Grove Labs Builds a High-Tech Indoor Gardening Box

If you’re into locally grown organic food and it’s January in Boston, your options are pretty limited. Startup Grove Labs wants to bring the farm to you, using technology to make indoor gardening more productive.

The Somerville, MA-based company recently began testing prototypes of its “groves,” or indoor growing boxes, and is currently working on beta versions, CEO and co-founder Gabe Blanchet tells me. To get a sense of what Grove’s high-tech growing cabinets are like, I visited Blanchet at the company’s offices in the Greentown Labs incubator this summer. The company raised $2 million in May.

As anyone who has tried to grow food knows, problems can easily occur: one year might yield great lettuce, but the next year can be a total bust because of different environmental conditions or pests.

With Grove Labs, the idea is to couple technology, such as sensors and online services, with traditional indoor growing methods which rely on artificial light. A hydroponic system, for instance, grows greens in nutrient-filled water, rather than in soil. Aquaponics grow plants and fish at the same time in a symbiotic system that cleans the fish water and harvests fertilizer from fish waste.

Being able to monitor the health of the overall operation via a smart phone or some other device can not only head off problems but also educate gardeners with tips on lighting schedules or what kinds of seeds to use. For instance, a sensor could detect whether a pathogen circulating in the water risks tanking that week’s lettuce. Another possibility is that people will add different trays to grow different types of food with specific instructions for each crop.

“Technology can help make it easier for people and people can ask for help, for instance, on what the science is for the best seeds,” Blanchet said during my visit.

Gabe Blanchet and Jamie tk of Grove Labs at Greentown Labs. Credit: Martin LaMonica

Gabe Blanchet and Jamie Byron of Grove Labs at Greentown Labs. Credit: Martin LaMonica

Blanchet doesn’t pretend that the whole thing will be plug and play—people will actually have to tend to their groves. But, he notes, there are already quite a few people who enjoy gardening and would be interested in growing their own organic food indoors.

The notion of building a grove in a corner of a living room or even a whole room came while Blanchet and co-founder Jamie Byron were students at MIT. Just for fun, Byron had rigged up an aquaponic growing system in the bay window of their fraternity, growing lettuce, kale, and other veggies in the dead of winter. Blanchet instantly got hooked on the idea.

“Harvesting food while it was snowing outside was pretty special,” he says. “I thought that if we could do this for other people, everyone will want one.”

The employees at Grove Labs aren’t the only young tech entrepreneurs who have gravitated toward food. Sprouts.IO, which is based in Detroit and Boston, came out of the MIT Media Lab and makes an app-controlled home “microfarming” system. Across the river in Boston is Freight Farms, which makes shipping containers for growing greens, as well as a few companies in New York that either grow food themselves or make the equipment for restaurants or supermarkets to grow food.

By enabling locally grown (really locally grown) veggies, Grove Labs’ product appeals to both environmentally aware and health-conscious consumers. At the same time, the product has to do something that existing indoor growing systems don’t, at a price consumers can bear. Can smart phone apps make gardening more productive and fun? That’s where their product design will need to shine.

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