Last spring, The Yield Lab Institute announced the Manure Innovation Challenge, a startup competition for innovative management technologies and products that relate to manure, wastewater, waste nutrients or emissions. There were 63 applicants worldwide, and eight of them were chosen to participate in the challenge, where they were provided mentorship, commercial strategy guidance and network access over several months.
Lee karen
Managing Editor / Progressive Dairy

At the end of the challenge, each of the eight startups gave a pitch to a panel of global ag tech stakeholders for the chance to win a prize of $50,000 non-dilutive capital.

These pitches, explaining their scalable solutions to help make manure more valuable, sustainable and manageable, were also presented to the public through a webinar on June 2.

At the end of the webinar, Digested Organics was announced as the winner of the challenge. Here is more about their technology, as well as the other participants in the challenge.

digested organics

Digested Organics

Based in Michigan, Digested Organics offers advanced filtration solutions to transform manure into clean water, concentrated fertilizers and renewable energy.


This is accomplished through two core filtration technologies, explained Digested Organics CEO Bobby Levine.

After the raw manure passes through a screwpress to remove large fibers, the liquid is pumped through an ultrafiltration (UF) system made of porous stainless steel membrane tubes. The suspended solids, phosphorus and pathogens stay inside the tube, while water and dissolved components pass through the tube wall.

“The system is incredibly simple and robust,” Levine said. “There are no moving parts inside the filter, just a centrifugal pump to circulate the manure.”

The resulting UF concentrate can be used for fertilizer or composting, or digested for biogas production.

The UF permeate can be used directly for irrigation or pass through the second filtration technology – Two-Step Reverse Osmosis (TSRO). This results in clean water for reuse or discharge where permitted, and a second fertilizer product that is rich in ammonia-nitrogen and potassium.

The system is fully automated and can be sized for different amounts of manure flow, so it is scalable for large or small farms.

“Overall, we can achieve about a 65 percent recovery of water from raw manure,” he said.

This results in lower manure hauling and spreading costs, increased lagoon storage capacity, fewer trucks on the roads and fields, and reduced freshwater consumption on the farm. It can also reduce the cost of bringing raw manure to digesters by pre-concentrating it.

“We typically produce UF permeate for about half a cent per gallon of manure or digestate and can produce water for about 1.5 cents per gallon, which is far less than most hauling and spreading costs,” he said.

They currently have three commercial farm installations and several large projects in the works, and expect to be filtering over 1 million gallons of manure every day by early next year.

biofiltro beds


BioFiltro developed a worm-powered wastewater system capable of removing 70% to 90% of nutrients from liquid manure.

Mai Ann Healy, head of business development at BioFiltro, based in California, said their patented system consists of a containment vessel filled with woodchips, river rock and drainage cells. They introduce worms and microbes to create a biofilm, which digests most of the contaminants.

Manure collected from a barn will flow through a solid separator. The liquid portion goes to an equalization tank and is then irrigated across the containment vessel. In approximately four hours, it percolates down to the bottom of the vessel and then exits through pipes.

The burrowing movement of the worms aerates the system, resulting in 95% less energy use compared to other technologies. The worms also generate poop or castings, a material that is sought after by farmers and gardeners, as it has been shown to increase crop yield, water retention and soil health.

Third-party studies concluded this system reduces methane by up to 100%, carbon dioxide by up to 85% and ammonia by up to 110%.

Farmers can sell the castings and carbon credits from this system.

“Even when you factor in the cost to design, build and operate our system, each Holstein will net about 174 dollars per year, while a Jersey will net 145. Quite simply, our worms make sustainability, environmental stewardship and animal health not only the right and easy thing to do, but also profitable,” Healy said.

The company has full, commercial-scale systems deployed across Washington, Oregon and California, and has successfully treated more than 100 million gallons to date from dairies, wineries, food processors and sanitary systems.

Read this past article about how this system is working on two different dairies.

biomass controls

Biomass Controls

Biomass Controls is a public benefit corporation that was founded in 2015 in Connecticut. It developed a decentralized refinery that uses pyrolysis to reduce manure solids by volume, kill pathogens and preserve carbon as a soil amendment.

“Our refinery converts manure solids into valuable products that provide economic and environmental benefits to farmers,” said Jeff Hallowell, CEO and founder of Biomass Controls.

These patented refineries have been operating in the U.S. and India since 2016 and processed fecal sludge solids from humans, dairy cows and hogs.

