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Women in Innovation Award to grow game-changing idea of soil-cleaning seeds

Lorna seed 920x540

The Brunel brains behind the game-changing idea to use plants to recover metal from contaminated land is one of the 50 leading female entrepreneurs selected as £50,000 winners of Innovate UK's Women in Innovation Awards, announced today to coincide with International Women's Day. 

Dr Lorna Anguilano, a senior research fellow at Brunel University London’s Experimental Techniques Centre, set up Phyona as a 'spin-out' company after her research project showed promise for her idea to be developed as a commercial product, readily available for gardeners and organisations. 

Some soils can be contaminated due to a site's previous use, such as a factory or foundry. Lorna's Seeds is a combination of common but good-looking plants that can help to clean the soil by safely storing the pollutants in their leaves. After they're harvested, the healthy soil is ready for other plants and crops to grow, and the heavy metals – such as copper and chromium – can be recovered and reused, such as for medical devices and electronics. 

A citizen science project involving gardeners interested in healthy soils helped Dr Anguilano and her colleagues to see the range of contaminants present in gardens and allotments, and to choose the right combination of seeds to help to remediate the soil. 

Innovate UK, the UK government's innovation agency, has awarded Dr Anguilano £50,000 in funding to scale up Phyona, and will provide one-to-one business coaching, and a suite of networking, role-modelling and training opportunities. The overall £2 million funding package for the 50 pioneers reflects the government's ambition to give more support to women innovators and business leaders. 

Emily Nott, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Programmes at Innovate UK, said "Each year I am blown away by the brilliant ideas and talent we uncover through our Women in Innovation programme. Despite these challenging economic times, this year’s winners have shown great leadership, passion and resilience in driving their innovations forward. 

"Innovate UK will work alongside them now to ensure they have the resources and support required to grow and scale their businesses, while encouraging a new generation of women to get involved in innovation, pursue their ambitions and transform our economy and society." 

Dr Anguilano plans to use the funding on post-industrial sites in Barnsley and in Swinton, north-west of Manchester, that will enable her Phyona team – including research fellow Dr Uche Onwukwe and female students from Bolivia and France – to see whether the results they got from people's gardens and allotments are just as good at a large scale. They will also see whether the use of different plants can accelerate the cleaning of the soil as well as the amount of heavy metals they recover. 

"I would really like these old industrial or coal-mining areas to become productive again, instead of just being land that can only be used for housing," Dr Anguilano said. "Can we actually generate jobs and revenue from these areas by using plants to extract heavy metals with a commercial value – a more sustainable mining approach?" 

The news of the Women in Innovation Award was humbling for the phytomining expert. "I mean, I was extremely happy. But I felt a big responsibility to be one of the few winners, but also hoping that this could bring other women to do the same thing at some point in their life," she said. 

"It's important to have a very diverse body of people that work in technology and innovation, including female role models. So let's hope that the award winners can make a big change. And if other female engineers have innovative ideas, they should just try it and go for it." 

Find out more about Lorna's Seeds. And if you're an inspiring female innovator, check out how Innovate UK could support you.

Reported by:

Joe Buchanunn, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268821