2014-09-02

Co.Labs

Your Very Own Indoor, Hydroponic Grove

A couple of engineers graduated from college to hardware startup, becoming a darling of Tim Ferriss along the way.



If you live in a city, eating locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables mostly requires you to seek out specific grocery stores, or parse through the produce section of a mainstream one, or wake up early on a Saturday and trek to the farmer’s market. And you might feel bad for craving zucchini in November, since it’s usually only available locally as a summer vegetable.

Buying organic is not completely convenient, and it’s hard not to stray away from it every now and then. But let’s say that eating all kinds of organic produce year-round was as easy as opening the fridge in your kitchen. A company called Grove Labs has been developing something along those lines ever since graduating from this spring’s inaugural class of the R/GA Accelerator—which is incidentally in the process of choosing its second class—and finishing college. Grove Labs, a team of freshly minted MIT and RISD grads, now has early iterations of the produce-growing units operating in users’ homes.

The grove, which sits alongside your kitchen’s other appliances.

Designed to fit alongside the appliances in and blend into the décor of your kitchen, Grove Labs’ device lets you grow fruits and vegetables hydroponically, without leaving your house. The whole setup includes the hydroponic chamber, which you can monitor through the transparent encasement, as well as a mobile app to keep track of growing conditions and link up to vendors to replenish your materials. The Grove Labs team calls the contraption a grove, not to be confused with a greenhouse.

"I don’t object to people calling it an indoor greenhouse, but I wouldn’t. It is a grove, which is a product or an area in someone’s home that grows food," says Gabe Blanchet, cofounder and CEO of Grove Labs.

Grove Labs’ founders, Jamie Byron (left) and Gabe Blanchet (right).

Blanchet and his cofounder, Jamie Byron, were still finishing up their undergraduate coursework in mechanical and aerospace engineering at MIT, last year, when they started actively seeking out ways to turn their grove idea into a business. As rising seniors, they took part in the MIT Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator and raised seed money from friends and family. Last fall, R/GA accepted them into its accelerator among 10 hardware startups, where Blanchet and Byron started to build out the grove concept with $120,000 in financial resources, while refining their brand.

Immediately after presenting at R/GA’s demo day at SXSW this year, Grove Labs attracted $2 million in funding from a couple of venture capital firms, two seed-stage funders, and angel investors. Having advertised on AngelList, it eventually caught the attention of Tim Ferriss, the "four-hour" guru and now investor. Ferriss eventually used AngelList to get his network on board with Grove Labs, boosting the company’s funding. Ferriss is now an official advisor to Grove Labs.

Since raising the $2 million, Grove Labs set up its office outside of Boston and invested in capital equipment to fill its new machine shop. There, the team plans to build up manufacturing knowledge in-house and fill small orders. At the moment, the team is still in the product development phase, waiting on user feedback from the people who are currently testing the groves in their homes. From there, they will solidify the design and continue product iterations.

"I think for a seed-stage startup in hardware, you’re usually taught to stay lean and don’t buy any tools and just outsource everything. But we’ve done the opposite," says Blanchet. With these resources, the team is learning a lot about how to design for manufacturing and also perfecting the grove’s features in-house.

Getting to invent and build something as a job right after college is valuable to Blanchet. He understands that while many of his engineering classmates had their pick of positions in investment banking, consulting, or software development after graduation, Grove Labs is the next logical step in his development; he’s always been building things.

"Jamie and I both come from an engineering background, and I don’t think we were ever tempted to just go to a larger company and work for somebody," he says. "It wasn’t like we were training to be engineers to go write software for someone—or go to Wall Street and don’t build anything."

[Photo: Flickr user chee.hong]



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7 Comments

  • spooky

    Kind of inappropriate to be doing this in your own home. Heat is a bother; smell is a problem. More common is to rent extra apartments in inexpensive areas to do urban indoor hydroponic gardening.

    And this does not take into account the cost of getting the hang of growing your own - you're liable to botch your first crop before getting the hang of it. Explains why most people leave horticulture to the experts, and the rise of urban delivery services. Now there's a growth opportunity!

    Can these sort of enclosures ventilated enough to be converted to drying/curing stations once the initial crop is harvested?

  • Gabe Blanchet

    Hi Spooky, I'm Gabe, co-founder of Grove Labs.

    You bring up great points.. hopefully I can address them all.

    • Our LED panels + drivers are very efficient and do not release much heat (technical specifications coming but not yet ready for release). No other parts of the system release any substantial heat.
    • Smell fully depends on what you're growing and how well you're maintaining a healthy, aerobic ecosystem. I love the smell of tomatoes and herbs that radiates from my Grove prototype and actually increases my oxygen! But again, it depends what you're growing.

    It's our goal to build products & experiences that make it easier to grow your own food. With that said, it's not magic! It does require work, just like gardening, and some people will certainly botch a crop (or 2, or 3!). We believe that technology can keep making it easier and easier to learn how to garden/tend to a Grove. But it does take work.

    Interesting thought regarding drying/curing - thanks for the feedback!

  • Not really a new concept. There are many engineering types doing different versions of this concept. Home hydroponics is big news lately and people at all levels are creating systems of all sizes and levels of automated-ness. You can find more commercial examples of such on kickstarter and DIY examples on YouTube. I personally like the rotating cylinder design.

  • Gabe Blanchet

    Hi Leke, this is Gabe, co-founder of Grove Labs.

    We agree that people of all levels are creating systems and we're so happy to be part of this trend! Soon, Grove Labs will be releasing a DIY video + instructions to help more people create their systems independent of our own product.

    People have been growing plants for thousands of years. So ultimately, you're right - we're not doing much new here. We also really like the rotating cylinder design, although it does have some drawbacks, like the moving parts and the cylindrical space requirement - a very good design though.

    Thanks!

    Gabe

  • BTW, the rotating cylinder design I mentioned is called the Volksgarden. It's a little pricey for me at the moment, but perhaps one day, it will be more affordable.

  • Gabe Blanchet

    HI Yehppael, Gabe here (co-founder of Grove Labs).

    We have not released power usage metrics yet, but will do so before we launch the product. LEDs keep getting more and more efficient (and the lights are by far the most energy intensive part of a Grove), but our numbers are already in a range we're very happy with! We're talking in the range of watts, certainly not kilowatts for an average-size Grove.

    With that said, sunlight is free (if you have the space + weather) and we encourage people to grow their own food however they can. If you have room for a garden outside, use the sun! With that said, a lot of people live in dense cities or experience cold/cloudy winters or seasons. For those people, Grove might make sense.

    Thanks,

    Gabe