“Important to the design was a scalable solution that could operate in different climates. It had to be set up quickly to operate within a few days. The controls had to be easy to use so operators with little training could start and shut down the system,” Hallowell said.

Environmental benefits include reduced greenhouse gases, reduced odor and reduced road traffic due to volume reductions.

The resulting biochar product can be put back on the land to replenish the carbon and improve the soil’s organic content.



Chonex is a nutrient recycling company founded in Alabama to convert poultry manure into a higher value fertilizer and protein feed. The company takes its name from the four elements of protein – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – that are extracted from the poultry manure through a biological process using black soldier fly larvae.

In their patented process, fresh manure is collected each day and transported to a 6,000-square-foot facility in Robertsville, Alabama. A secret blend of ammonia inhibitors, probiotics and additives is added to increase the nutrient value of the manure.

Progressive cavity pumps meter the manure into a rack and tray system to feed the fly larvae. A rotary screen separates the larvae and fertilizer, and a pharmaceutical grade dryer is used to ensure all the beneficial microbes and enzymes are preserved.

They received FDA approval for producing protein feed made from poultry manure, but decided to first focus on organic fertilizer production as that market is projected to double over the next five years, reported Michael Lynch, CEO and co-founder of Chonex.

The current processing facility recycles one ton of wet manure into $1,000 of dry, sellable products per day. They plan to build a modular eight-ton, fully automated facility adjacent to the pilot site this summer.

cowpots family


Matthew Freund, president and founder of CowPots, is a second-generation dairy farmer in Connecticut. He invented a manure-based, biodegradable planting pot.

“This concept was born out of necessity 20 years ago, creating a solution that was economically viable for our farm, scalable and able to meet the regulations for nutrient management,” Freund said.

They developed a patented process to separate the fibers, remove the odor and form excess cow manure into a value-added product. It is the only American-made biodegradable pot that is 100% renewable, recycled and offers an important nutrient package.

The manufacturing process has zero emissions and utilizes both methane and solar energy for production. The zero-waste facility sits just a few hundred feet from the farm where the raw material is in abundance.

Manufacturing has expanded from a single product in 2005 to 14 different pots sold internationally, as well as protective corners and many custom products, such as bait cups, lettuce trays, golf tees, target skeets and even urns.

“Our product displaces plastic, and reduces disposal cost for consumers, growers and municipalities because it is intended to be planted directly in the ground,” Freund said.

The manure-based pots have been shown to decompose three times faster than other biodegradable planting pots and improve plant maturity and fruit set.

Their biggest obstacle is shipping costs, especially for international customers. They are looking into licensing the technology.

Read this past article about this value-added product from manure.

n2 applied slurry unit 2

N2 Applied

Nutrient loss from volatile ammonia leads to economic losses and impacts the farm’s carbon footprint. N2 Applied in Norway has developed a technology that allows farmers to add nitrogen from the air to manure and converts the ammonia in the manure into ammonium nitrate.

“Our solution is a unit size of a tractor that uses electricity to separate the air. When mixing the nitrogen from the air into the manure, you get a very efficient liquid fertilizer purely from the resources on the farm,” said Trond Lund, head of business development at N2 Applied.

By adding nitrogen, they improve the nitrogen-phosphorus balance of the slurry, stop the formation of methane, cut down the odor and reduce the need for chemical fertilizer.

They have units operating on farms in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom and South Africa. It has been shown to stop 90% of the ammonia released from the manure, increasing the nitrogen use efficiency by 30% and reducing the carbon footprint by 27%.

“The technology has a global potential,” Lund said. “The technology can be scaled from small farms to large farms and biogas plants.”



Using constructed wetlands, Phinite is able to convert manure into fertilizer and bioenergy fuel.

“Manure is wet, and drying systems that turn manure into marketable products are too expensive,” said Jordan Phasey, CEO and founder of Phinite in North Carolina.

“It takes the same amount of energy to evaporate one ton of water as it does to drive a car 2,000 miles,” he added.

As an alternative, he created a sludge-drying wetland and commercialized it at full scale in North Carolina, the second-largest pork-producing state.

The system has one patent and two pending. It has been approved for use in North Carolina with support by the state government.

Operation of the system is simple. Manure is pumped from the farm’s lagoon into the man-made wetland, where plants grow their roots through the material and dry it naturally using solar energy and evapotranspiration.

