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Aims To Revolutionize Growing SproutsIO system boosts efficiency 6 times; cuts
growth cycle by 50%- 2017
After piloting its smart microgardening system in Boston homes and
restaurants and following a successful Kickstarter campaign last fall,
SproutsIO is ramping up production and hitting the shelves in a few months.
Image: Courtesy of SproutsIO Inc.
SproutsIO lets users optimize growing
conditions while cutting water and resource use July 26, 2017: MIT Media Lab alumna
Jennifer Broutin Farah SM ’13, CEO and co-founder of SproutsIO, has
spent nearly a decade innovating in urban farming, designing small- and
large-scale gardening systems that let anyone grow food, anywhere, at
All this work will soon culminate with the
commercial release of her startup’s smart, app-controlled microgarden
that lets consumers optimize, customize, and monitor the growth of
certain fruits, vegetables, and herbs year-round. Moreover, the
soil-free system uses only 2 percent of the water and 40 percent of the
nutrients typically used for soil-grown plants.
After piloting the
system in Boston homes and restaurants, and following a successful
Kickstarter campaign last fall, SproutsIO is ramping up production and
hitting the shelves in a few months. Philosophically, the aim is to
power a “personal produce” movement, Farah says, in which more people
grow their own food, encouraging healthier eating and cutting down on
“Over the last 60 years, we’ve gotten out of
touch with growing our food,” Farah says. “But when you grow your own
food, you care more about what happens to it. You’re not going to throw
it away, you’re going to know exactly what’s going into your plants,
you’re going to share your food with friends and family. It gives a new
meaning to produce.”
Tailoring plants for taste preferences may not be well-known outside of
the wine-making world, where grapes are grown under specific climatic
conditions to produce specific flavors. But produce and herbs have
similar peculiarities. Even within a given species or variety,
individual plants can have different characteristics and growing needs.
“Most of that is
dependent on the environment,” Farah says. “If you can customize the
lighting, the water, and the nutrients, you can really optimize certain
variations in the plants, according to how you want them to taste.
SproutsIO can reproduce these specific climatic conditions to a very
SproutsIO consists of a growing device, which
is a large basin with a curving, overhead adjustable lamp attached; a
replaceable and compostable “sIO” seed refill with growing media, seeds
and nutrients, that’s dropped into the growing device; and
“SproutsIOGrow” software that includes a mobile app that collects and
analyzes growth data and controls the system. Currently, the system
supports basil, kale, wheatgrass, arugula, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes,
tea, and a variety of plants from root vegetables to fruiting plants.
The SproutsIO system
has a number of innovations developed by the startup, stemming from
early research at MIT. The hybrid hydroculture system, for instance,
consists of “hydroponic” and “aeroponic” growing, where roots are
submerged in or misted with water and nutrients. Varying the watering
process optimizes water and nutrient use while supporting the growth of
different plants at different phases. A tomato plant, for instance,
grows large roots during the fruiting stage. The system can lift the
plant up at that time to let the roots grow larger, but still deliver
water and nutrients by misting.
There’s also a custom
LED light that automatically adjusts, depending on need. If the device
is located near a window, where sunlight is plentiful, the light will
dim; if the sunlight diminishes or if the device is placed in darker
areas, the light shines brighter. The system uses about half the
electricity of a 60-watt incandescent light bulb.
Sensors monitor plant
growth and transmit data to what Farah calls the “backbone” of the
system: SproutsIOGrow. The app lets users customize their plants and
monitor the plant’s growth in real-time. Depending on light and
nutrients added, for instance, tomatoes can be grown to taste sweeter or
The app also provides predictive growth cycles
and connects to personal activity trackers, meal planners, and calendars
to help with meal scheduling. A built-in camera takes regular snapshots
of growing plants for health diagnostics and to create time-lapse images
for users on the app.
Growing plants in such
a controlled environment boosts growth efficiency by six times and cuts
the length of growth cycles by 50 percent over traditional gardening,
according to the startup.
Farah says people
often ask her if all the technology tends to remove people from the
growing process. It’s the exact opposite, she says: “Technology creates
a whole new lens on the growing process. Most of us don’t understand how
plants grow because they exist on a totally different time scale. But we show people how the plants grow over
time and how they react to certain changes. That’s really eye-opening.”
greenhouses Today’s SproutsIO system is the product of
years of refinement for mass adoption. In 2009, while working for New
York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, Farah designed a
“vertically integrated greenhouse” system, called the Façade Farm. The
system consisted of a large metal frame that could be affixed to the
side of a building. Long metal planters were installed inside like
shelves, and a pump system was installed on the floor. The boxes could
be placed up and down a building like gardening balconies.
Though never fully
realized, the system got Farah thinking about bringing growing systems
to urban areas — a concept that’s popular now but was fairly novel at
the time. Building massive structures, however, was a time-consuming and
complex process. In 2011, Farah enrolled in the Media Lab, in the
Changing Places Group, to develop the idea on a smaller scale.
For her master’s
thesis, she built a slightly smaller indoor aeroponic system, called
SeedPod, that consisted of modular planters made of inflatable plastic
and suspended in three tiers by steel rods. The planters were equipped
with sensors for monitoring the plants. An automated pump provided water
and nutrients to each planter.
Partnering with Boston
Public Schools, Farah installed the system in a middle school in
Roxbury. Students started growing plants to eat, and teachers
incorporated the gardening into their lessons. “It clicked that the more involved people are
with growing food, the more they cared about what happened to it,” she
In 2012, Farah shrunk the system further,
developing a microgardening “station” that could be used in homes. A
number of growing pods — moving toward today’s SproutsIO device — were
attached to a vertical pole at different levels, resembling a tree of
pods. Included were early versions of the misting system, lighting, and
sensors viewed through an app.
In 2013, Farah
launched SproutsIO and entered the project into the $100K
Entrepreneurship Competition, where she was a semifinalist, and a
Founders.org entrepreneurship competition, which she won. Through MIT
Sloan School of Management and Media Lab venture-based classes, she
honed the business idea and fleshed out her startup’s larger “personal
produce” mission. “Those courses were very inspiring classes that helped
to get students thinking about how their ideas apply to larger world
context,” she says.
Years of user feedback
and research and development helped the startup refine the product into
today’s SproutsIO system. Early prototypes, in fact, were sent to
Barbara Lynch, a renowned Boston chef who is now advisor to the startup.
“What better way to really understand how well the system can perform
than putting it in a professional chef’s kitchen?” Farah says. SproutsIO continues to work with a number of
professional chefs across the nation.
what benefit does a smart microgarden offer over simply growing potted
plants at home? “At a base level, we make it easier for people to start
growing,” Farah says. But she also believes the system is “a small-scale
solution that can have a big impact.”
units can save consumers water, energy, and resources, while easing them
into growing their own food. If enough people adopt the system, she
says, it could save significant amounts of water and encourage local,
efficient growing. But the concept of optimized watering systems, if
designed at scale, could also benefit a world where around 70 percent of
fresh water is used for industrial agricultural, she adds.
“We need to be
considering different solutions for growing that start to optimize the
needs of the plant, rather than just pouring tons of water and nutrients
on them,” she says. (source: Rob Matheson, MIT News Office,
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