What’s up with Thomas – the winner of Skolar Award 2019
In 2019 we saw Thomas Hausmaninger pitch his idea about a plant breathalyzer in front of the Slush audience. What has happened to Thomas since, and how has he spent his 100 000 euro Skolar Award?
What has happened with your plant breathalyzer project since you received the Skolar Award?
The Skolar Award gave me the freedom to spend some time on the plant breathalyzer project. The most exciting thing was that we have been able to do the first test measurements at the vertical farm of Robert Jordas.
To do such field measurements already at an early stage helps us to find out how the technology works outside the laboratory. We got a good estimate on how sensitive the plant-breathalyzer needs to be to actually get the information we need. We also received support from the University of Helsinki to analyze gas samples from the vertical farm with a mass spectrometry-based technique that can detect more different gases at once. Using this experience we now can decide how to continue the research.
We also started research on a more fundamental level by measuring the gases emitted by plant cell cultures. Results of such fundamental studies can help analyze the gases emitted from plants grown in greenhouses.
Recently I got granted postdoctoral researcher funding from the Academy of Finland. It is for the development of a method capable of detecting gases at unprecedented low concentrations under field conditions. Developing such an instrument has been a long-time dream for me.
How have you applied your pitching skills after Skolar?
I was happy to share my experience from the pitching competition and the following media contacts at an internal seminar at VTT. I could also apply these skills when writing my funding application for the Academy of Finland. There is of course a big difference between a detailed Academy application and the short and dense research pitch. But in the end, it is about identifying the most important things and communicating your idea in a way so the target audience can understand it.
Have you been interviewed in the media?
One of the first contacts was by Times Higher Education, a magazine targeting specifically the academic community. But I also got contacted by an Austrian newspaper called Salzburger Nachrichten. Then also Reuters made a short video feature about our plant research. This was finally followed by an article in the German edition of MIT Technology Review, that targets the industry.
What have you learned from these media contacts?
It helped a lot to have the experience from the research pitching because there I learned to explain complex concepts to a broad audience. But, I still found it challenging and learned a lot about communication with the media through these interviews.
While most of the things presented in the media turned out well, I also understood how easy it is for some important information to get lost on the way. It is very helpful to be prepared and have a good idea about what you can and want to communicate. I recommend researchers get in touch with the media because it’s the best way to develop your communication skills.
What are your plans for the next 6 months?
I have plans to improve the sensitivity of the plant-breathalyzer prototype and do more measurements in our research greenhouse. I also intend to identify more gases that can be measured to better understand the plants.
What is most critical now in the project?
By getting in contact with greenhouse farmers we have learned a lot about indoor farming and their needs for control and monitoring. By making actual pilot tests we saw the technical and fundamental challenges that still need to be solved.
The interaction between plant nutrition and environmental conditions is still very complex. To create a plant breathalyzer that gives valuable information about the plants, enough different gas species need to be monitored. Our ongoing, more fundamental studies in plant cell cultures will help us to identify the right gas species to monitor.