For drought-plagued farmers: a gel that can suck up 250 times its weight in water

The long history of threats of drought in California make the big agricultural state a solid testing ground for tech that helps farmers reduce water use without sacrificing production. That’s what venture capital-backed mOasis is counting on as it ships its first product, a polymer that soaks up and releases water into the soil, commercially this week and seeks to raise an $8 million Series B round, the company’s CEO, Steven Hartmeier, told us.

The three-year-old California startup has developed what’s commonly called a hydrogel, which is a polymer that is super absorbent because it can form a tight bond with water molecules. mOasis’s hydrogel is the size of a grain of sand that can swallow up to 250 times its weight in water, said Hartmeier, who joined the company last month.

The idea is that farmers put the hydrogel in the soil while preparing the land for planting. The hydrogel then absorbs excess water during irrigation and releases it when the soil is drying. Using mOasis’s hydrogel could lead to 25 percent higher crop production, 20 percent reduced water use and 15 percent cut in water bills, the company says.

California canal

After running pilot projects with a farmer in California’s Central Valley, mOasis is making its first commercial shipment to a grower this week and is setting up a distributor network to sell its product. Hartmeier declined to disclose the name of its first customer, except that it’s located in west San Joaquin Valley, where growers have seen their water allocations cut dramatically  to 25 percent of the contracted supplies. Earlier this year, the cuts deepened to 20 percent, when the state was getting below-average rain falls.

“There is a big need right now for improving water efficiency, and we are hoping to provide that need,” Hartmeier said.

Technology to help farmers or ranchers use their water, energy and other resources more efficiently has been attracting more attention from both the agricultural community and venture capital investors. Water shortages in parts of the United States (and the world), along with the need to feed an increasing population, form a grand challenge that technology could help to overcome. Examples of ag tech under development include using sensors and software to track and analyze fertilizer use, soil condition changes and crop health.

Hartmeier hopes this growing interest in ag tech will help him raise the $8 million by the end of first quarter next year. mOasis, based in Union City, has raised $4 million since inception and counts The Roda Group as an investor.

The startup’s technology, first developed at Stanford University, solves two shortcomings that have plagued other hydrogels on the market today, Hartmeier said. Existing hydrogels, which are usually not developed for farming but for products such as diapers and underground cable insulation, aren’t meant to last long. Over time, their chemical bonds break down and leave behind environmentally unfriendly remnants.

Central Valley has a long history as a big battleground over water -- how much should go to farms and towns and how much for the wildlife.mOasis has come up with a way to crosslink chemical compounds, and the chief ingredient is potassium polyacrylate, which prolongs the hydrogel’s life and can avoid the undesirable byproducts. The startup’s hydrogel could last at least a year, Hartmeier said. A grower would blend in the hydrogel in the top 2 inches of the soil — 25 pounds of hydrogel would work well for a land the size of a football field.

After the first year, the grower will likely have to apply more hydrogel as s/he turns up the soil to prepare for a new crop season. That causes the previously planted hydrogel to sink deeper into the soil and dilute its effect. Whether a grower should use the same amount of hydrogel year after year, or if he should gradually reduce the amount as the soil becomes more saturated with the product, is something that mOasis plans to find out as it collects more field data from its customers.

The startup is shipping its first-generation product, which absorbs only water. Its second-generation technology would absorb not only more water but also fertilizers and other soil additives, such as enzymes or bio pesticides, said Hartmeier, who was the CEO of a bio pesticide company, Vestaron, before joining mOasis.

mOasis can make the hydrogel with its own equipment for now. It plans to start looking for a manufacturer to supply the hydrogel in 2015. California will be the primary market first, followed by Mexico, where many of our vegetables from winter come from.