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Amin Afzal: The inventor behind Leafy, Ag Springboard winner

Posted: April 23, 2014

Inspired by the life-giving importance of proper water and the dream of creating his own business, graduate student Amin Afzal is perfecting the "Leafy" moisture sensor.
Graduate student and Leafy inventor Amin Afzal

Graduate student and Leafy inventor Amin Afzal

Amin Afzal, who grew up in Iran, knows water makes the difference between life and death. 

Afzal is the inventor of a plant moisture sensor device called “Leafy” and a Ph.D. student in plant science at the College of Agricultural Sciences. His team won the $7,500 top prize at the Ag Springboard business plan competition earlier this month. 

Zayandeh — the name of the river in Afzal’s home city of Isfahan, Iran — means “river of life.” In the last decade, the Zayandeh River has dried to a riverbed, killing its lush green banks. Many farmers can no longer plant their usual crops.

“Water is a big issue in our country,” says Afzal. He has spent much of the last decade in labs, greenhouses and fields in Isfahan and now at Penn State, developing the “Leafy” sensor that attaches directly to a plant leaf and measures its moisture content, to water a plant at the optimum time. 

Water too soon and the farmer will have wasted precious water — and money. Water too late, and the farmer will have damaged the plant and yield — losing money. 

Using technology that measures moisture content directly in the plant leaf, and encased in a plastic clip that does not damage the plant leaf, Afzal’s Leafy device determines the critical moment for irrigation.

Amin Afzal's Leafy plant moisture sensor

The Leafy plant moisture sensor.

Afzal partnered with four MBA students from the Smeal College of Business to develop a business plan to commercialize Leafy and on April 10 they won the Ag Springboard student business competition sponsored by the Entrepreneurship & Innovation Program, and the $7,500 top prize. 

The E&I Program and Ag Springboard competition are sponsored by The Earl & Kay Harbaugh Entrepreneurship Endowment for the College of Agricultural Sciences. 

The Leafy clip encloses circuitry that would send data from the sensor to a central unit in a field, which then communicates in real time with an existing irrigation system to water the crop. The sensors, central unit and irrigation system would all communicate without wires, and the sensors themselves can be powered wirelessly with battery packs or solar cells. 

Ultimately, all of the details can be managed by a smart phone app, says Afzal, who is working on patenting the technology, and on testing his working concept for Leafy in the field. 

“I think this one is good, but always I am modifying my sensor to be the best,” says Afzal, holding the Leafy sensor in a workshop at the Agricultural Sciences and Industries Building. 

At Isfahan University of Technology, Afzal studied electronics and computer programming and worked on project to develop a system for greenhouses to control irrigation, among other factors like temperature, humidity and light. 

He found some moisture sensors on the market, but wanted one that would take a direct measure of moisture in a plant. “After I couldn’t find a proper one I started to think ‘Make your own. It can be an opportunity for you to use in your own system or introduce worldwide,’ ” says Afzal, who in 2007 finished his B.S. in agricultural machinery engineering then worked for two years in a research institute. 

He continued his research and worked with his family to establish a business in Iran in building construction. “I was always thinking to have my own business, especially becoming a technology entrepreneur, which is always my zenith,” says Afzal. 

How did he end up at Penn State? 

“Life is really strange,” says Afzal. His cousin grew up in the U.S., and learned of his research on a visit to Iran. In the summer of 2008, she was an undergraduate psychology student who happened to play soccer with a plant science professor.  

She mentioned Afzal’s research to the professor, Sjoerd W. Duiker, who is now Afzal’s adviser. In fall 2012, Afzal began his Ph.D. work at Penn State. His wife remained in Iran and joined him later.

Afzal's technology is very promising, says Duiker. Current methods to determine irrigation are crude while Afzal's sensor works directly with the plant tissue.

"I believe this sensor could improve water use efficiency considerably," says Duiker. "Water scarcity is already a huge geopolitical issue with agriculture responsible for about 70 percent of world freshwater use. Improvements in water use efficiency will be essential."

Afzal, aware of the potential of his sensor, tapped a friend, Masoud Ghayoumi, an MBA student who recruited colleagues Iqbal Asim, Marcus Cullen and Ankit Mahajan. Afzal and the MBA students analyzed a different aspect of commercializing Leafy — market, distribution, finance and exit strategy — and detailed their results in the team’s Ag Springboard video submission

They estimated the product’s market potential to be more than $1 billion. Their figures included that farmers spend $2.7 billion on irrigation technology and about 20 percent of U.S. farmers use moisture-sensing technology.

Team Leafy after winning Ag Springboard April 10

Team Leafy after winning Ag Springboard April 10: Iqbal Asim, Amin Afzal, Marcus Cullen, Masoud Ghayoumi, Ankit Mahajan

“I learned a lot from my MBA friends on our team,” says Afzal. Their analysis also convinced Ag Springboard’s panel of judges to award them the $7,500 top prize in this year’s competition. 

The next steps to commercialize Leafy, says Afzal, include obtaining a patent on the invention and establishing a company. He does not yet have firm plans for his share of the Ag Springboard prize, but is eyeing an equipment purchase to further develop the technology. 

Afzal’s MBA friends do not have formal roles at this point in a future enterprise built around Leafy — but may assist with future consulting and strategizing, says Afzal.

As he looks to the future — finishing Ph.D. teaching and dissertation work, commercializing a technology that has the potential to help manage water shortages in drought-stricken places like California and Iran — Afzal reflected on the past. He expressed appreciation for the help of professors and people he’s worked at Penn State, the Isfahan University of Technology and the Isfahan Agricultural Research Center. “I acknowledge those guys,” he says.