Overcoming long-established limitations
Based on the Central Coast of New South Wales, Lowes TC supplies over 100,000 tissue culture (TC) plants to Australian agriculture businesses each week. Among other applications, tissue culture enables growers to use material from an existing plant to create many genetically identical plants. This is especially important when it comes to replicating new or rare varieties of plants with unique traits, such as resistance to plant diseases that threaten crops across the world.
The methods used to tissue culture plants haven’t changed much since the 1960s, limiting how quickly plants can be produced – they are labour intensive and expensive, with little to no automation. Often, it takes years to breed a new crop variety with better disease-resistance, higher yield, or other desirable qualities. Then, the single plant must be multiplied via TC into enough plants to complete further tests, then into far greater quantities for commercial supply. Many years can pass before the new crop begins to reach growers.
Greg Lowe, Lowes TC company founder and Director of Research and Development, was sure that traditional TC processes could be improved to produce better plants, more quickly, and at a lower cost. To help undertake this ambitious project, he looked to CSIRO SME Connect.
Building a better bioreactor
With the help of CSIRO SME Connect facilitator Dave Fleming, Lowes received three innovation grants. Dave identified the most efficient and economical pathway to help Lowes TC overcome the limitations holding TC back.
"Dave realised that what we had was a design challenge, rather than anything else," said Greg. "We'd thought we might need to go into AI, engineering and other areas. But what we really needed was someone who could help us design a better bioreactor and other equipment."
Dave connected Lowes TC with the University of Technology Sydney's (UTS) Integrated Product Design Research team (IPD-R) who set about the task. Using computer-aided design and advanced manufacturing techniques, IPD-R created and tested hundreds of prototyped elements.
"Working with the design team meant that creating the new TC system was all part of one process," said Greg. "Instead of it costing around $40,000 for every prototype we made where we didn't get the design 100 per cent right, the whole prototyping process cost around $50,000 in total."
With facilitation from Dave, Lowes TC and the design team worked together to create an advanced TC system prototype with a new temporary liquid immersion bioreactor. The new system uses liquid media and containers that can be opened to easily access the plants without contamination.
In 2020, Lowes also took part in the Innovate to Grow program for the agricultural and food sectors, further developing a business case to attract partnerships and funding opportunities on the journey towards commercialising the technology.
Stronger crops, produced faster
The new system provides better access to plants in the bioreactor – this means they can be moved much more efficiently and makes it possible for parts of the process to be automated.
Since the initial project, Lowes TC has continued to improve the technology. The company has expanded its research team, been awarded an $888,000 Australian Government grant, and signed a deal with Sugar Research Australia, who intend to use the system for sugarcane.
Using the new patent pending high-health clonal plant propagation (HHCPP) system, Lowes TC achieves hourly production a minimum of ten times that of a traditional TC system. A single staff member can produce an average of 14,000 –30,000+ plants over a workday (depending on plant variety), up from around 1,400 per day. Staff can also adjust conditions for better growth and to harden off plants, so they more easily adapt to outside conditions. This delivers overall healthier plants and reduces the likelihood of customers losing stock of certain sensitive varieties during transition.
In addition to making Australian tissue culture more cost-competitive, the revolutionary new HHCPP system could potentially cut years off current timeframes for providing new disease-resistant crop varieties to growers. Strong crops that aren't susceptible to various pathogens can be crucial to ensuring food supplies for communities around the world. Lowes TC intends to license the technology for a small royalty, so growers around the world can access better crops for enhanced food security. By reducing reliance on imports, the new system could also enhance biosecurity.
Currently, Lowes TC is rolling out the technology across the business to demonstrate it at a commercial scale, as well as trialling enhanced automation processes. The company has already signed 13 research and development collaboration agreements with Australian and international partners across the productive, ornamental and forestry horticultural sectors. These partnerships are opening new markets for Lowes TC – the Australian collaborations alone have a combined annual demand of over 200 million plants per year.
"Pretty much everyone we speak to is interested in the technology," said Greg. "Although sometimes they almost don't seem to believe we can do it – it seems too good to be true. But with the commercialisation grant and partnerships we'll be able to demonstrate the system on a larger scale."
"It would never have happened without Dave and SME Connect," Greg said. "We knew the concept was good, but as a small business we couldn't do it all ourselves. I talk to heaps of growers in the industry who have great ideas that could have real benefits, but without SME innovation programs they'll never get developed."