Friday, December 15, 2017
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.

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