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Planting the Seeds


Co-founder and CEO Dan White


Dan White calls it “turning back the clock on decomposition of food and seeds.”

That’s how he chose to describe the technology created by Clean Crop Technologies, a Holyoke-based company that has become one of the foundations of that city’s emerging cleantech and greentech sector and one of the more intriguing regional entrepreneurial success stories in recent years.

Elaborating, White said there have long been technologies that will prevent the decomposition that results from molds, fungi, toxins, and pathogens that attack seeds and crops. But until recently — in fact, until the technology developed by the team at Clean Crop — there was little if anything to reverse that decomposition, or turn back the clock, as he put it, once those foods were in the supply chain.

Getting more specific, he said that, when it comes to seeds, which have increasingly become the company’s focus, Clean Crop has been able to address a long-standing tradeoff when it comes to addressing decontamination.

“You can choose between killing the contaminant, and in so doing harm the germination of the seed, or you can make sure you have vigorous seeds, but not be able to kill everything,” he explained. “What we focus on at Clean Crop is developing our Clean Current technology to solve the tradeoff; we’re targeting applications where we can achieve the same or better decontamination as things like hot water and chemical treatments, but without harming germination in the process.”

In simple terms, the company is using a high-voltage cold-plasma technology to revolutionize food safety, and it’s doing it in downtown Holyoke in space that was once a paper mill, helping that city build what could be called a cluster of cleantech businesses, while further diversifying the region’s business community and perhaps laying the tracks for more businesses of this type.

“What we focus on at Clean Crop is developing our Clean Current technology to solve the tradeoff; we’re targeting applications where we can achieve the same or better decontamination as things like hot water and chemical treatments, but without harming germination in the process.”

This is an inspiring story, with chapters that have played out in Pennsylvania, where White developed an affection for agriculture and a desire to make it a career; in sub-Saharan Africa, where he would meet eventual partner Dan Cavanaugh and develop a passion for solving a problem that until then lacked a solution; in Iowa, where the partners would meet and then collaborate with Kevin Keener on new technology and a company to refine it and put it to practical use; in the Boston venture-capital market, where $3 million would be secured to bring the concept to the next stage; at UMass Amherst (and its Institute of Applied Life Sciences); and in a small office in Northampton, where the partners built a core technical team and proof of concept.

And now, in Holyoke, where the company, recently named among TIME magazine’s Top Greentech Companies of 2024, landed amid a search for clean energy (Holyoke boasts hydropower), needed space, and a landlord sympathetic to the needs and challenges of startup ventures (read: a shorter-term lease). There, Clean Crop is now deep into the process of scaling up, building its team, telling its story — there have many visitors to the site for tours as well appearances by the principals on several agriculture-related podcasts — and writing the next chapters.

Putting the problem of contamination into perspective, White said the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that roughly 30% of crops are lost in farmers’ fields every year to a wide range of toxins, pathogens, molds, and pests, with this loss quantified at $220 billion. And while the monetary loss, not to mention the huge loss of food to the supply chain, gets plenty of attention, what doesn’t is the fact that this crop loss is also a huge driver of greenhouse-gas emissions.

“These same contaminants, both on farm and in the supply chain, result in a lot of food being wasted,” he explained. “And as food waste decomposes, it generates methane, which is more than 50 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

Thus, Clean Crop Technologies is addressing several problems at once, from increasing the amount of food eventually reaching the table to reducing those harmful greenhouse gases.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Clean Crop, a budding enterprise that provides both food for thought when it comes to technology and its ability to solve some of the world’s bigger problems and more food for the table.


A Growing Venture

White grew up in Gettysburg, Pa., a farming region heavily populated by apple orchards. In high school, he started working at a friend’s family orchard and “fell in love with agriculture.”

“I wound up working for them for a few years in high school and college, and ended up spending most of my career working overseas,” he said, adding that he lived in Beirut, Lebanon for some time trying to get a hydroponic industry up and running there.

But he spent most of his career in sub-Saharan Africa, helping U.S.-based companies that were developing promising technologies to enable farmers and supply-chain operators to build market share.

For example, he worked with a South Dakota-based company that developed a biostimulant that allowed farmers to grow the same amount of crops while using less fertilizer.

“As food waste decomposes, it generates methane, which is more than 50 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.”

“They were interested in their applications for corn, bean, and other crop producers in Africa, and had no idea how to get it to market,” White explained. “So I helped them develop a go-to-market plan and figure out the regulatory pathways, and now they’re commercially active in six different countries on the continent and doing quite well.”

It was during that time that he met Cavanaugh, who was working as a commercial manager for Cargill in East Africa, handling all its trading in corn and oil seed commodities.

“He really learned the post-harvest side of the business,” said White, adding that it was a venture that Cavanaugh set up that eventually laid the groundwork, pun intended, for Clean Crop.

“He was tasked with establishing a peanut mill in Mozambique, which today basically just exports all its peanuts as farmer stock to South Africa, with very little value,” he explained. “The original thesis was that, if you have a mill that would be able to do that primary processing for the peanuts in Mozambique, you could then extract more value from the export market, exporting them as grade-A processed peanuts rather than the raw farm stock.

