Replantable, the seed-stage startup, has created a product and validated their idea — nanofarms, an appliance that helps innovative plant pads grow herbs, lettuce, and other edible plants in the comfort of your kitchen. Since announcing their concept last year, Replantable’s founders Alex Weiss and Ruwan Subasinghe have created a growing business, taken orders, and gained a steady stream of national press. How did they get there? Through a successful Kickstarter campaign and mentorship and resources from ATDC.
Now, the founders are ready to grow their startup into a viable product and help the masses grow mini-farms in their kitchens. (And we can’t wait.) Here, Subasinghe shares how they validated their idea, lessons they learned from crowdfunding, and their thoughts on how technology is affecting sustainability.
What is Replantable’s target market?
We’re an urban agriculture company. We’re out of downtown Atlanta and we make a kitchen appliance that grows produce automatically. It’s made for the urban dweller, people that don’t have space for a garden or they just don’t have time to garden. It’s a kitchen appliance, it maintains the plant alive during this time. It basically grows all kinds of salad greens, herbs and fresh produce for you.
How does the nanofarm work?
In terms of making the product, it’s made of wood and steel. It’s being put together by a local contract manufacturer, actually. They’re right outside of Atlanta, in Lithonia.
The process is basically they cut out sheets of metal and bend it together and assemble this box basically. Then when it gets to customers hands they basically plug it in and then they put in one of our plant pads. We make the plant pads, they’re a combination of paper and seeds and plant nutrients. Those come in the mail and you put one of those in the Nano Farm, which is the appliance, and you add water and then the plants grow. The nutrients in the plant pad release slowly over time so there’s no need to add fertilizer or change the soil out. There’s actually no soil at all.
Replantable uses hydroponics, right? How does it help grow the plants?
Hydroponics just means growing plants in water and nutrients. There’s no constant watering. Once you fill the tray up with water the first time there’s no need to check up on it at all. We wanted to make it so that you could go on vacation for a month, come back and you’ve got a full crop of food ready for you. It’s completely hands-off.
What inspired you to do this?
We’re actually inspired by the fact that we would go buy greens at the supermarket and they would always go bad before we could even use them. A lot of the times they are not even fresh when you buy them. You’re kind of at the mercy of a long supply chain that’s weeks long. For example, lettuce comes from California, so by the time it’s here in Atlanta it’s spent a few weeks on a train, in trucks for transport and distribution. We wanted to make a way that was more localized and brought fresher food to people.
You just closed a successful Kickstarter round. How did it go?
We raised about $60K from the Kickstarter so we’re using that to go into production right now. We expect to have the product ready to deliver in 6-12 months. The first units off the line are going straight to our backers. Then subsequent units will go to people that have pre-ordered on our website. Then it will be available for general sale.
What are some lessons that you learned out of launching a Kickstarter campaign?
Definitely. Kickstarter is great for technology projects like ours. It became apparent to us that you need to really prove that you know what you’re doing in terms of fulfilling the orders and actually getting this thing made. I think a lot of people have been burned on kick starter, especially on technology projects that promise the world and then fail to deliver. We went into kick starter, we had a manufacturing timeline clearly listed out on the r page, exactly what the funds were going to be used for … I think especially with a designer technology project you can’t just have an idea, pitch it to people on kick starter, collect money and then figure out how you’re going to make what you promised. The pre-production has to be done, yes. You have to really be ready to go when the money comes.
What do you expect for the market impact locally and nationally to be with your startup?
We’ve seen from customers that there are certain types of produce that they’re not happy with the freshness of. It’s typically those leafy greens, those greens that go bad extremely quickly that are hard to keep fresh after they’ve been harvested. For those, I see those being disruptive for competitive or lower costs you can grow your own at home and you benefit from better flavor and a lot less waste. We’ve seen that’s a huge issue here in the US and in other first-world countries, is that we waste a ton of food. It’s not really our fault. Once you pick the food, it’s a ticking time bomb from when you pick it to when it have to be thrown away. You get it towards the last week of that time period.
We really see that the current distribution system for produce is fundamentally flawed in that way. In that, some of these products shouldn’t be shipped that far at all. They should be consumed right after harvesting. For those products, this could really be disruptive.
How do you feel that technology is trying to solve the issue of food waste and sustainability?
I definitely think it has. It works in both ways, right. Technology can reduce food waste by increasing its shelf life and that’s typically how engineering has been applied to food so far. With packaging concepts that introduce nitrogen and other inner gasses into the package to keep it fresh longer. Sometimes that technology is also an enabler. It enables food to be shipped for weeks on ships so now our food can come from Argentina or Peru and things like that. Sometimes at the expense of fossil fuels, there’s more energy. I think this is kind of a shift in the way we’re using technology. Previously, where we would use technology to engineer the food itself, like genetically modified food, that produces higher yields and is more pesticide resistant. Then we currently use technology in transport to make it last longer. In this way, we’re using technology to engineer a natural environment for plants. Actually, counter-intuitively we can use heirloom varieties of say, tomatoes or lettuce, that we haven’t grown in such a long time because it was not optimized for engineered agriculture.
Now we can go back to that because we’re engineering the environment rather than the food.