SproutsIO’s Microfarming Units Can Turn Your Apartment Into a Garden

I often say that moving to Detroit was the best decision I made last decade, but there is one thing I left behind that I constantly pine for: My garden.

There’s a beautiful, well-tended community garden in my neighborhood, but good luck getting a spot in it—nobody ever gives theirs up. Apartment rules prevent me from digging up my building’s communal spaces and replacing the grass with plots of flowers and vegetables. Some days, the itch to get my hands in the dirt is so strong that I contemplate doing some guerilla gardening in one of the vacant lots near my apartment building, but the soil remediation required is too extensive. I’m usually forced to bike down to Eastern Market and stare longingly at the mounds of fresh, locally grown produce.

Frustrated urban gardeners like me may soon find some relief thanks to SproutsIO, a Detroit and Boston-based microfarming startup commercializing technology developed at MIT’s Media Lab. Jenny Broutin Farah, SproutsIO’s founder and CEO, says the company uses a “proprietary hybrid hydroculture” technology that allows home gardeners in even the tiniest apartments to grow a wide range of herbs, fruits, and vegetables in a soil-free environment.

“We’re building a microfarming system for people to grow produce in their home or office,” Farah says. “There’s no soil involved and you control the whole thing from a mobile app.”

SproutsIO growers insert seed pods into sleek, futuristic free-standing units, which can be positioned in the corner of the room that attracts the most sunlight. The units are covered in a suite of sensors that automate the delivery of a nutrient mist and also tell growers what’s happening with their plants. The units, which also contain lights and cameras, are controlled through the accompanying smartphone app. Farah says the technology works thanks to a combination of aeroponics and hydroponics that uses 98 percent less water and 60 percent less fertilizer than conventional growing methods.

“The whole purpose is to make the system really easy for people to use and maintain,” Farah says. “We really wanted to lower the barriers to entry. If you have a black thumb or you’re a former grower who has moved to an apartment, you can use SproutsIO.”

Farah, a Michigan native who started out as an architect, developed SproutsIO’s soil-free growing system as part of her Master’s degree thesis. The idea was originally inspired by work she did at the New York City parks department. From there, she went to MIT and began studying urban food systems.

Farah finished her degree in 2013 and soon after won a $100,000 award from Founder.org, which gave her the capital to turn her ideas into a company. SproutsIO was also a semi-finalist in the 2013 MIT Entrepreneurship Competition and a finalist in the 2014 Mass Challenge. Farah says the company has also gotten support from undisclosed investors.

Farah says the modular SproutsIO units are manufactured in Detroit, and the company is in the process of finding a place in the city to serve as its headquarters. She says Detroit’s “amazing” hardware infrastructure is one reason the company wants to locate here; another is the energy devoted to revitalization. “There are so many incredible people and groups doing awesome work in Detroit,” she explains. “I knew I had to be a part of it. That spirit is infectious.”

Farah also sees Detroit, with its dearth of fresh produce options in too many sections of the city, as a perfect proving ground for technology that allows people more control over where their food is grown.

“If we can get more people involved in the process of where their food comes from, we can cut supply chain inefficiencies,” she says. “We don’t want to replace farm-grown food, but supplement it. Over time, growing with SproutsIO costs less than going to the grocery store—the units and cartridges pay for themselves. It becomes an incredibly viable solution to access fresh produce.”

Though the price point at this early stage might be prohibitively high for many Detroit residents, Farah encourages interested home gardeners to sign up to beta test the SproutsIO units.

“What we care about is creating an alternative so people know they have a choice in the food they’re eating,” Farah adds. “I look at things like, how do we make adaptable systems for cities that work more like software? My interest is in developing plug and play systems that can easily be incorporated in cities. When we have potentially millions of people using SproutsIO, it could really change the way food is grown.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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