Self-sufficiency for domestic rice needs is the ultimate goal of the Malaysian government (Photo: Angela Seven)
Although Malaysia relies on imports for a large portion of its food supply, the government is committed to a high level of self-sufficiency in major food products, one of which is rice. Despite its minor role in the economy (less than 1% of GDP), by 2007 rice production in the country met over 70% of domestic demand. However, due to increased urbanization, land available for cultivation has been in a steady decline. Aspiring to increase rice yield in the face of decreasing arable land, in the late 1990s the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture set a goal to utilize new technology to increase rice paddy yield so the country can meet up to 90% of domestic demand by 2015.
One of the major problems facing rice farmers in Malaysia is that the water used during sowing and harvesting can easily become contaminated. Farmers also face a deluge of weeds, which bring diseases along with them. In addition, the rice fields are susceptible to rodents that eat seedlings and further contaminate the water. These factors significantly lower the yield of each field, and also bring with it the possibility of increased health problems. In 1999, researchers at the Agricultural Faculty of Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), one of the country’s foremost research institutions, were thus tasked with developing a new technology that would reduce water contamination, help to rid fields of weeds and increase rice paddy yield.
In order to meet the government’s target, researchers at UMP teamed up with Diversatech (M) Sdn. Bhd. (Diversatech), a prominent Malaysian agricultural company. The research team determined that their research and development (R&D) would have to result in a technology that could at least increase the average domestic rice yield to approximately 6.87 tons per hectare (t/h), which represents a 38.5% increase over conventional technology. The researchers decided that, in order to achieve even greater results and compensate for any unforeseen challenges, R&D would first concentrate on reaching a yield of 8 t/h and then later a yield of 10 t/h.
In conventional methods, after every harvest the rice paddy field is flooded to soften the soil. This enables easy plowing, which is done after the water has receded. After plowing, water is reintroduced into the field at a depth of one centimeter to sow new seeds. At this stage rodents and birds can quickly infest the field, which reduces yield by up to 30%. In addition, weeds start to grow rapidly and without proper management can further reduce the yield by up to 75%. While increasing the water depth to a level greater than one centimeter would inhibit rodent and weed infestation, it would also cause the soil to become anaerobic (devoid of oxygen), and thus unfavorable for seed germination. Furthermore, standing water at greater depths causes a reduction or complete loss of seeds or new sprouts. Therefore simply increasing the water level is not an option. In general, using conventional methods, seed germination is achieved for approximately 65% of those seeds planted.
However, if the negative effects of increasing the water depths could be countered, many of the aforementioned problems rice farmers face in Malaysia could be solved. With these considerations in mind, the researcher’s R&D focused on developing a technology that would allow the sowing of rice paddy seeds submersed in deeper water. In 2001 their work came to fruition with the development of Zap PadiAngim (ZAPPA®), a specially formulated seed germination enhancer.
Harvesting is made easier with ZAPPA (Photo: Julien Lagarde)
ZAPPA consists of hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid and formaldehyde, and enhances rapid seed germination for direct seedling rice grown under both aerobic (soil containing oxygen) and anaerobic conditions. It also increases the vigor of seedlings, helping them compete with weed growth from previous harvests and thus increases rice paddy yield and viability. With the use of ZAPPA, the successful seed germination rate can be increased to approximately 90%, while the overall yield can reach 40%.
ZAPPA is used before the paddy seeds are sown in the field. The seeds are first soaked in ZAPPA for 24 hours, after which they are allowed to dry for another 24 hours. The treated seeds are then sown into a flooded paddy field, and any standing water in the field is not removed. Because ZAPPA contains hydrogen peroxide, it provides seeds with active oxygen, a vital factor in boosting germination in anaerobic conditions. This increases seedling root and shoot growth by approximately 120% and 90%, respectively, which helps the seeds deal with the adverse conditions of a field flooded with a deeper level of water. When treated with ZAPPA, up to 500 seedlings can be germinated per square meter (m2), compared to 350 seedlings/m2 using conventional methods. In addition, treatment with ZAPPA reduces the rate of seed borne plant diseases such as brown spot (biopolarisoryzae) and blast (pyriculariaoryzae).
The novel formulation also provides many other advantages, which are directly related to the fact that the water level in fields with ZAPPA-treated seedlings can be increased. Under conventional methods, water is drained from fields after plowing to prepare the field for new seeds to be sown. This is when rodents and weeds invade the fields and cause the most damage. Because standing water in the field is not removed when seeds are treated with ZAPPA, farmers can conserve water while eradicating rodents and weeds.
Other advantages to using ZAPPA include: increased seed purity (no seeds from weeds are inadvertently mixed in, which is a normal occurrence with conventional methods); expensive pesticides for weeding and the associated labor-intensive work are no longer needed; farmers can increase their harvest and thus their earnings; and widespread use of ZAPPA has the potential to help Malaysia become entirely self-sufficient for its rice demand.