“It’s a one-step process, and the final material is dry enough to be marketed directly as fertilizer and has an NPK of 3-12-2,” Phasey said.

They build the systems in partnership with the farmers and are working on bringing the fertilizer to market.

He expects profits for the farmer of $11,000 a year. At a cost of $58,000 to build it, there is a five-year payback. “For farmers who are facing upwards of 100,000 dollars in sludge disposal costs, this is a spectacular value proposition,” Phasey said.

The wetlands are complimentary with anaerobic digestion. “This means the system is scalable and suitable for use on almost every hog and dairy operation, not just in the U.S., but all over the world,” he said.

These wetlands eliminate water pollution from animal farming and close the loop on manure nutrient use by returning those nutrients back to growing regions where they belong.

In combination with anaerobic digestion, the wetland results in a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from animal production and a 70% reduction in odors.

SoMax Bioenergy

The Elemental Recycling Platform at SoMax Bioenergy is a suite of technologies that breaks down organic materials into its base components. Once broken down, those elements are used to create a variety of new products.

In addition to treating wastewater and food waste, they have developed a system for dairy manure using hydrothermal carbonization (HTC).

“HTC is a thermal chemical process that achieves 90-plus percent of carbon efficiency in minutes and hours rather than weeks and in months,” said Dan Spracklin, CEO and founder of SoMax Bioenergy in Pennsylvania, as he was comparing it to the more common practices of land application and anaerobic digestion.

HTC decomposes waste into its elemental components using mild temperatures (375˚F) and pressure. The reactor, built in a standard shipping container, can process 16,000 tons per year. It can be scaled down to as low as 2,500 tons, or scaled up by increasing the number of reactors.

The system is designed to operate 24/7, with the farmer in charge of making sure manure is supplied and the final products are removed and stored.

Manure is injected with a chemical activator. After four hours, the slurry is dewatered, and two distinct product streams are separated. The solid product is activated carbon, and the liquid product is a fertilized slurry for use on the farm or further processed by additional technologies.

The activated carbon has multiple industrial uses, and its market is predicted to grow by 8% compound annual growth over the next four years.

Spracklin said, “If we were to tap just 5 percent of the dairy [manure] market, we’d see 2.3 billion dollars in sales. At just 5 percent of the total addressable market (animal manure, food waste, biosolids), we’d see 48 billion dollars in sales.”

For a 5,000-cow farm, this translates into an annual profit of just under $300 per cow for milk and over $450 per cow for the manure. “By including a carbon credit of $50 per ton, the profit [from manure] increases to four times that of milk, creating a scenario where the milk is no longer the primary economic driver for the dairy, but rather a byproduct of activated carbon production,” Spracklin said.  end mark

The challenge was organized by The Yield Lab with guidance from World Wildlife Fund, Newtrient and Dairy Farmers of America, and generous sponsorship from Cargill, The Maschhoffs and WeWork Food Labs.

PHOTO COLLAGE: Out of 63 applicants worldwide, eight startups were chosen to participate in the Manure Innovation Challenge, announced by The Yield Lab Institute last spring.

PHOTO 1: Liquid manure is transformed into clean water and concentrated fertilizers by an ultrafiltration system and a two-step reverse osmosis process designed by Digested Organics. Photo courtesy of Digested Organics.

PHOTO 2: In the BioFiltro system, liquid manure is irrigated over containment vessels filled with wood chips, river rock, worms and microbes to reduce emissions, clean the water and generate worm castings that can be marketed as a soil amendment. Photo courtesy of BioFiltro.

PHOTO 3: This decentralized refinery by Biomass Controls uses pyrolysis to reduce manure solids into bio-char. This cuts down on volume, kills pathogens and preserves the carbon for other uses. Photo courtesy of Biomass Controls.

PHOTO 4: At Chonex's pilot facility, poultry manure is converted to fertilizer and protein feed through a biological process using black soldier fly larvae. Photo courtesy of Chonex.

PHOTO 5: CowPots creates nutrient-rich, biodegradeable planting pots and other products from manure solids. Photo courtesy of CowPots.

PHOTO 6: The N2 Applied unit pulls nitrogen from the air and adds it to the manure slurry to create a more efficient liquid fertilizer. Photo courtesy of N2 Applied.

PHOTO 7: The covered constructed wetland on the left was designed by Phinite to naturally dry the liquid manure from the lagoon. Photo courtesy of Phinite.

Karen Lee