N-Sense awarded competitive grant from the National Science Foundation

Staff reports
Farm Forum

AMES, Iowa – On Feb. 13, the Iowa State University Startup Factory announced that cohort three team N-Sense, LLC has been awarded a $225,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to conduct research and development (R&D) work on developing a field mobile soil nitrate sensor for precision fertilizer management.

“N-Sense offers a unique solution that would enable farmers to measure nitrates in real-time, on-the-go and apply nitrogen only where it is needed,” N-Sense co-founder and President David Laird said. “It is estimated that our system would result in a $10-$50 per acre savings for farmers, and a cleaner environment for all.”

N-Sense’s system, developed by a team of Iowa State University scientists, is based on mid-infrared sensor technology. It can be attached onto a nitrogen fertilizer applicator and used to modulate side-dress nitrogen (N) fertilizer application rates as the applicator moves through a field.

Laird said, “The key to improving N use efficiency in crop production is applying the right amount of N fertilizer in the right place, at the right time.”

According to Laird, currently less than half the N fertilizer applied to agricultural fields is used by the crops. The remaining N is either leached from the soil or lost to the atmosphere as ammonia, which contributes to air pollution, or as nitrous oxide – potent greenhouse gas. These N losses also represent a tremendous energy inefficiency, as the production of synthetic N fertilizer is the largest energy input in production agriculture.

“Every year, more than twelve million tons of N fertilizer are applied in the United States,” lead principal investigator and CEO Natalia Rogovska said. “Without knowing exactly how much N a crop will use, common farming practice is to apply too much fertilizer rather than too little. Ultimately, the inefficient use of N by crops is a major economic loss for farmers and a serious environmental problem for society.”

Rogovska said the SBIR Phase I project will allow N-Sense to demonstrate the feasibility of building a robust field-mobile soil nitrate sensor which can be used to optimize N fertilizer use.

“We are extremely pleased to be recognized by the NSF with this highly competitive award,” Rogovska said. “This prestigious award will allow us to accelerate our efforts to build and test our soil nitrate sensor, which would make precision N fertilizer management both practical and profitable for farmers while simultaneously reducing the negative off-site environmental impacts of N fertilizer.”

“The National Science Foundation supports small businesses with the most innovative, cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to become great commercial successes and make huge societal impacts,” director of the NSF’s Division of Industrial Innovation and Partnerships Barry Johnson said. “We hope that this seed funding will spark solutions to some of the most important challenges of our time across all areas of science and technology.”

Once a small business is awarded an up to $225,000 Phase I SBIR/STTR grant, it becomes eligible to apply for an up to $750,000 Phase II grant. Small businesses with Phase II grants are eligible to receive up to $500,000 in additional matching funds with qualifying third-party investment or sales.

NSF accepts Phase I proposals from small businesses twice annually in June and December. Small businesses with innovative science and technology solutions, and commercial potential are encouraged to apply. All proposals submitted to the NSF SBIR/STTR program undergo a rigorous merit-based review process. To learn more about America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF, visit:

N-Sense is a member of the Iowa State University Startup Factory’s third cohort of entrepreneurs. The Startup Factory is a 52-week intensive program in the Iowa State University Research Park that provides an avenue for students, faculty, staff and community members to create technology-based, platform businesses. Entrepreneurs in the program receive formal training, resources, and access to a network of business mentors, advisors, counselors, and investors in two 26-week blocks: the first a formal curriculum centered on business validation, and the second, customized to their individual business needs.

“We are grateful for the support received from the ISU Startup Factory program and its vast mentor network,” Rogovska said. “Working within this ecosystem has been an excellent experience – we received guidance, especially from program leaders Bill Adamowski and Kris Johansen, and made vital connections which have helped us focus on our market opportunity and advance our business capabilities.”

N-Sense testing prototype.