Thursday, April 19, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay innovators hope their indoor gardening system has commercial appeal

ST. PETE BEACH — House plants are pretty easy to take care of, usually. With a bit of daily minding, water and light, they'll usually take care of themselves.

But not everyone has a green thumb and busy schedules can prevent people from giving flora the required attention. In recent years, however, methods for growing plants have advanced. Many nurseries and gardeners use the hydroponic technique, or water only, to root certain indoor plants, using soil only for others.

And newer trends in irrigation conservation, energy efficiency and light technology have also influenced modern indoor gardening. Knowing there was a growing market in this niche business, two area friends — who grew up together in St. Pete Beach and went to the same college — had an idea for an indoor gardening system that was self-sufficient, would appeal to the environmentally conscious and could even be artistic.

Sam Secord and William Rowe came up with the idea for a light and transportable planter that could be hung from any wall — a vertical garden called Aergro.

"It's the first fully automated, self-contained, vertical gardening system for the purpose of plant growth and air filtration," Secord, 31, said from Rowe's house during an interview recently, though Aergro Inc. has an office in downtown St. Petersburg. "It can use up to 98 percent less water than other systems on the market."

That's because their internal irrigation design employs aeroponic gardening, a method used by NASA for years. The system sprays plant roots — suspended in the air inside the housing of the Aergro planter box — with a water mist at various times of each day while set on a timer, as opposed to constantly immersing the roots in water or sand, for example, as is the case with hydroponic gardening.

After three years of trial and error — tinkering, forging parts from scratch and building their own prototypes, with incremental success while using their own money — they learned what worked and what didn't.

Now they have a final prototype ready for mass production. Their goal is to take Aergro local and get it into retailers, such as West Elm, they said, while also trying to get Aergro into area schools and local businesses, such as salons, restaurants and hotels. From there, they will assess what path is the most successful in reaching potential customers.

"It took us a while to realize aeroponics was the answer, but once we pivoted that direction we were really able to develop something that met our goals and proved even to be lower maintenance, and more water efficient than we ever imagined," Rowe, 32, said. "Since the beginning, we really set out to develop an indoor vertical growing system optimized for modern life."

Aergro has nine planter holes, each roughly 1½ to 2 inches in diameter, cut into the face of the housing, which is made of UV- resistant plastic and is roughly 2 feet tall and 1½ feet wide. Using a maximum of 4 liters of water per month, depending on the type of plants being grown and the speed at which the water is recycled and used by the roots, their "appliance," as they call it, can grow plants three times faster than soil and filters the air of a 275-square-foot room over a 24-hour period using an electric timer to engage the internal misting system.

It has been a struggle getting Aergro off the ground, and they have one hurdle yet to overcome — funding for the first production run. They're set to order the first 1,300 units from a manufacturing partner in Asia once they raise the money needed — $50,000 — through a Kickstarter page they launched on Nov. 15. If they don't reach their funding goal by Dec. 15, they won't get any of the money pledged.

As is often the case with start-ups, they tried finding a U.S. manufacturer to work with, but it proved too expensive.

"The experience of sourcing a manufacturer stateside was honestly a nightmare," said Secord, who also operates a mobile marine business called Bayside Marine Management. "We reached out to dozens of companies all over the U.S., all of which either did not respond to multiple requests for quotes or submitted a quote that required a minimum initial order of no less than $500,000. Obviously, this was unrealistic for a startup without significant financial backing."

They ultimately found partners in China who could accommodate all of their manufacturing, packaging and delivery needs on par with the quality the unit requires.

Ultimately, they plan on charging $199 for Aergro. Supporters of the Kickstarter campaign will be eligible to purchase Aergro for $99, they said.

The pair said vegetables, herbs, succulents or regular houseplants can be grown from seedlings, transplants or even small cuttings. And the sleek design can be easily woven into any room's decor, they said.

"There is an optimal environment for every living thing — and Aergro is our vision of that for plants," Rowe said.

Ingenuity is an occasional series highlighting Tampa Bay inventors, entrepreneurs and innovators. If you know of someone who could be the subject of an Ingenuity story, send an email to [email protected] with Ingenuity in the subject line.

Comments
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Updated: 12 hours ago
St. Petersburg police remove disabled adults from ‘deplorable’ assisted living facilities

St. Petersburg police remove disabled adults from ‘deplorable’ assisted living facilities

ST. PETERSBURG — Beef jerky, mayonnaise and Altoids mints were the only edible things in view inside one of the houses. There was no running water. The refrigerator was empty. A bed sat on top of the deteriorating living room floor. Cigarette butts b...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Marriott Edition to bring five-star hotel ambitions to Water Street Tampa

Marriott Edition to bring five-star hotel ambitions to Water Street Tampa

TAMPA — At the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, hotelier Ian Schrager transformed a Jazz Age building with its own rich history into a destination offering even more heady experiences — extravagant, edgy and bohemian.In Tampa, Schrager will have...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Here’s your first look at what will be Riverwalk Place, Tampa’s tallest tower

Here’s your first look at what will be Riverwalk Place, Tampa’s tallest tower

TAMPA — Developers on Thursday detailed plans for what they touted as the tallest building on Florida’s west coast, with condominiums priced in six and seven figures and a shimmering glass design they say would stand out in the skylines of New York, ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
The St. Pete Pier takes another step forward

The St. Pete Pier takes another step forward

ST. PETERSBURG — Development of the city’s long-awaited pier advanced another step Thursday.The City Council approved a $15 million construction contract and additional money to design a waterside restaurant, build a playground and ferret out naming ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Free rides on PSTA and HART buses to celebrate Earth Day

Free rides on PSTA and HART buses to celebrate Earth Day

Those who use mass transit across the Tampa Bay area can ride for free on Sunday.To celebrate Earth Day, both the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) will be offering free rides on Su...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Wells Fargo said to be target of $1 billion fine

Wells Fargo said to be target of $1 billion fine

Federal regulators are poised to impose a $1 billion penalty on Wells Fargo for a number of alleged misdeeds, including forcing customers to buy auto insurance policies that they didn’t need, according to people briefed on the regulatory action. The ...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Tech Data names Rich Hume to take over as CEO

Tech Data names Rich Hume to take over as CEO

CLEARWATER — A longtime IBM executive is becoming the new leader of Tampa Bay’s largest public company. Tech Data on Thursday named Richard "Rich" Hume as its new CEO effective June 6. Hume joined Tech Data two years ago and is currently the chief op...
Published: 04/19/18
LA Fitness tones up Hillsborough location

LA Fitness tones up Hillsborough location

When LA Fitness on West Hillsborough Ave. reopens mid-summer, it will have undergone a $5 million renovation and a complete transformation. Closed since November 2017, the 10-year-old facility was completely torn down and is still undergoing construc...
Published: 04/19/18
Kids have fun and gain coding skills at Code Ninja in Westchase

Kids have fun and gain coding skills at Code Ninja in Westchase

A new program that teaches coding to kids is coming to the Tampa Bay area. Code Ninjas is a Houston-based franchise that is opening its first location in Westchase in early May. There are plans for other centers in Carrollwood, South Tampa, New Tampa...
Published: 04/19/18