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Growing produce in the kitchen with an automated, soil-free indoor gardening system

by Nara Shin
on 15 February 2016

From Click & Grow to Urban Cultivator, technology is increasingly being used to bring the backyard garden closer than previously imaginable—to the heart of the kitchen. Another contender, Cambridge, MA-based SproutsIO, is coming close to launching their premium-level, all-in-one indoor gardening system that helps grow produce as efficiently as possible. Fully automated, the smart appliance grows plants soil-free via a proprietary "hybrid hydroculture system" (combining hydroponics and aeroponics), tracks their growth, and senses their needs—be it light, water or nutrients. Much of the manufacturing is done in Detroit, where founder and CEO Jennifer Broutin Farah grew up. The MIT Media Lab alum, trained in architecture, has had a long interest in energy and urban infrastructure. SproutsIO, one day, could address issues regarding inefficient food transportation, the incredible amount of fresh water used by the agricultural industry, and the increasing urbanization across the globe. But on a simpler note, SproutsIO grows the produce you want, when you want it.

Last month, SproutsIO began their Tastemaker Pilot Program, working with Boston chef Barbara Lynch Gruppo to test out the systems in her restaurant kitchens; allowing them to grow what they needed and harvesting produce the same day it's served. SproutsIO will debut to the public for purchase sometime this year and, in the meantime, we highly recommend checking out SproutsIO's Instagram account to see it in action. We spoke with Farah about connecting with plants via tech.

What was the motivating idea behind SproutsIO?

I found oftentimes when you're trying to learn about growing outside of soil or trying to grow indoors, it was something that was at a hobbyist's scale, very much do-it-yourself. Which is cool, but a lot of people just want to start growing. They don't necessarily want to put together a whole kit of parts, buy things from Home Depot, and learn things from about a thousand websites how to put things together. Part of what we were trying to do with SproutsIO is take some high-technology in the field of growing—hydroponically and aeroponically—and apply that in a way that's really an easy-to-use system for people. You literally plug in SproutsIO and you can start to grow.

What does SproutsIO offer beyond just "plug-n-play"? How can the owner get involved and participate?

At its most simplistic level, SproutsIO can be automated. The watering, lighting, etc can be automated and we let people know when their produce is ready to be picked or harvested. But one of the things that we learned through the process of our beta testing is that a lot of people want to get into how their produce is grown and start to customize certain aspects of it. That was one of the things that we started to touch, especially with the chefs: if you could look at different ways of lighting and providing nutrients to the plant, you can actually change the flavor of the produce and start to customize at a very personal level with SproutsIO.

There's a multitude of plants that can be grown in SproutsIO. We grow anything from tomatoes to basil—there's a huge variety. When we first launch, we'll have a series of pre-approved plants to grow in SproutsIO, and that will continue to [increase] exponentially from there.

With SproutsIO gearing to launch this year, what's been on your plate?

In 2014, we focused on developing what we called our 'complete functional prototype' and we had about 5,000 people sign up for beta testing for that program. We tested that here in the Boston area: sent it to people's homes, had people come into the office, got feedback and really learned a lot about what people liked and what we could improve upon. So last year, we were focused on incorporating all of the feedback into our design for manufacturing process. We were excited at the end of last year to start working with chefs here in the Boston area. They were actually the first to try out our new system—which is our design-for-manufacture model, and is what we're planning on launching with this year.

And that was one of the things that was most incredible to the chefs that we were working with. For instance, one of the things we grew with them was this chervil, which is a very finicky herb to grow. I actually didn't know much about it until I started talking with chefs, but they use it for a number of dishes. It's difficult to source, and even if you purchase it locally, oftentimes it gets damaged in the process going from farm to table. They were really interested in trying to grow it themselves, and I won't tell you how much they used to waste before, but let's put it this way: it was way more efficient using SproutsIO. They were able to use 90-95% of the chervil that was grown in-system, and they said that the taste was the same if not better than what they were able to purchase from local farms.

Is there a hesitation from consumers to bring so much tech into growing plants?

Sometimes I'll have conversations with people and they'll ask me, "Introducing technology, doesn't that separate us more from nature, from the produce itself?" I actually think it's quite the contrary—we can use the technology in ways to really see and understand plants in the way we never could previously. One of the things we do here at SproutsIO, we actually have a camera onboard the system so it can constantly take images of the plants while it's growing. You can start to understand the growing habits and timelines of the plants themselves; something typically the human eye wouldn't be able to discern and acknowledge. We're able to really look at that in more detail and we can look at health monitoring of the plant through those photos as well as just looking at the magical experience of... seeing how plants exist in this kind of other world that we haven't really even explored before. There's a tremendous potential in being able to grow this way and to look at new methodologies of growing.

Images of Chef Ben Weisberger at No.9 Park; dishes at Menton restaurant; renderings and product all courtesy of SproutsIO

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