SproutsIO Launches Microfarming Device as Indoor Gardens Germinate

Xconomy Boston — 

The distance from farm to table is now just a few feet, thanks to new systems that allow people to grow food in their kitchen or living room.

Last fall, Xconomy covered the launch of a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for Somerville, MA-based Grove, a startup out of MIT that developed a product that enables consumers to grow food in a high-tech cabinet the size of a tall bookshelf.

Now comes SproutsIO—another Boston-area startup with roots at MIT—which today launched its own Kickstarter campaign to generate buzz and drive orders of its microfarming system that can fit on a countertop (see photo above).

Both companies’ systems grow food without soil, are equipped with sensors, and can be controlled via mobile apps. (More on that later.) They’re part of a group of companies offering indoor gardening products; others include The Scotts Company, Back to the Roots, Click And Grow, and AquaSprouts.

The ability to easily grow food indoors could appeal to city dwellers who don’t have access to an outdoor garden, or people who want to grow fresh produce during cold winter months, says SproutsIO founder and CEO Jennifer Broutin Farah.

She also thinks such products will gain broader interest because people are increasingly curious or concerned about where their food comes from and how it’s made.

“People are starting to value transparency in the process. What actually goes into growing the food?” Farah says. “I think SproutsIO is in a great position to really capture people’s attention, because that’s what we care about is making that process transparent.”

But it’s still early for both SproutsIO and Grove, and they are hoping to prove that indoor gardening systems are more than a niche product or passing fad.

Grove, founded in 2013, has raised more than $4 million from investors and another $400,000-plus through crowdfunding, easily surpassing its $100,000 goal on Kickstarter. The company has received several hundred orders for the Grove Ecosystem—the name of its indoor gardening system—and so far it has delivered about 100 of them to customers, co-founder and CEO Gabe Blanchet says in an e-mail to Xconomy.

Grove, which employs 17 people, is ramping up production at a local manufacturing facility to try and catch up to demand, but the product is “currently backordered for several months,” Blanchet says. “We’re shipping to local customers now so we can track their progress and ensure manufacturing quality, and we will begin shipping Ecosystems across the country in November,” he adds.

Farah and her husband, Kamal, co-founded Cambridge, MA-based SproutsIO in 2013 based on research conducted at the MIT Media Lab. They spent the next three years fine-tuning the growing system, with some of the manufacturing performed in Detroit. The company’s product has been tested with over 50 people in the Boston area, as well as in the kitchens of two local restaurants, Farah says.

Now, SproutsIO will see if people are willing to buy it. The system can be purchased for $559 during the Kickstarter campaign; it is expected to sell for $799 after the campaign, a spokeswoman says. The company also intends to sell its specialized seed packets on a subscription basis.

Here’s what customers will receive: The SproutsIO system includes a technology-enabled pot that is 12 inches in diameter and is capable of growing a wide range of herbs, fruits, leafy greens, and root vegetables, Farah says. Growers insert a disc-shaped pod that includes seeds, nutrients, and a “growing medium” made of plant-based materials. The system then uses what SproutsIO calls “hybrid hydroculture” technology to grow the food without soil. The hybrid approach means the plants are nurtured with a combination of hydroponics, which involves submerging the roots in water, and aeroponics, applying a nutrient-rich mist to the plants.

Younger plants often grow better with their roots submerged in water, Farah says. When they mature, the roots typically want more oxygen, so the device can suspend them in the air and switch to applying the fine mist. “We optimize for the different stages of growth for those plants,” she says.

A smart LED lamp bathes the plant in the necessary amount of light to grow, automatically sensing if the crops are getting enough sunlight through a nearby window, for example. The device is also equipped with a camera and a network of sensors that track humidity, temperature, the pH level in the water, and more, Farah says. The system is controlled by software that can automatically adjust settings, or growers can manage everything themselves with an app.

SproutsIO is aiming to sell at least 500 of its devices and raise more than $100,000 through the Kickstarter campaign, Farah says. If successful, the infusion of cash would help the company grow its business and expand its team, which is currently fewer than 10 people, she says. (SproutsIO has raised seed funding from undisclosed private investors.)

By comparison, Grove’s system is larger and more expensive (there are currently three price tiers, starting at $2,800). The extra space provides room for growers to work with the plants and store gardening tools. Blanchet says the larger system and higher price also allow Grove to offer better support to customers and to pack the system “full of useful technology.”

Grove’s system also includes a fish aquarium and employs aquaponics—a symbiotic natural process in which the plants feed off of the nutrients in fish waste and simultaneously clean the tank.

SproutsIO opted not to incorporate aquaponics, in part because … Next Page »

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