From the early stages of R&D, UPM collaborated with Diversatech, whose role was to provide R&D assistance and manage the marketing and commercialization for ZAPPA once the technology was developed into a viable product. Diversatech also conducted and funded field tests of the technology with various interested agricultural companies and organizations.
Partnerships and collaborations with these interested entities were primarily undertaken to independently measure the effectiveness of ZAPPA. Shortly after the technology was developed, researchers from the Malaysian Agriculture Research Development Institute (MARDI) that were based in the rice paddy farming regions of Tanjung Karang, in the state of Selangor, and Bertam, in the state of Penang, entered into a joint study with UPM that evaluated the effectiveness of ZAPPA for seed germination and weed control in both regions. The results showed that seeds treated with ZAPPA were able to grow in depths of five to fifteen centimeters, which was of particular importance to farmers in these regions as typical water levels of three to five centimeters are dramatically increased during the rainy season.
Another R&D collaboration was undertaken with the Farmer’s Organization Authority (FOA) in the southern part of the Malaysian peninsula. From January 2003 to February 2005, trials were conducted for six crops and exhibited an increase in paddy yield of 8.3 t/h, as compared with the 4.2 t/h that is normally achieved without the use of the technology.
A bottle of packaged ZAPPA (Photo: ICC)
Important to the success of Diversatech and UPM’s innovative technology is the development of a strong brand. To that end, the two partners chose the name ZAPPA as a unique combination of a common English word – “zap” – which means to make something disappear, and a Malay word – “pa” – which is an abbreviation for “paddy angin” (weedy rice). The combination of the two into “ZAPPA” means to make the weeds in rice paddies disappear. A catchy brand name, ZAPPA is easy to remember and describes the products effects in a single word.
From the outset, Diversatech has represented UPM’s primary vehicle for technology transfer and partner for commercialization, activities that were undertaken before any intellectual property (IP) protection was secured. Tasked with successfully manufacturing and marketing ZAPPA, Diversatech invested US $110,000 to set up the manufacturing plant that would produce the end product. The company also collaborated with Perantis Pelangi Sdn. Bhd. (Perantis), another Malaysian agricultural company, to further promote the technology to the private sector. Meanwhile, Diversatech collaborated with thirteen state farmer’s associations throughout Malaysia to form Peladang Tech (M) Sdn. Bhd. (PeladangTech) as the official marketing vehicle for ZAPPA and to provide technical assistance to farmers in relation to the correct use of the product.
Through the activities of UPM and Diversatech, the technology behind ZAPPA has been commercialized through various additional means. A significant challenge faced was convincing farmers that the new technology was in fact better than the methods that they had been using for decades. A common way UPM and Diversatech worked to convince them and secure partners for commercialization was through presenting ZAPPA at agricultural exhibitions, which first started when the technology was demonstrated at the 2002 Invention and Research Exhibition at UPM’s campus. Prior to the establishment of UPM’s Innovation and Commercialization Center (ICC) in 2006, there was no clear direction or policy to facilitate patent filings. As a result, researchers were left on their own to make patent applications, and also in some cases they would participate in exhibitions before making a patent application. However, while the researchers would demonstrate their technology, they would not provide all of the technical information behind it, thus protecting it for future patent applications (this is a continuing policy). As for ZAPPA, since its first demonstration in 2002 the technology has been shown at various exhibitions, trade shows and events throughout the world.
UPM researchers have also developed information brochures and posters, and launched various pilot demonstrations to show farmers the advantages of the technology and how to use it properly. Farmers were also provided with demonstration units free of charge that they could try out for themselves, along with the guarantee that if the rice yield were lower than normal production, Diversatech would compensate the farmers for the difference. Through these efforts, farmers and agricultural organizations and companies were convinced of the effectiveness of the technology.
An important milestone in the commercialization of ZAPPA came when UPM and Diversatech convinced the Malaysian Ministry of Agriculture of the validity of the technology. As a result, the Ministry of Agriculture awarded Diversatech a three year, US $2.5 million contract in which Diversatech supplied subsidized ZAPPA to farmers so they could experience the benefits and become familiar with the product.
Because the technology behind ZAPPA was invented at a research university, transferring the technology to the private sector was vital for its commercialization. Although the University already had a relationship with Diversatech in place, it knew that securing IP rights (IPRs) was a vital step towards technology transfer and commercialization.
Although UPM entered into non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with its researchers and partners, when R&D and testing initiatives were under way the University did not yet have a concrete IP policy or oversight body. During the early stages of development, researchers and the University as a whole did not pay particular attention to IP, and the University Business Center (UBC) handled all IP-related issues. After successfully exhibiting ZAPPA at many trade shows and events, the University realized the importance of IP and the technology was a precursor for the establishment of UPM’s Innovation and Commercialization Center (ICC) in 2006. ICC handles all IP-related issues for new technologies, and also manages commercialization efforts through partnerships and technology transfers. Although ICC does not have an IP management strategy concretely written down, it follows a general set of principles to maximize the benefits of IP developed at UPM.
