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A User-Friendly Gardening System For The Plant-Challenged

SproutsIO Inc. allows people to easily grow fresh produce inside a home or office. The system is a spinoff of research done at the MIT Media Lab.
SproutsIO Inc.
SproutsIO Inc. allows people to easily grow fresh produce inside a home or office. The system is a spinoff of research done at the MIT Media Lab.

Don't have a green thumb but seeking the therapeutic nature of gardening? Want the convenience and satisfaction of growing your own produce at home? Not to worry: All you need is an electrical outlet, a flat surface and some water.

Meet SproutsIO Inc., a "plug-and-play" user-friendly microfarming appliance for people to easily grow fresh fruits and veggies inside their home or office.

Here's how it works:

The system includes the appliance and seed cartridges. Though the seed options will vary, many of the cartridge choices are things you wouldn't typically find at the grocery store, like black cherry tomatoes.

Once you pop the seed cartridge into the soil-free system, it recognizes what you're trying to grow, and sets an automatic profile for how that plant should be grown.

SproutsIO uses hybrid hydroculture technology, meaning that they have combined the two main types of plant-watering: hydroponics, which involves submerging a plant's roots, and aeroponics, which waters a plant through misting.

Ideally, users will interact with their plants with their mobile device through the SproutsIO app. Users can keep track of their plant's progress (at home or remotely), adjust the lighting or watering to customize the automated profiles, and also interact with others who are using the system.

"The main interaction is really supposed to be through your mobile device," says Jennifer Broutin Farah, SproutsIO's founder and CEO.

You can view and modify your plant's profile on the SproutsIO phone app.
/ SproutsIO Inc.
SproutsIO Inc.
You can view and modify your plant's profile on the SproutsIO phone app.

"What we've done is we've tried to make it as easy as possible for people to start growing." She says as soon as you plug it in, get the mobile application and add water, you're on your way.

SproutsIO plants can take as little as half of the amount of growth time as a regular plant, depending on what you're growing. The system has a series of sensors that monitor the humidity, temperature, misting, lighting and nutrients for your plants.

"Within the actual footprint that you're growing in, depending what you're growing, six times the amount of produce can be harvested from that same footprint," Farah says.

The system needs very little water. Farah says it uses about 2 percent of the water you would normally need for growing in soil. And depending on the plant, you might be able to go a month or two without having to fill the water supply.

"It's the design of the system," Farah says. SproutsIO optimizes water use based on the plant's growth cycle and what the plant wants at any given time.

"The intent is that it makes it really easy for people to grow," she says.

All of the prototypes are manufactured in Detroit, where her team is utilizing the city's automotive industry resources to create them. Farah says there's incredible infrastructure to do things like that in the Motor City.

Before attending MIT, Farah, a trained architect, had worked on developing different prototypes for urban food systems — like how to grow fruits and veggies on the sides of city buildings and schools in New York City and Boston.

The SproutsIO project grew out of research that Farah was doing at the MIT Media Lab. After she finished at MIT last summer, she founded the spinoff company that would become SproutsIO Inc.

With it, she hopes to connect people directly with their food.

"What I realized through this process was that people don't understand or don't realize that you can grow this way," she says.

Farah says many people are wary of getting into gardening because they're afraid they're going to kill their plants. She wants to "lower that barrier to entry," and hopes the system can become a part of a user's lifestyle. Because SproutsIO is largely automated, she says it helps users familiarize themselves with cultivating food in a simple way.

"What we're interested in as a mission — as part of our company — is to actually engage people in the growing process. We want to create an experience around growing," she says.

Farah and her team are still exploring manufacturing and selling costs. SproutsIO just finished its "complete functional prototype" phase, and the team will continue to create systems for beta testing through the fall. Farah declined to provide a price estimate for the system.

The concept of integrating hydroponics, smartphone applications and the remote monitoring of plants is a growing trend. Other companies like Grove Labs and Freight Farms are trying to bring fresh produce to your home or office, too.

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Allie Caren
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