“That ended up failing because of a wide range of things, including pathogens and toxins that are common not just to peanuts but a lot of other food categories as well,” White went on. “Once they’re in the supply chain, there’s very few tools to solve them.”

Fast-forwarding a little, White and Cavanaugh essentially went about creating such technology.

“There’s a lot of ways to prevent contamination by these pathogens; there’s a lot of ways to mitigate or exclude food that’s been contaminated from the supply,” White explained. “But there were very few tools that we were aware of that could actually turn back the clock on contamination that was safe and that would keep that food in the supply chain.”

This reality led them down a rabbit hole as he and Cavanaugh looked at many different technologies in this space that held promise, including UV light, and eventually met Keener, then a professor at Iowa State University.

“Our long-term vision is that we want our machines to be operating in every seed-processing facility globally as the first line of defense in crop loss.”

“We read a lot of his papers and actually built a prototype of the technology we’re using today from schematics he had put in one of his publications,” White recalled. “And it worked, or seemed to work, and that was good enough for us to go out and meet him and visit his lab, and we started Clean Crop with him in early 2019.”

Early-stage work was focused primarily on the peanut industry, he said, adding that, when the technology was validated, a machine was taken to a peanut sheller in Georgia that was interested in piloting it. That pilot went well, he said, adding that the peanut company essentially said to come back when the machine was a thousand times bigger.

The partners agreed, but knew the pathway to commercialization involved several smaller levels of scaling before getting to that point. In the meantime, starting in the spring of 2021, they started exploring several other markets — everything from other high-value nuts to shelf-life extension for ground beef, seafood, and dairy products, and, eventually seeds.


Seed Money

Explaining the technology in somewhat simple terms, White said Clean Crop combines food-grade gases and electricity to create cold plasma, thus inactivating a broad spectrum of contaminants from seed surfaces in a dry, automated, and residue-free process.

Seeds travel through a hopper in a class-7 clean room and onto a proprietary conveyance mechanism where they then get exposed to the Clean Current ionized gases and are decontaminated before moving on for further processing. At present, the technology can process 25 pounds of seed per hour.

The seeds are shipped to Holyoke, where they are processed, bagged aseptically, and shipped back to customers, who are charged a flat fee per pound. These customers come in two categories — growers, especially those in the greenhouse, micro-green, and sprouts markets that are concerned about molds, but also food-safety risks; and also seed companies, specializing mostly in high-value vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower, radishes, and others.

“One of the most compelling reasons that we moved here, long-term, is the municipal hydro dam.”

The goals moving forward are to expand that customer base, scale up operations, grow market share, and eventually sell the machines to customers.

“Right now, we only have one machine operating, but we’re looking to significantly expand our capacity this year,” said White, adding that the company has a large backlog of work. “Our goal this year is to scale our operations to absorb as much of that demand as possible and get our machines out into the world to customer facilities.

“Our long-term vision is that we want our machines to be operating in every seed-processing facility globally as the first line of defense in crop loss,” he went on. “To get there … it’s a non-trivial challenge to develop not just the manufacturing side of a company, but the company success. To be able to support a remote set of machines is a challenge, one that we want to grow into once we figure out the supply chain.”

Elaborating, White said the company, which is still in what he calls phase 1 of its development, will bring a second machine online in the near future, greatly increasing its capacity for serving customers, and scaling from there, bringing several machines with much larger capacities online. The goal is to have machines in at least 50 seed processors around the world by 2030, giving Clean Crop perhaps 10% of the global market and $100 million in annual revenues.

Doing all that will take capital, he said, adding that the company is well-capitalized and is committed to staying, and growing, in Holyoke, with opportunities to expand in its current space and into other space nearby if the need arises, while taking advantage of the city’s abundant and comparatively inexpensive green energy.

“One of the most compelling reasons that we moved here, long-term, is the municipal hydro dam,” he explained. “We have some of the cheapest commercial electricity rates in the state, and as an electro-chemical solution, that’s one of the main variable costs we’re going to have as we scale, and we see that as an enormous asset.”

It’s an asset that could attract other companies in this emerging realm as well, he went on, citing the pending arrival of Sublime Systems, a producer of low-carbon cement, as another sign that Holyoke’s inexpensive power and other selling points are turning heads.

“We see this as a real opportunity, not just with us, but with a range of other companies coming out of the Greater Boston ecosystem that are really going to drive this next wave of industrial decarbonization,” White said. “There’s an opportunity for Holyoke to be a leading space for the next milestone of scale-up for those companies coming out of Greentown Labs and MIT. The city happens to have this tremendous advantage of having a carbon-free, economically competitive energy source as well as a lot of underutilized industrial space.”

Meanwhile, the company is working to ensure that it has sufficient talent to meet its future goals, partnering with Springfield Technical Community College on an initiative to create a pipeline of technicians for the years to come.


Bottom Line

Whether Holyoke does, indeed, attract other greentech companies, and whether Clean Crop reaches the lofty goals it has set for the coming years, remain to be seen.

But for now, the company is already making its mark when it comes to the global issue of seed health, and helping to put Holyoke on the map as a potential home for companies in this sector.

This is a company, and a story, that bears watching as the seeds it has already planted continue to bear many different kinds of fruit.