera focusing on the product's development and its culture medium in the laboratory, while Hidalgo, with another student who took part in the same project, carried out the efficiency tests in the field.
At the end of the FYP, the students and their tutor began the procedure to patent the result under the umbrella of the UVic-UCC. Since obtaining the patent, the University has licensed it to the biotech company Ecobium Biotech S.L., established by the two alumni. It is currently the only company in Catalonia specialising in developing and marketing innovative products that act as agricultural biostimulants and biofertilisers, and its products are based on the patented process of which Mosquera and Hidalgo are co-owners.
"So far we have focused on using the products where we invested the most time and R+D+i resources since the FYP, while improving the process. We are continuing our research to bring new products to market, improve techniques and be able to cover all our clients' needs," says Mosquera. The company launched its first product to market last September, and has four ranges for horticultural crops, ornamental plants, nurseries and seeds, and lawns.