The Grobo Pod: revolutionizing farming one house at a time

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<strong>Startup Stories</strong></p>

Startup Stories is a new series in the science and tech section of Imprint. Each issue will profile a company that is local and/or founded by current or former UWaterloo students. We will be reporting what it’s actually like to start and run a startup. You’ll hear from founders from a variety of programs who have built a wide range of products. The current list of companies who have agreed to be profiled build software and hardware, use nanotechnology to develop intricate solutions to challenging problems, and introduce intelligent alternatives to existing tasks. Imprint will talk to CEOs, CTOs, COOs, and marketers, so whether you’re interested in the business, technical, or operational challenges that these teams have faced, we’ll have something for you.

We kicked off the series with a profile of Suncayr — a Kitchener-Waterloo-based company founded by University of Waterloo nanotechnology engineering class of 2015 alumni, that has developed a marker that changes colour when applied to skin. You can view that story online at uwimprint.ca/section/science.

In this  instalment of Startup Stories, we’re shifting focus towards the technical challenges that Grobo — a small company aiming to make fresh foods accessible through automated home gardening systems — faced during their product development. Imprint reached out to UW fourth-year mechanical engineering student Bjorn Dawson, the CEO and co-founder of Grobo, to learn more.

Grobo

The Grobo team, which includes UW electrical engineering student Chris Thiele (CTO and co-founder), Laurier alumna Stefanie Chan (marketing lead), and Guelph alumna Alice Cecile (horticulture research lead), is developing the Grobo Pod, “a smart gardening system that waters your plants, provides them with light, [and] monitors temperature and humidity,” Dawson explained.

“The idea is to make it easy for anybody to grow fresh food at home year-round. The system is app-controlled, which allows you to tell it what you’ve planted … and then it takes care of the plant entirely for you and gives you a progress bar of how long until they are ready.”

When asked about his overall experience creating a new product from scratch, Dawson’s response was succinct: “Brutal.”

“We made a few mistakes,” admitted the CEO.

The Grobo Pod combines software, hardware, and horticultural aspects, which adds to the complexity of the project.

“We focused on the software and the mechanical side,” Dawson revealed. “What we should have done right from the start — which we see now — is look at it from a horticultural perspective. We’ve remedied that and now our designs are quite strong from a horticultural perspective, but that took us time to realize how [horticulture] went into it.”

Since the Grobo Pod will essentially control and predict nature by using algorithms to determine the optimal amount of water, light, temperature, and humidity needed to grow crops, and then accurately predict the best time for harvest, horticulture is definitely a huge aspect of the product.

Now that Grobo has a horticulture research lead on the team, the project is moving along. “She’s our horticulturalist and she’s also a statistician,” Dawson remarked when asked about Cecile. “She’s able to help us figure out what data we should be collecting and how we can interpret that data to improve our growth algorithms as we move forward.

“Designing a product from scratch is incredibly difficult because it requires a lot of people [and] expertise that you don’t necessarily have in your team. So you need to find those people. I actually started Grobo alone and found Chris, and together we were able to find the rest of our team.

“Bringing [in] all the expertise is huge … because of all the industries that we’re in,” Dawson added.

Finding individuals with years of experience in their field is also crucial to a startup’s success. “[There is] a lack of experience overall,” explained Dawson. “A lot of the time, new grads don’t have it, so you need to find those advisers that do.”

“We have plenty,” Dawson shared. “We have tons of good advisers from BlackBerry — ex-BlackBerry people — who have been amazing because they’re trying to support the ecosystem and they’re incredibly hands-on.”

Dawson believes that the demand for automated gardening is massive. “There’s a real shift that’s taking place in our agricultural systems,” Dawson explained. “They’re unsustainable … and there are massive energy drains that go into farming. We are running out of water … and [arable] land.”

According to Grobo, farming is going towards highly automated systems in order to meet the demands of an ever-growing population. “We currently feed more people than we ever have in all of history and the population is expanding exponentially,” Dawson pointed out. “We have to feed everybody somehow.”

Rather than commercializing large automated farms, Grobo created a smaller system for individual households. The Grobo Pod will target foodies and health-conscious consumers. With the Grobo Pod, every consumer will know exactly how his or her food is produced, and the fresh fruits and vegetables are healthier, tastier, and will last longer.

“We do believe that this will be the next appliance in everybody’s homes,” predicted Dawson.

Grobo is still a new company, and as a result, they currently do not have any investors. However, the team has been able to fund themselves through government grants and competitions.

Eventually, the startup plans to branch out and try different funding opportunities including crowdfunding, but for now, the team is more focused on perfecting the design of the product and making the app’s algorithms as accurate as possible.