Jennifer Broutin Farah is attempting to amp up the already extolled locavore movement—by moving the concept of "locally grown" from your neighborhood farmers' market to mere steps from the dinner table.
For the past five years the 31-year-old founder and CEO of SproutsIO has been looking for ways to bring food production closer to city dwellers with an in-home, soil-free gardening system that can be controlled with a mobile app.
"A lot of people don't realize that there's a tremendous amount of waste every year due to supply chain inefficiencies involved in getting food from farm to table with industrial agriculture," she says. "One of the most important things with this is to bring the food growing closer to the end user."
Soil-free, or aeroponic, growing uses water mist to deliver nutrients to plants and oxygen to their roots. In fact, Broutin Farah says that in a year's time her system can produce six times the harvest grown by identical plants in soil—including leafy greens like lettuce, bok choy, spinach, and kale; small fruiting plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, beans, and peas; and root vegetables like radishes, carrots, and potatoes.
Broutin Farah envisions SproutsIO, which gives each plant its own pod to grow in and allows users to track growth with sensors, will become a companion to the refrigerator and decrease the amount of wilted, rotting fruits and veggies that end up in the crisper.
"I grew up outside Detroit in the suburbs and I used to grow tomatoes with my mom—every one of those tomatoes, at the end of the summer, had a home," she says. "So I would drive to my cousin's house to take some to them or come up with inventive things to make with tomatoes. We had that kind of intimacy with the plants by growing them, so we cared about what happened to them."
Drawing on her background in architecture and passion for urban planning, Broutin Farah knew SproutsIO would have to look more "modern fixture" than "laboratory experiment" to win over people with limited space.
"Right now any kind of indoor growing system is at a hobbyist scale. You have to go to Home Depot and 10 other stores to get parts, then you put it together and it looks like a science project, and it's ugly," she says.
The system started moving from idea to prototype when Broutin Farah was working in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory as a candidate for a master's degree in media arts and science.
She knew the system would have to completely eliminate the learning curve that keeps people without a natural green thumb from starting a container garden on their windowsill.
"I've oftentimes tried to grow orchids and I'm really awful at it," she says. "I've tried every possible variety and manner in which to grow them. I don't know if I'm overwatering them or it's the temperature that's off—the ability to know what's going on behind the scenes with your plants is huge."
That's why she built the SproutsIO system with sensors that clue in growers to the humidity, temperature, pH, and light needs of a plant without the need for bulky extra equipment. She wants giving each plant individualized care to be as easy as a few taps and swipes on a smartphone, even for people who spend weeks at a time away from their SproutsIO system.
Another bonus of linking the system to a mobile app, which is being designed to work with iOS and Android devices: Growers who harvest a particularly tasty crop of spinach can send specs to a friend as a cheat sheet.
Broutin Farah and her team won $100,000 in a startup competition from Founder.org and are now putting together the pieces of their manufacturing supply chain, though no on-sale date has been set. "It's really important this isn't something you get and it's just interesting for a month or two," she says. "We want it to be something that's integrated into your life."