Home CompaniesB2B This Founder Is Growing His Soil Sensor Company With the Help of Athens’ Strong Startup Community

This Founder Is Growing His Soil Sensor Company With the Help of Athens’ Strong Startup Community

by Muriel Vega

As temperatures fluctuate, it can be difficult for landscapers to keep track of the right level of moisture for plants, especially on a larger scale. While soil moisture sensors currently exist on the market, they often have accuracy issues, and are costly to maintain. Reservoir is taking aim at this industry by merging the accuracy of the leading research sensor with an affordable price and low cost maintenance.

“U.S. landscapers who install and warranty trees spend $150 million a year traveling to job sites to check soil moisture,” says CEO Jesse Lafian, a UGA horticultural graduate. “They spend another $50 million per year removing and replacing trees that die from improper irrigation. The solution to this problem is a soil-moisture sensor that sends accurate data from a job site to a landscaper’s screen.”

Soil moisture sensors are being used on less than 10 percent of irrigated U.S. farmland right now, according to Lafian. This results in farmers being forced to use guesswork to estimate how much water to use — which sometimes has significant economic and environmental consequences. A soil moisture sensor helps landscapers prevent overwatering, which can kill trees and cost time and money to replace those dead or diseased trees.

The startup is currently part of both the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) accelerate program and the University of Georgia Entrepreneurship Program. Lamina also recently received a $25,000 Phase 1A grant from UGA to further product development on the patent-pending sensors.

I’ve learned a lot from building and testing several versions of prototypes during the past eighteen months,” says Lafian. “The GRA grant will allow me to develop improved prototypes with an engineering team. Sherpa Solutions in Atlanta will handle the mechanical and electrical design and fabrication of the new prototypes.”

In addition to this grant, Lafian has won more than $30,000 since January 2016 in research grants and pitch competitions; he is currently in talks with an angel group for a $175,000 investment.

He’s already pre-sold three sensors of the prototype to landscapers at a large Georgia golf club, and has several other clients in the pipeline. “I have confirmed five international ag-tech companies as prospective customers. I’m asking for introductions to people who can facilitate Reservoir’s mission to improve irrigation efficiency on a large scale.”

During his junior year in fall 2015, Lafian got the idea for Reservoir in a Soils and Hydrology lab when the professor told the class that whoever could invent an accurate, affordable soil-moisture sensor would “be able to retire early and live in a beach house.” 

“All of the landscape contractors I’ve talked to have said that they would use this technology if it was available,” says Lafian. “Instead of driving around to job sites to check soil moisture, which is what they currently do, they could look at accurate soil-moisture data remotely. This would not only improve irrigation efficiency; it would also improve employee productivity.”

Reservoir’s sensors will cost $100 per sensor plus $5 a month per sensor for website and app subscriptions. The sensor, similar to a PVC pipe, is inserted into the ground and contains several individual sensors. A small head unit houses the batteries and remote transmission technology. Each individual sensor will let the customer receive data from different soil depths — for example, 10, 16, and 24 inches underground — sent throughout the day to the cloud for the customer to view on the Reservoir platform.

“This is important for both landscapers and farmers; both need to know soil-moisture data beneath the soil surface, because that is equally if not more important than knowing what it is on the surface,” says Lafian.

While Reservoir is currently focusing on landscapers as their target market, Lafian hopes to expands to other audiences such as farm employees, botanical gardens, golf courses, cooperative extension services, universities (including researchers), and the government. He hopes to enter the beta phase next year.

Reservoir’s initial goal is to help landscapers save time, trees, and water. In several years, I’d like to expand into the agricultural market and help farmers improve yields and input efficiency — for example, water, agro-chemicals, and energy used to put these on their fields,” says Lafian.

Lafian attributes a lot of his success to the Athens startup community’s support, including ATDC Athens, as well as the city’s affordability.

“I can’t overstate how helpful the startup community in Athens has been for growing Reservoir,” says Lafian. “I began learning about entrepreneurship last fall by enrolling in the UGA/Four Athens Idea Accelerator. Jim Flannery, then the Executive Director of Four Athens and now a Startup Catalyst at ATDC, taught the course. I now consider him to be my unofficial manager — he’s the guy I can vent to when I’m losing my mind from editing a patent application for nine hours straight.”

“Also, Bob Pinckney, who runs the UGA Entrepreneurship Program, has also been a constant source of help. Through his program, I’ve been exposed to countless opportunities for fundraising and learning. I spend money as it comes in. If I don’t win a pitch competition, I don’t pay rent.”

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