Phospholutions: From student project to thriving startup

October 19, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — ­Licensing a technology created in the College of Agricultural Sciences, Penn State startup Phospholutions developed a soil-amendment product called RhizoSorb. The product aims to reduce phosphorus runoff and enhance plant root depth, decreasing the amount of both water and fertilizer needed to have healthy plants.

“We’re alleviating the burden that nutrient pollution puts on our farmers, taxpayers and environment. We create innovative technologies to treat pollution and produce sustainable fertilizers and products to manage nutrients more efficiently,” said Phospholutions CEO and Penn State alumnus Hunter Swisher.

The opportunity to develop RhizoSorb emerged when Swisher was an undergraduate in the plant sciences program. He learned about a patent developed by one of his professors that had not been commercialized yet. He saw market potential and, working with the Penn State Office of Technology Management to license the IP, he set to work developing Rhizosorb and his company, Phospholutions.

The Penn State Summer Founders journey

Swisher credits hard work and Invent Penn State’s support with the team's rapid progress. The company utilized many Penn State entrepreneurial resources as the startup went from ideation to commercial sales. Before they were partners, Swisher and Phospholutions COO Benjamin Nason competed against each other in the Penn State Ag Springboard Competition. Nason won that day, but the experience inspired Swisher to apply for the 2016 Summer Founders Program, a program that gives selected student teams $10,000 to work on their startup, social good or non-profit idea for the summer.

After completing the Summer Founders Program, Phospholutions was accepted into the second Happy Valley LaunchBox FastTrack Accelerator cohort in 2016. The 15-week FastTrack Accelerator program helps entrepreneurs test the market quickly with rapid tests and prototypes and build a solution based on real customer needs and feedback.

“Coming into the program with a technical background and education, the accelerator provided the introduction to entrepreneurship that allowed me to refine an idea from the lab and unlock its value to the customer,” Swisher said of the FastTrack Accelerator. “I felt as if the most useful thing I learned was how to speak with and learn from customers throughout the whole process of taking a technology to market."

The no-cost Penn State Law Entrepreneur Assistance Clinic and the Penn State Law IP Clinic both assisted Phospholutions too. “The entrepreneurship assistance clinic has helped us with everything from setting up the LLC to issuing unit agreements between stakeholders, all of our distribution agreements. The IP Clinic helped us file a provisional patent application, setup our license agreement, trademarked our name — I mean literally everything,” said Swisher. “These Invent Penn State programs give us the unfair advantage we need.”

Also, in 2016, Phospholutions participated in the Ben Franklin Technology Partners TechCelerator at State College. The Ben Franklin TechCelerator offers one-on-one mentoring sessions targeting emerging tech-entrepreneurs from the University and the surrounding community. Ben Franklin has continued to invest in and support Phospholutions, providing HR, accounting, business consulting and other free business resources.

Swisher and Phospholutions used the knowledge and skills they’d acquired from the accelerator programs and mentorship to pitch on the Pennsylvania Technical Assistance Program’s annual Inc.U competition, which culminates in a televised “Shark Tank” style program that airs on WPSU called “The Investment.”

Penn State alumni make product testing possible

Phospholutions also tested Rhizosorb on the Penn State White Course and numerous other golf courses operated by Penn State turf management program alumni across the U.S. The founders knew these tests in real-world conditions would be invaluable to the product development, and Swisher ran down every Alumni Network lead he could find.

Regional, national and global opportunities

Swisher and the Phospholutions team’s hard work has led to several successes. Phospholutions was one of 20 teams selected to participate in the first University Innovation Showcase on Capitol Hill in 2017. In April of this year, Swisher pitched Phospholutions at the 2018 Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference Tech Tournament and won first prize and $75,000. Most recently Phospholutions was invited to present at the 10th Ag Innovation Showcase in St. Louis.

“It was a pretty cool AG Tech event in St. Louis. We were able to pitch at the Ag Showcase, which was sponsored by International Fertilizer Association. They came in from France and brought a number of global leaders in the fertilizer industry with them,” said Swisher.

The environmental story associated with Phospholutions' mission has also attracted a formal partnership with global chemical manufacturer BASF, who assists with product development, commercialization and distribution.

"BASF has been a phenomenal partner throughout the growth of our start-up. They've provided the expertise, connections, and credibility to allow our company to bring our technology to market and grow quickly,” said Swisher.

The future is bright (green)

With five full-time employees and several part-time employees, last month Phospholutions moved to the Penn State Incubator at Innovation Park. The team is close to finishing a successful round of fundraising and is planning to attend the upcoming Golf industry Show in San Diego.

Moving forward, the Phospholutions team is broadening its mission to include retaining, recapturing and recycling nutrients, focusing on transitioning from high-volume fertilizers to high-value fertilizers. The fertilizer industry is trending towards applying precise amounts of fertilizer to be more environmentally and cost conscious. High-value fertilizers, like what Phospholutions provides, are at the forefront of this industry shift.

“We see ourselves as one key component in the industry going green. What the industry has been doing for a long time is applying more and more fertilizer, but we’re moving toward a model where we apply only what we need, when we need it and in the form that’s available,” said Nason.

Last Updated October 29, 2018