Plant-based air purifiers are coming to your home — The Blueprint

These genetically engineered plants can take over the work of 30 houseplants.
Alice Cooke
Plant stock image
Plant stock image

Yuri_Arcurs/iStock

  • A bioengineered plant is able to clean the air by doing the work of over 30 houseplants
  • It could be the start of a bold new industry that develps over the next 15 to 20 years
  • The Neo P1 is the first of its kind

A startup in Paris has developed a plant that could take over the work of 30 houseplants — and it’s just the beginning.

Neo P1, effectively a super-efficient air purifier, can metabolize four major indoor air pollutants and absorb certain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. It’s the start of a revolution in plants that could lead to a dramatic new industry.

“Plant bioengineering is still so much in its infancy that it would be foolish to pretend to know what it could look like in 15 or 20 years,” Neoplants, the company behind the development, tells Interesting Engineering.

To find out more about how these advanced plants could change our homes forever, we spoke to Lionel Mora, co-founder and CEO, and Patrick Torbey, CTO.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

What prompted the development of bioengineered plants in the first place?

Patrick did his PhD in genetic engineering and was fascinated by these powerful tools, new tools, like CRISPR/Cas9 or transgenesis, and the potential applications that could improve people’s lives. Lio has a background in product marketing with experience launching new categories of mass market products.

When we met, we both had a deep belief that nature should and will take a bigger part of people’s lives, and it felt completely intuitive to leverage biology as a source of technology to maximize the positive impact that nature can have.

Plants are beautiful, almost magical organisms, turning CO2 into O2 for free, for everyone, forever. What if they could do the same with more harmful pollutants?

Did you achieve what you set out to achieve? (as often these amazing discoveries are slightly leftfield of where the original work was going!)

Funny enough, the direction of our research and the development of our product never changed in our 4 year journey. We were laser focused on building this bioengineered plant to clean the air of indoor VOCs almost since day 1.

Neo P1 is only the first product we created, it’s the first of its kind, and we are very excited about it. That being said, it is by no means close to the full potential of what these technologies enable us to do. Our ambition is to achieve much more in the coming years, leveraging our technology to move from indoors to outdoors for example, and from air pollution to climate change applications.

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Were/are there any other aims to the work that you have yet to achieve?

Plant bioengineering, or synthetic biology, is a very new field with so many potential applications, it’s easy to get lost and distracted. In the coming years, we will be focused on two things:

  • Improving and expanding our indoor air quality neoplants technologies, with new versions of plants, every year or so, that address more pollutants, more efficiently, as well as transforming new species of plants, to offer more choice for customers and address more indoor spaces.
  • Leveraging the technologies we’ve been developing at Neoplants to address the problem of outdoor air, and try to mediate some of the effects of climate change through a biological solution

What are you and the team working on now, as a result of having created bio-engineered plants?

Right now on the technical side, the team is focused on 3 things:

  • Keep testing the efficiency of Neo P1 in a wider variety of indoor conditions
  • Optimize protocols and processes to facilitate Neo P1 production at scale
  • Continue developing and improving the key technologies needed to create more and better neoplants

On the business front, we have just started telling the story after 4 years of stealth so we are very much focused on connecting with our audiences in order to keep building products people love. We’re also doubling down on business operations to make sure we are ready to produce and distribute Neo P1. 

What could bio-engineered plants do for us, potentially?

This is a fascinating question, and we believe it is like asking back in the 1980’s: “what could computers do for us potentially?”: plant bioengineering is still so much in its infancy that it would be foolish to pretend to know what it could look like in 15 or 20 years. 

That being said, we are seeing a few young and daring plant biotechnology startups starting to tackle applications like producing alternative proteins more sustainably, producing hypoallergenic foods, allowing crops to resist to rapid climate change, creating plant-based biomaterials, and even some more sci-fi applications like creating glow in the dark plants, or, something we obviously believe in and are working one, plants that will help remediate some of the atmospheric greenhouse gasses. Given our position and what we’ve already developed internally, there is little doubt Neoplants will be involved in some of these fields moving forward.