First, ICC holds regular meetings to learn about new technologies from academic staff and UPM researchers. These are essentially disclosure meetings, in which the academic staff or researcher makes a short presentation on the new technology to an ICC panel of experts. Panel members are required to sign NDAs to maintain confidentiality. Second, if interest has been expressed in the technology from the commercial sector and/or has won an award at an internal University exhibition, ICC will undertake an in-house evaluation as to the possibility of transferring and commercializing the technology. Lastly, a patent disclosure panel will recommend whether or not IPRs should be secured for the technology. If so, a domestic application is made, and the panel determines within twelve months whether to file an international application under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) system.
Under current university rules, UPM owns all IPRs that are developed by university staff and researchers. As of early 2011, ICC is working closely with UPM’s legal department to incorporate these principles into an official university IP policy.
With the establishment of ICC and fundamental IP management policies – and a significant amount of interest in ZAPPA from the commercial sector – UPM became aware that it was important to secure a patent for the technology. Patenting the technology would protect it from any potential infringers, and give the University a vital tool with which to undertake technology transfer and commercialization. UPM therefore applied for a patent in October 2003 with the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia (MyIPO). The patent (No.MY133162A) was granted in October 2007.
Developing a strong product name was just as integral to the technology’s success as the patent, and therefore UPM also applied for a trademark with MyIPO for the ZAPPA name in 2006 with MyIPO. The mark was registered that same year.
Authentic ZAPPA, pictured, has been the victim of IP infringement (Photo: ICC)
The importance of IPRs came to light even further when UPM was the victim of IP infringement. Among the research team at UPM were many graduate students. One student stole the ZAPPA formula and started selling products based on it under a different name. Fortunately for UPM and Diversatech, the student was unable to successfully market the infringing product and quickly went out of business. As a result no formal action was required, but for the University and Diversatech, it underscored the importance of IPRs and the vigilance that must be taken to protect them. As such, all postgraduate students are requested to sign NDAs and staff members are required to sign NDAs and take an oath to maintain confidentiality on any aspects that may bring negative repercussions to the University.
The University offers several modes of technology transfer, the most common of which are licensing agreements or the formation of spin off companies. In the case of licensing agreements, researchers will be awarded a certain percentage of royalties. In the case of spin off companies, researchers are given equity in the company (not to exceed 51%) and can also be appointed as one of the company directors. The researcher primarily provides technical expertise while continuing to work as a full time staff member of UPM.
In the case of commercializing ZAPPA, because Diversatech was involved from the beginning a licensing agreement was the natural choice for technology transfer. However, because ZAPPA was successfully launched into the market before the patent was registered and any official University IP policy was in place, UMP did not take an aggressive stance when it came to drawing up an official licensing agreement. With the establishment of ICC in 2006, the University wanted to formalize the relationship with Diversatech through an official licensing agreement. Under the terms of the agreement, UPM receives a 2% royalty from gross sales and a 2% interest in Diversatech for both UPM and the researchers that developed the technology.
Should Diversatech desire technical assistance from the researchers, the company is required to provide remuneration and hire them for a maximum of one month per year. Royalties are paid twice a year, once in June and once in December. Diversatech is allowed to sub-license the technology under similar terms, and the licensing agreement was formally signed on 16 January 2008 for a term of five years.
ZAPPA has been the recipient of many awards, such as the gold medal at the 2002 Invention and Research Exhibition in Malaysia, the silver medal at the 2002 Invention and Innovation Exhibition organized by the Malaysian Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) International Award in 2004 at the International Exhibition of Inventions in Geneva, Switzerland. It has also been featured in many national and international news outlets, and is on display at the Malaysia Agriculture, Horticulture and Agrotourism Exhibition, which is the region’s largest exhibition showcasing the latest technologies and innovations in the agricultural and horticultural industries.
ZAPPA has become a well-known product not only in Malaysia, but also in other countries in the region. As of 2012, gross sales of the product have exceeded US $2.6 million, and UPM royalties have been in excess of US $52,000. PeladangTech, the joint company responsible for marketing, plans to build on this success and expand to other ASEAN countries, and in early 2011 used sales proceeds to start upgrading manufacturing facilities to increase production levels and meet demand.
Individual farmers have also greatly benefited, as they can produce more rice by using ZAPPA, thus increasing their income by up to US $500 per hectare. In addition, researchers are continually working to make ZAPPA more effective and less expensive so it can remain at the forefront in the highly competitive global market.
The successful development and commercialization of ZAPPA has brought many opportunities and benefits to Malaysia, its farmers and consumers. Although they came after commercialization, the University’s IPRs ensured the continued success of the technology, domestic rice production has increased, farmers have increased their livelihood, and consumers can enjoy a safer environment in which to live.