Accidental discovery leads to technology that could save billions

The route from basic research to innovation can be a long and winding road, but the payoffs can be big. That was the case for one University of Oregon startup, which began with a failure in the laboratory.

Calden CarrollWhen Calden Carroll was a graduate student at the University of Oregon, he worked in the lab of UO chemists Mike Haley and Darren Johnson, who were studying ways to tune the optical properties of molecules to respond to specific species of interest. For example, they had discovered a way to “turn on” a class of compounds when chloride was present, causing them to light up with a green, fluorescent light.

As part of his PhD project, Carroll was working with Haley and Johnson to create a molecular probe to visualize the movement of chloride through cells and other complex media. Instead of activating the chloride like they planned, their experiment caused the nitrate to light up—a big failure for their project.

What Johnson describes as a “very bad day” in the lab could have been the end of the story, but the accidental discovery led to the foundation of a new startup company, SupraSensor. It turns out that visualizing the movement of nitrate was not useless—far from it—and was the potential solution to a $2.4 billion problem facing farmers.

Nitrate is one of the primary components of fertilizer. Without a sensor to monitor nitrate levels in the soil, farmers risk over applying fertilizer to their crops to assure high yields. The excess fertilizer washes off the fields and into nearby streams and rivers where it triggers algal blooms that deplete oxygen levels and create dead zones in the water where nothing can live.

The solution that Carroll, Haley and Johnson stumbled upon became the basis for a new type of wireless sensor that can measure the amount of nitrogen in the soil. The new sensor could potentially reduce the amount of fertilizer applied by 30% or more, saving farmers and growers over $3 billion in fertilizer costs annually while minimizing environmental water pollution and reducing energy demand by more efficiently applying the energy-intensive nutrient.

SupraSensor’s new technology could soon make its way into markets near you.

With help from a new grant worth more than $60,000 from Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, SupraSensor is fast-tracking development to meet the needs of farmers and gardeners across the country.

“We are extremely grateful for the support provided by the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the State of Oregon agencies that have helped us get to this point,” said Johnson. “We plan to scale up our development pathway to get this device in the hands of crop growers and wastewater managers as soon as possible.”