Somerville Start-Up Grows Lettuce in Your Living Room

March 28, 2016

Grove creates aquaponic ecosystems, bringing style and sustenance to the indoor home garden. 

By 
Brooke Jackson-Glidden
Somerville Start-Up Grows Lettuce in Your Living Room | WGBH | Craving Boston

On the wall of the entrance to Grove’s Urban Research Farm (GURF), a sketch of the “GAIA mothership system” hangs next to various charts and models. In the drawing, a dude in dreads stands inside a veritable tech-abled forest: beds of bright green lettuce heads and tomato plants offer themselves to the stick figure, all connected by cords that link to a smartphone (noted with a separate diagram). To Grove, the future is green and always in season, even in the snowy days of a Somerville spring. To the tech bro founders, Grove’s potential extends far beyond the Boston startup scene.

The bros in question are Gabriel Blanchet and Jamie Byron, two MIT graduates who developed the Grove “ecosystem,” a stylish, low-maintenance indoor garden that waters itself, requires no natural light, and is even completely soil-free. They use aquaponics, a system that uses watery ecosystems to grow other plants, for veggie beds that could grow in as inhospitable an environment as a college frat house.

The bookshelf-sized ecosystem comes with three stories: at the bottom, an aquarium filled with brightly-colored fish. In the middle, a bed of veggies and herbs (or whatever you may choose to grow). The roof shines LED “sunlight” down on the plants. The garden uses wifi, fish poop, and a diligent team of young scientists to grow a family’s tomatoes in the middle of December.

Here’s how it works: When the betas consume the fish food or duckweed and do what fish do, their waste becomes natural fertilizer for the plants above. Clay spheres that resemble malt-balls absorb these nitrifying bacteria; dwarf tomatoes, kale leaves, and bright orange nasturtium bloom from between the cracks.

 

Somerville Start-Up Grows Lettuce in Your Living Room | WGBH | Craving Boston

 

Normally, if you're farming outside, you may need to spend alternating seasons re-enriching the soil with plants like clover in empty beds. Instead, these “good” bacteria allow nutrient-rich plants to grow year round, no recharge seasons required. The result: an ecosystem that requires little attention. The duckweed feeds the fish, the fish feed the plants, and the plants feed you.

“The food that we eat is optimized for durability and shelf-life, instead of nutrient density,” Blanchet says, standing next to a bed of nasturtium in Greentown Labs. Greentown, a startup incubator in Somerville, hosts several companies that create environmentally-friendly solutions to big and small problems. Grove fits right in: it’s a sustainable way to grow food practically anywhere.

To call the ecosystem “self-sustaining” isn’t exactly right; the 16 members of the Grove team consistently adjust “wind” strength (fans built within the ecosystem), water levels, and light wattage to keep plants alive. They can simulate a “sunset” by dimming lights and give the plants that need it a little extra breeze. Users may get a ping on their Grove app reminding them to add more water, but what the Grove team can regulate, they do. In many ways, they’re dictating the weather inside Massachusetts homes — even the team members’ apartments. 

GURF is filled with prototypes, a carpenter’s shop meets greenhouse meets laboratory. The team raised a whopping half a million dollars with pre-orders alone, which will ship within the month. Around 50 lucky early adopters received beta versions, including Nate Williams and most of the team. Williams, an ecological and industrial designer, grows grape tomatoes in his home ecosystem, which he says rarely last long. He’s developed a grazing habit in the lab.

 

Somerville Start-Up Grows Lettuce in Your Living Room | WGBH | Craving Boston

“We’re all nibblers here,” he admits, as Blanchet picks a lemon verbena leaf.

There’s plenty to munch: Mint bushes grow out of brown beds, basil reaches toward the LED lights above, and a ladybug crawls on a leaf of nasturtium — a commonly spotted green in the Grove lab. It’s enough to forget you’re in a brick Somerville warehouse, but when you remember, you wonder how the heck a ladybug ended up in a lab. (Turns out, they’re shipped in to eliminate any potential aphids that may sneak in on seedlings.)

But to Grove, the biggest threat to these plants isn’t bugs (customers start from seeds anyway, which eliminates the possibility of covert insects), but rather, big industry. Industrial food production encourages farmers to grow products that go into a variety of mass-produced foods: Corn for corn syrup and animal feed, for instance. Byron’s main inspiration for Grove was to fight the power of "Big Ag."

"The paradox of the modern food system is that we’ve created an abundance of empty calories with no concern for our health or our family’s health,” Blanchet says. “I have so much fun with my ecosystem. And when we use it, we become closer to defeating the system. We change the way we go to the grocery store.”

They’re also changing the way we garden. Of course, the millennial appeal makes sense; when gardening is aided by iPhone apps and smart tech, we become more engaged and excited to connect with our plants. But tiny details — for instance, the smooth adjustable slide of the beds — were designed to aid the elderly, the people who garden inside because they can no longer get to the backyard.

"My grandmother loves to garden, but she can’t bend over anymore,” Blanchet demonstrates how the top shelf gently glides down. “It was important that we could make the roof easy to move and adjust for her.”

For many, a Grove ecosystem is far beyond the yearly budget; for the $4,500 single-bed garden, a family could buy a fridge. That said, the current users and pre-order demographic is diverse, and Blanchet says it’s increasingly popular with young families. Grove has also begun reaching the underprivileged children through educational programs: Six schools in the Boston area now use Grove to teach students about social science, biology, and engineering. Blanchet also directs me toward a simpler prototype: a DIY-version, similar to the first prototype that sat in Blanchet and Byron’s frathouse. It’s still in the works, but the final version isn’t for hungry college bros — rather, it’s for those who can’t afford a full system. No one at Grove wants to withhold their recipe from those who need it most.

“Aquaponics shouldn’t be something you need to protect,” he says. “We hope we can inspire the next generation. We need to develop some real farmers, ones that aren’t afraid to use tech.”

When Blanchet’s frat brother and friend, Jamie Byron, started building his first ecosystem, he was far from excited. “I didn’t see it as an opportunity, I saw it as a nuisance.” Byron was becoming more and more interested in global farming, and resolving the agricultural overabundance of corn, wheat, and soy. “He felt this deep problem on this planet and wanted to find a way to solve it. I just wanted to focus on graduating.”  But by winter, the two were harvesting plenty of fresh produce, and, according to Blanchet, the house “didn’t smell like beer.” Suddenly, Blanchet was re-engaged in the food he consumed, and then the idea for Grove was born. Now, millions of dollars continue to flow into the collaborative company, for computer scientists and carpenters, engineers and botanists. Programmers develop message boards so farmers can share tips through the app. Biologists consider the most cost-effective and helpful fish to stock in the aquariums, another ecosystem developed in Greentown Labs.

“It’s not just going to save the world,” Blanchet says. “It’s fun.”

Another tech start-up promising to save the world? Producing palapably awesome products to keep us well-fed seems like a good place to start. 

Grove Labs -  grovelabs.io

Topic 
  • March 27, 2016