VitalFluid keeps crops healthy with disinfecting 'lightning water'

10 November 2023 9:00

For years, Paul Leenders worked on air filtration systems, for example for International Space Station ISS. When he started working with plasma technology, he had a Eureka moment: via TU Eindhoven, he started working with plasma water, which turned out to be a sustainable alternative for watering crops. 'It has the same fertile effect as a thunderstorm,' says Leenders. Now he is director of VitalFluid, a company that develops "lightning water" and thus contributes to making the agricultural sector more sustainable.

Een man bij het bedrijf van VitalFluid

Introduction to plasma technology

'As a chemical analyst, I worked on air filtration systems for the ISS,' Leenders says. 'Later I was asked to research technologies to sterilize air. This is how I was introduced to plasma technology. With this technology, you can thoroughly disinfect air or surfaces. The plasma phase is the fourth chemical phase in which substances can exist, in addition to solid, liquid and gas. In the plasma phase, molecules disintegrate and the resulting particles acquire an electrical charge. Just like lightning. If you bring that activated air into contact with water, the reactivity passes into it.’ And that was Leenders' Eureka moment.

The benefits of plasma water

Leenders: 'The problem with plasma-activated air is that these gasses can be harmful. You don't want to inhale those. That's not the case with plasma water. You can even store it. I immediately thought: that is ideal for spraying crops. After all, it has the same fertile effect as a thunderstorm.' Leenders reached out to Wageningen University & Research. A group of students tested the plasma water on flowers from the supermarket. 'They discovered that flowers in plasma water last three days longer than in tap water. A great result! It significantly reduces the use of chemical pesticides and offers a sustainable alternative to artificial fertilizer.'

Een foto van het magazijn van het bedrijf VitalFluid

Funding for research

Leenders thought the discovery was special enough to start a company around it: VitalFluid. From 2013 to 2017, he completed some necessary research, then the company really took off. 'That's also when Rabobank came into the picture. I applied for an innovation loan and was allowed to pitch the concept. The jury saw potential in the idea, so we qualified for the loan: a substantial amount of € 150,000. Our company is all about research and development to develop techniques and applications around plasma water. That's how we used the money from the initial funding.'

Growth to a mature company

Michel Ziekman, Startup & Scale-up Banker, is supporting VitalFluid on behalf of Rabobank. Ziekman: ‘When VitalFluid came to us for the innovation loan, we reached out to our sector specialists to to understand what the the innovation entailed. Is it really groundbreaking? Is it scalable? What does the future revenue model look like? And will the payment system be interesting for us in the long run? We were all incredibly positive and fully supportive of the idea. After the innovation loan, we were able to secure follow-up financing together with the Brabantse Ontwikkelings Maatschappij (BOM) and VDL Groep. This enabled VitalFluid to raise an additional € 4 million in funding from investors. This is how we help them grow step by step into a mature company.'

Rabobank supports VitalFluid primarily in arranging finances. But they’re also of help when it comes to insurance. Ziekman: 'Companies in the startup phase often find it difficult to determine what they need to insure and what risks they face. For VitalFluid, there is also the added factor of dealing with lightning. It is an innovation, so there is no existing company to reference. Therefore, our insurance advisors also assisted in securing the appropriate insurance policies.'

Rabobank network

‘That Rabobank is already taking these steps with VitalFluid is unique,’ says Ziekman. ‘VitalFluid is not yet on the market. They are in a phase where they mainly conduct pilots and do not generate commercial revenue. With the support of our network in Food & Agri, we also ensure that they gain name recognition. Soon, Paul and I have an appointment with our Director of Food & Agri in the East Brabant region to see if we can also establish a foothold in the rest of the world.’

“Rabobank really gives us the feeling that they stand behind us. It's not just about numbers.”

That support is also noticeable at Leenders. 'It's great that Rabobank occasionally puts us in the spotlight. You notice that it also works for us. When they share something about us, we really see the visitor numbers skyrocket. We are proud to be able to showcase some of our work. It really gives us the feeling that they are behind us. It's not just about numbers.

Puzzling to reduce agricultural toxins

With the help of Rabobank, VitalFluid can continue to invest in research on plasma water. The timing for this is very good. Leenders says, ‘We all want to move away from agricultural pesticides; by 2030, pesticide use should be reduced by half. We don't have the solution to that, but we can contribute to it. Growers and industry organizations also see the urgency. So they welcome us with open arms. We test with various products such as potatoes, cucumbers, leeks, and roses. Our partners are experts, not just in technology, but in crop cultivation, greenhouse design, and plant disease treatment. It's a big puzzle that we have to solve, but we work on it with passion.’

Find out which funding is right for your company

Does your startup or scale-up also need financing? Rabobank offers various financing products and innovation funds for sustainable growth in every stage of development.

Find out which type of financing is right for you.

Does your startup or scale-up also need financing?

Rabobank offers various financing products and innovation funds for sustainable growth in every stage of development.