Startup Spotlight #81 SOYL-GEL

December 9, 2021

Thomas Malthus stated, 3 centuries ago, that sources grow arithmetically while the population grows exponentially. That would result in a disaster as the population reached around 6B by the end of the 20th cc from less than 2 billion at the beginning of the last century. His predictions didn’t meet because of technological advancements in food production and health. However, the world population faces the issue of making use of the sources efficiently and sustainably as climate change, sustainability concerns, and some political challenges arise. This creates the need for smarter processes and infrastructures while producing our food to lead and sustain our lives, which makes agritech solutions vital for sustainable growth in the world. That’s why Hackquarters holds several programs around these concerns: Sustainable Growth Program with HSBC, G4A Program with Bayer (which includes a crop science section, too), and WorkupAgri with İş Bank. Our startup spotlight guest this week is SOYL-GEL which is G4A 2020 Alumni and now part of the WorkupAgri Program. Soy Agriculture Technologies produces SOYL-GEL, an agricultural superabsorbent polymer (SAP) used as a sub-soil reservoir and supplies water to plants for prolonged times. It slowly releases micro-nutrients and plant protective materials that are essential for soil and plant health. By absorbing agro-chemicals already applied to and dissolved in soil, SOYL-GEL keeps them near the root area for longer and enhances their efficacy. From natural nanotubes present in its nanocomposite structure, SOYL-GEL releases water, fertilizers, and necessary pesticides that are just enough for target crop products. This way, SOYL-GEL prevents the excessive use of natural sources and alleviates environmental pollution.

Tell us about your team

Soy-Gel Company currently has a team of four employees. Three of them are the founding partners of the company, and one person joined the team in February 2021 as a production scaling and business development specialist. Our co-founder, Dr. Senem Seven completed her doctorate degree at Sabancı University in 2017 and since then she has been working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at Sabanci University Integrated Manufacturing Technologies Research and Application Center (SU-IMC). Since the early years of her BSc studies, she has been a part of research groups and has focused on various fields of Materials Science and NanoEngineering including theoretical investigations of macromolecules, polymer processing, nanomaterials preparation and modification, microfabrication. Co-founder Ogeday Rodop comes from a materials engineering background with previous research focused on aluminum and magnesium alloy development. His current research is on active molecule loading on natural clay nanotubes. The third co-founder Yeşim Menceloğlu has a bachelor's in Chemical Engineering from Yıldız Technical University. She has comprehensive experience in synthesis and swelling behavior investigation of super absorbent polymers, production of super absorbent fibers by electrospinning, and preparation of polymer composites. She has been working on polymer composites, polymer synthesis, and renewable energy source application areas since her BSc thesis. She has started her entrepreneurial career with Soylgel in 2019 as a co-founder. Today, she has been carrying out her academic studies and entrepreneurship journey together. Finally, Hatice İlgen joined the SOYL-GEL team as a production scaling&business development specialist, in February 2021. Hatice has graduated from Anadolu University Materials Science & Engineering department in 2017. She has started to master education at Mimar Sinan University of Fine Arts in the Department of Building Physics in 2019. She continues her research on the use of hydrogels in the building industry.

When and why did you found your startup?

Funded by techno-initiative capital fund TUBITAK, Soy Agriculture Technologies is a university spin-off established in Sabanci University laboratories. Our business idea actually first emerged during the traffic of Istanbul, when our founding partner Senem Seven and Mustafa Çakır-one of the TTO team of our university- set off for a meeting about another start-up (INSEASE) founded by Senem. Since the traffic dragged on for a long time, they have started to discuss the commercialization of the SAPs (super absorbent polymer), and after a while, SOYL-GEL, as it is today, emerged. Many countries around the world are struggling with water scarcity and more of them are expected to encounter the same problem in the coming years. It is known that 70% of global water consumption originates from agriculture. In some developing countries, this ratio rises up to 95%. So, this is an extremely critical issue, not only for the agricultural sector but also for the future sustainable food supply mechanisms. On the other hand, during the last 30 years, food production has increased by more than 100%; and FAO estimates that about 60% more food will be needed by 2050 to meet the food requirements of a growing global population. So, we foresee that our business idea will easily find a place in the market in the coming years.

What are your key and unique features?

SOYL-GEL is a super absorbent polymer incorporated with pesticide and fertilizer loaded with natural clay nanotubes. To obtain higher swelling capacities in water and in ionic media, we have developed a triblock copolymer with a self-crosslinking structure, through a water-based synthesis process. Owed to its nanocomposite structure, when swollen, SOYL-GEL is mechanically more robust than regular hydrogels and can retain its shape better under the soil. Nano additives substantially extend water release durations, up to ten times longer compared to commercial hydrogels. Moreover, nano additives in SOYL-GEL improve reswelling ability. Currently, there are several hydrogels used in agriculture; however, these absorb and release only water. Our product is innovative, and superior compared to other hydrogels, because it has enhanced water retention capabilities in the ionic environment, and it can supply fertilizers and pesticides with water, to replenish soil nutrients and protect plants.

Tell us about the numbers that matter to you 

Agriculture uses 70% of freshwater, globally. Fertilizers and pesticides are the necessary evils of farming, which maintain nutrients in the soil, and fight pests; but current practices use them excessively. In the last 10 years, 2.5 million hectares of cultivated agricultural land in Turkey have lost their function due to excessive use of chemicals, drought, and urbanization. Therefore, agriculture is also the biggest polluter of water. Hydrogels can decrease water demand up to 50% and increase crop yields by 20 to 30%. SOYL-GEL's primary target market is cereal fields around the world. Cereals are the most produced plant group in the world and in our country. Cereals are produced in 217 million hectares of land in the world. About half of this is wheat fields. 3% of the world's wheat production areas are in Turkey, and this plant group is fed directly by seasonal precipitation without irrigation. In Turkey, where precipitation regimes have become irregular due to climatic change; we foresee that SOYL-GEL can have a share in this market as much as the fertilizers currently used, with the necessary advertising and promotional activities.

What are your plans for the next year and the next 5 years?

SOYL-GEL is currently at TRL 7, with the prototype currently being tested in the intended environment. Our short-term goals include scaling up the production to pilot scale and completing greenhouse & field trials. Our long-term goals include the market integration of SOYL-GEL segments, intended to initiate in mid-2022. A team of sales and marketing will be constructed at the beginning of 2022. The market integration is intended to kick off through online sales. By the year 2023, we plan to perform the mass production of SOYL-GEL by purchasing one reactor (1 ton of solution capacity), followed by two more reactors in 2024. SOYL-GEL is an academic startup with founders actively engaged in materials research and development. When we look at the agricultural hydrogel producers in the international market, we cannot say that there is a certain company in the market with high brand value and widely accepted reliability. Although hydrogels are used in agricultural applications, they are still a product group with low awareness among consumers and their use is not as common as fertilizers with different functions. As SOYL-GEL team, we aim to be a reliable company by providing high-quality product service in national and international markets. The drought level, which has increased in our country and in some parts of the world in recent years, causes various irrigation difficulties and increasing costs in agriculture. In recent years, ministries, municipalities, private organizations, and associations invite people to be sensitive to the water crisis we will face in the near future and to save water, by using various media channels. As SOYL-GEL team, we are aware that the service we will start to provide in the next few years has a social responsibility aspect. While trying to increase productivity for farmers, we will also fight against the pollution of our water resources. We believe that sustainable agricultural policies should be implemented as soon as possible.

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