A startup supported by FAPESP is developing a fertilizer that extends the shelf life of roses and keeps them healthy (image: Enio Prado/Wikimedia Commons)

Nanotechnology can help producers extend shelf life of flowers

04 de junho de 2024

By Roseli Andrion  |  FAPESP Innovative R&D – Researchers at N&P, a startup based in Araraquara, São Paulo State (Brazil), began four years ago to develop a formulation with nanoparticles that extends the shelf life of citrus fruit. In the process, however, they discovered that flowers offer a better opportunity.

Having talked to specialists at FAPESP, which supports N&P’s project via its Innovative Research in Small Business Program (PIPE), they decided to pivot to the flower industry and have now successfully brought a nanoparticle-based fertilizer to market.

The process began during PIPE Stage 1 when a flower co-op heard about the solution and invited the startup to test it on their farm. “This enabled us to validate the solution directly in the field with a producer. We moved ahead as a result and put the product on the market,” says Maicon Segalla Petrônio, co-founder and scientific director of N&P.

After three years of tests, the scientists arrived at the current product, a fertilizer combined with a broad-spectrum antimicrobial and a ripening inhibitor that nourishes plants and extends their shelf life.

“The original product we developed for the project was for post-harvest treatment. It’s still being tested. During the development process, we became aware of the need for a solution to help manage and strengthen flowers,” says Ana Carolina Nazaré, co-founder and CEO of N&P. “This product enhances the post-harvest quality of roses.”

The researchers stressed the importance of FAPESP’s support throughout the process. “We came from academia. We know how to solve problems in the lab. We didn’t train to be entrepreneurs,” Petrônio says.

Nazaré agrees. “We had to learn all about the business dimension of the firm. We were proficient in the science. We were told to ‘get out of the building and into the market to find out what customers need’. That was very rewarding because we had planned to develop a product that extended the shelf life of fruit but it wasn’t what the market wasn’t looking for,” she recalls.

Similar formulations can be developed for other segments. “We’ve reached a point where it’s no longer a research and development project. We’ve brought a product to market,” Nazaré says.

“And this first product will create opportunities for others. The next step is to offer an option for fruit, and another for fruit and vegetables,” Petrônio adds.

Generally speaking, the N&P team is experienced in the use of pharmaceutical techniques to combat crop diseases and deploy drug development methods to create formulations for the agricultural sector. “We thought up a way to use an active ingredient more intelligently so that the plant absorbs it, for example,” Petrônio says. “I led a project in collaboration with EMBRAPA [the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation] to develop RNA interference nanocarriers for tomato and strawberry diseases, for example. On that basis, I realized I could use nanotechnology to develop formulations with little environmental impact.”

Flowers stay fresh for longer

According to Nazaré, the solution makes producers’ lives easier in logistical terms. “Extending shelf life is key, because in general they sell flowers for events and need them to stay fresh for longer. Flowers are perishable, of course, and our solution gives producers confidence that they won’t have to throw flowers away during an event,” she says.

Flower shelf life varies according to the variety and time of year. “In initial trials, our product made roses last 25 days in cold storage, instead of the usual seven to ten days,” Nazaré says.

“Integration with management of fungi, bacteria and viruses also assures optimal flower quality. We visit producers to see how they do this and then demonstrate our product. They can see how much prettier and fresher it makes rose petals,” Petrônio explains. “We also market it to growers of minor crops, who have smaller plantations and aren’t usually offered products of this kind, but represent BRL 19.9 billion [now about USD 3.7 billion] per year, according to the Brazilian Floriculture Institute [IBRAFLOR].” The startup will analyze the possibility of working with value-added varieties as soon as the product is validated.

After-sales are easier for growers when flowers last longer. “They get fewer complaints and returns. Losses, such as having to re-deliver in a hurry, are avoided, and customer loyalty is reinforced by the high quality, leading to repeat business,” Nazaré says.

The startup is testing the product on plantations of roses, Gypsophila (baby’s breath), tulips and carnations, as well as potted varieties, such as violets. “Dosage may need to be adjusted for these ornamental plants,” Nazaré says.

“The co-op provided strong support for our sales and marketing. They performed tests and quality control, and showed us that the product really works,” Petrônio says.

The startup is currently negotiating with a co-op in Holambra (São Paulo state), the largest production center for flowers and ornamental plants in Latin America, to have them distribute the product. “Partnering with third parties has enabled us to scale up production, and we’re using the same approach for distribution. We’re an R&D lab, and we need these partners to grow the business,” Nazaré says.

As soon as the post-harvest solution is ready and approved by the regulators, the firm can offer it for use on ornamental plants. “We’ll get a huge sense of achievement from seeing our product being used by the growers we were concerned about at the start of the project,” she says.

Fruit not forgotten

The firm has not abandoned the plan to create a solution for fruit. “Our project has two tracks. Developing the product for flowers proved to be the faster, and on that basis, we were able to move forward, create the solution, and at the same time make significant progress on testing the product for fruit. We’re currently testing three antimicrobial formulations. We may have a fungicide in future,” Nazaré says.

Finding partners for tests on fruit is harder. “We’re experiencing a certain amount of difficulty with testing of this solution, perhaps because of pricing, or the reason could be timing, as fruit is moved very fast. We’ve managed to test it in the lab and partner firms, but most growers have so far refused to let us in,” she says.

The exception is a mango grower. “He offered part of the plantation to do testing. We confirmed the results of lab tests on his mango trees, and were also able to determine the right time and technique for application,” she says. “We’ve made progress, but we still have a long way to go before we can launch the product for fruit.”

The team has made many contacts and called on growers, according to Petrônio, but continues to come up against reluctance to let them do tests. “So for now we’ll keep going with flowers. When a grower allows us to test the products we’re developing for fruit, I believe the results will be very good, given the success we had with the mango grower,” he says.

The scientists are prospecting for opportunities by taking part in a mentoring program run by SEBRAE (Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service, a nonprofit organization) and in discussion groups on aspects of agribusiness.

“We participate in various initiatives that put us in touch with producers. Although they don’t always agree to let us do tests, we now have a communication channel. They should soon hear about the flower tests, and maybe then they’ll be interested in tests on their fruit,” Nazaré says.