Texas Tech University

NSF I-Corps Team's Cotton Innovation a Startup Cash Crop

Innovation Hub Team

November 18, 2019

Fiber Quality Innovations leverages Texas Tech University research on cotton measurement methods

A team of Texas Tech University agriculture researchers can't do anything about the uncertainties of the weather, but they have come up with something that could help cotton farmers get more money for their crops. Doctoral students Abu Sayeed and Zach Hinds and Plant and Soil Science Department assistant professor Brendan Kelly are in the process of forming a startup based on a patented, more comprehensive method of evaluating cotton fiber quality. The team, called Fiber Quality Innovations, participated in the regional NSF I-Corps program at the Innovation Hub and completed the national level I-Corps program this summer.

Innovation with industry impact

Kelly says, "This method using an algorithm developed in the lab provides a way to better evaluate the quality characteristics of cotton fiber. There's potential for this technology to significantly improve the quality of the measurement itself, and therefore bring higher prices for farmers, without slowing down the current testing time."  Wylie Bomar, the team's industry mentor, knows from experience that the measurement of fiber quality in the United States has a big impact. He says, "Every U.S. cotton farmer raises higher quality cotton than ever before. They're not making more money for it because they're still getting the same commodity prices they got 20 or 40 years ago. A more comprehensive measurement system like this could really help farmers and everybody else in the industry."

Samples from the 20 million U. S. cotton bales produced on average each year are measured on an instrument that determines each bale's overall fiber quality. Those measurements follow the bales through the production chain process and factor into the price it fetches along the way. Within each bale, there are varying differences in fiber length and other important characteristics. As a raw material, variations in cotton quality can result in imperfections in textiles made from it. Sayeed says, "Currently there is one fast measuring instrument used in the United States, but it doesn't measure all the fiber quality values. Using our innovation brings the power to identify those. That can help industry make better yarn and other products, help cottonseed breeders target higher-quality varieties, and help farmers produce high-quality cotton."

NSF I-Corps to Startup

Through the regional and national NSF I-Corps programs, the Fiber Quality Innovations team conducted more than 110 customer discovery interviews with seed breeders, farmers, ginners, cotton market merchants, mill owners, fashion industry leaders, and retailers from several countries. Hinds says, "There are a lot of things we're able to do in the lab that doesn't always translate into something that can be used in an industry setting. I-Corps has helped us move forward and see what could potentially become a company from our research findings." Sayeed is from Bangladesh, a country that's home to many of the world's spinning mills. He says as an international doctoral student scientist, the NSF I-Corps program was a unique experience. "We're lab-focused Ph.D. students who had no knowledge about business. There I was in I-Corps, out in front for the team, talking with a variety of industry people far outside of academia. It taught us by experience what the industry needs are. Through that customer discovery process, we gained different perspectives as well as ideas that could generate new research projects."

"From here, it's possible"

The Fiber Quality Innovations team plans to form a company after the students finish their doctoral program next semester. The members say they've learned a lot about themselves, entrepreneurship, and hustle through their NSF I-Corps experience. Kelly says, "At Texas Tech, we're always trying to create opportunities for students to succeed. Just one of the exciting things about being involved with these two students is getting to see something in the lab making an impact in the industry. These types of experiences also give something for graduate students in the lab and students in the classroom to look forward to. They know they can pursue a degree, do research they can apply and build a company around, and create real opportunity for themselves."