2019-03-01 / Start Here

Making an Environmental Impact

Hunter Swisher, a State College native and Penn State alumnus, is the CEO of Phospholutions, which aims to reduce the negative environmental effects of fertilizer.
by Gabrielle Barone

Photo by Lisa Lotito Photo by Lisa Lotito Hunter Swisher developed an interest in biology and plant science as a student at State College Area High School, taking courses in botany, agroecology and environmental resource management rather than going the more traditional route of studying chemistry or physics. As part of a horticulture course, he showed elementary school students how to grow lettuce.

Today, Swisher, 24, is the CEO of Phospholutions, a company that aims to improve the environment — and fertilizer efficiency in agriculture — with the mineral phosphorus.

Phospholutions’ technology is “based around the idea of being able to capture phosphorus from various sources of pollution,” Swisher says. Phosphorus comes from human and agricultural sources, and the company’s mission is “not only to prevent it from entering the environment, but also capturing it and recycling it back into production as a fertilizer.”

The company, which Swisher says will double in size to 10 full-time employees in the next three months, grew out of a plant nutrition class taught by Dr. Jonathan Lynch that Swisher took at Penn State in 2014. The class learned about the history of fertilizer and ways to fertilize more efficiently. Lynch also talked about the future of fertilizer and technology that he had patented.

That caught Swisher’s attention. He was interested in the technology, and when he found out it wasn’t on the market, he decided to research and write his final paper about it. In doing so, he discovered that no one had licensed the technology’s patents; they were still at Penn State.

Swisher worked with the Penn State Office of Technology Management to license the technology, with the goal of commercializing it. He participated in Invent Penn State’s Summer Founders Program in 2016 and was one of five startup pitches to win a $10,000 prize, which helped to launch his company.

“When people ask me ‘What was the biggest turning point in your life relating to this business?’” he says, “it was absolutely the $10,000 that someone had awarded me to go out and start figuring stuff out.” The money allowed him to focus on doing marketplace research and creating Phospholutions.

Through other accelerator programs with Happy Valley LaunchBox and Ben Franklin Technology Partners, he learned more about how to run a startup — like how to condense his company’s elevator pitch into mere seconds. By the time Swisher graduated in late 2016, he had an official LLC and, soon after, a business partner in Ben Nason, who now serves as Phospholutions’ chief operating officer.

In April 2018, Phospholutions won $75,000 at the Invent Penn State Venture and IP Conference Tech Tournament. The support from Penn State and other investors is allowing Phospholutions to focus on solving a problem.

“We apply $32 billion of fertilizer every year as a country, and research shows that more than 60 percent of it washes away before it’s ever been used by the plant,” he says. On top of that, the United States spends billions of dollars cleaning up phosphorus pollution, he says. “So for us it’s a very big problem, and we’re excited to have a technology that’s a very competitive place in the market.”

Phospholutions’ technology allows stakeholders to offset some of the costs of cleaning up phosphorus pollution by reselling the byproduct fertilizer, which is “proven to be less likely to end up back downstream,” he says.

The company sells a product in the turf and ornamental market, RhizoSorb, which Swisher says can be used to “simply soak up what fertilizer is applied and make sure it stays in the soil until it’s taken up by the plant.” This enhances fertilizer efficiency and can be used to clean up phosphorus and deliver it back to the field. The company also works in other nutrient areas of environmental and agricultural sciences, like crop and animal management and water management.

“Our current commercial product lines are traditionally around the idea of enhancing fertilizer efficiency and making sure it doesn’t wash away,” he says, “but our company’s overall technology and mission really lies in actually cleaning it up and recycling it.”

Swisher does a lot of work on day-to-day operations, but he also tries to “paint the vision” of the company and help people work toward it. “I find it extremely exhilarating to be able to do that,” he says. “I think that my passion lies in really trying to figure out how we bring this technology into the marketplace and solve problems, really big problems, related to the environmental impact of fertilizer.” •SCM

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