What would be the dream outcome for Neoplants?

Our mission is to put Nature at the heart of innovation to drive positive change. The dream outcome for us is to see bioengineered solutions replacing more and more machines over time. 

What barriers now stand in the way of you mass producing them? (As I see there's a waitlist!)

We do not have any significant technical barriers to reach mass production, especially looking back at those we had to overcome to get this far. The main constraint is time: we are talking about multiplying plants, Nature takes its time to grow, and no amount of project planning or investment can change that!  

What sort of time scale do you anticipate before (if) you can make that happen?

We will always be mindful about scale and production. As a company we do not want to make trade-offs on our values which is why we’ll start small. Each batch of Neo P1 will be very precious and we expect to start scaling up more significantly throughout 2024.

How and why do you think you managed to better NASA in the bio-engineered plant stakes?

The plants tested in the NASA study in the late 80s were normal indoor plants, and they showed interesting phytoremediation characteristics. What we did is take one of those plants, Epipremnum aureum aka Pothos and engineer it in two main ways.

  • We inserted additional genes coding for enzymatic chains that allow the plant to integrate the most harmful VOCs ie. Formaldehyde, Benzene, Toluene and Xylene, in its endogenous carbon metabolism. In other words, we allow the plant to “breath in” these pollutants and use them in a similar way it uses CO2.
  • We used directed evolution techniques to create strains of beneficial plant bacteria that are extremely efficient at degrading the same VOCs, and that are able to live symbiotically with Neo P1.

Quickfire questions

What or who inspires you?

Patrick: since I was a kid, I was inspired by both science fiction authors, like Isac Isimov, Frank Herbert and science communicators like Carl Sagan.

Lio: I’m fascinated by top-level athletes for their commitment and discipline. I also take my inspiration from doing sports in the wild, music, design and keeping in touch with broader tech innovations.

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Patrick: Working on something new, that no one is really working on, something bleeding edge. Using the latest cool biotechnology “toys” that can potentially have a great positive impact in people’s lives. Every morning, I enter the lab like a kid entering a candy store!

Lio: since we started Neoplants with Patrick, I have never doubted that a company like Neoplants has to exist. I am deeply convinced by our mission and that makes me wake up every single day. I’m also very energized by the people I get to work with on a daily basis.

What makes you smile?

Patrick: Everyday cool or unexpected experimental results! There’s always a little adrenaline rush when you see something new, and you push the boundary of science and engineering in biology just a tiny bit.

Lio: seeing energy and emulation in the team, hearing people have new ideas, laugh and have fun at Neoplants is a big source of happiness for me! 

What is your greatest achievement to date?

Patrick: Oh, I think it’s too early to talk about achievements, but I’m very proud of the fantastic team of extraordinary talents we’ve put together at Neoplants!

Lio: we get a lot of messages from founders who started plant biotech companies with Neoplants as a reference, which is very humbling and fulfilling. I believe we all try to change things for a greener future and we need more people joining the movement. If we can play a part in this, I’m very happy. 

What is your biggest regret?

Patrick: I don’t really regret anything so far. We've been very lucky, and we are still relatively young, so we see mistakes as learning opportunities. The important thing is to actually learn from them and grow, both personally and as a company.

Lio: no regret either, I hope I can keep it up that way for some time! 

What would you say to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Patrick: Plan for success but expect every single thing to go wrong. Be both your worst critic, while remaining a dreamer. And hang on tight! Nature can take you on a bumpy ride! 

Lio: I would start by asking why they want to do such a thing. It’s awesome to want to start something but you need to do it for the right reasons, otherwise you won’t be able to go through it. Especially if you’re looking at starting a deep tech company.   

What advice would you give your younger self?

Patrick: Dare more! Fail more!

Lio: don’t let other people’s fear or judgment get in the way. Do listen but keep moving.

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.