Tired of complaining about the lack of reliably fresh ingredients in retail outlets, two undergrads (and erstwhile home chefs) at Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the world’s top research institutes, decided to develop a device that would enable gardenless city folk like themselves to grow fresh herbs and greens, speedily, simply and from scratch, in their own kitchens.
For engineering students Alex Weiss and Ruwan Subasinghe, what began as a homespun project became a serious quest. In 2015, shortly after graduating, the duo co-founded start-up Replantable to devise, design, test, trial, manufacture and market what they hoped would be the world’s most user-friendly in-home farm.
Their goal was to create a benchtop ‘nanofarm’ that would:
- be as simple to use as any 21st-century kitchen device;
- require minimal set-up, maintenance and cleaning – comparable to the effort involved in, say, defrosting a ‘ready meal’ or using an espresso maker;
- be able to grow microgreens, herbs and the like;
- be capable of growing nutritious plants under artificial light;
- be capable of doing so in the shortest possible time frame; and
- be able to do so with minimal inputs and power use.
The Nanofarm prototype
The initial Nanofarm, billed as ‘The Food-Growing Appliance’, went through several incarnations to ensure it met all the criteria its creators thought time-poor, health-conscious, green-leaning urban consumers would likely want.
The unit Weiss and Subasinghe eventually created did so admirably - it was:
- simple to use, with just two controls: a ‘number of weeks’ dial and a ‘start’ button. Beginning a grow cycle entails setting the weeks dial to the number shown on the plant pad and pushing ‘start’. A ‘harvest’ indicator light turns on when your crop is ready for harvest.
- a cinch to clean, with those few parts likely to get soiled – the tray, grate and splash guard – all dishwasher-safe; and no pumps or filters to clean or maintain.
- energy-efficient, powered by daylight LEDs that give growing plants as much light as a sunny summer day but consume only about a dollar’s worth of electricity a month.
- modular and stackable, giving users the flexibility to grow just one crop or a variety of produce – as the farm’s creators put it, to “use one Nanofarm to grow fresh herbs on your counter or build a living wall of Nanofarms and feed an entire family” – and can be stacked vertically up to four units high.
- constructed from high-quality, durable materials so it’s “built to last”. The unit’s frame, explain Nanofarm’s makers, is made from tough powder-coated steel and natural wood; its door hardware from “highly corrosion-resistant marine-grade aluminium”. The growing tray is “tough, food-grade plastic that can withstand the extreme heat and cleaning solvents inside a typical dishwasher”.
- able to deliver fresh, nutritious produce with zero food miles. Much retail produce has been transported hundreds or thousands of kilometres before it gets to you – whereas the food grown on Nanofarm’s plant pads is produced and consumed on site.
User-friendly, eco-friendly plant pads
The ‘plant pads’ Weiss and Subasinghe designed are made from layers of paper, minerals and wax, relying on capillary action to wick water from the tray, much as soil does.
Unlike soil, however, plant pads don't harbour insect eggs or pathogens, and incorporate the right complement of nutrients to provide optimum growth.
They also have several other pluses:
- Fresh, varied produce. Nanofarm, say its creators, can be used to grow any leafy green, herb, microgreen or bulb plant (such as radishes and beets). Replantable sells plant pads impregnated with the organic seeds of staples such as lettuce and basil, plus “an ever-expanding variety of exotic veggies”, including shiso and fenugreek, for US$5-8 per pad, plus shipping (if outside the US).
- Quality seeds. Replantable uses only organic, non-GMO seeds, including many heirloom varieties.
- Seed numbers per pad ensure maximum yield. Each pad includes “the optimal number of plants to get the highest yield out of each pad – a very large plant like romaine lettuce might have four plants per pad, a small plant like arugula might have 25 plants per pad and a microgreen pad could have over 100 seeds”. Weiss and Subasinghe explain.
- One pad, several crops. A single pad can also be used to grow multiple plant types – the company sells several salad and herb mixes, for instance.
- Easily mailable. As the plant pads fit in standard US envelopes, they can be shipped cheaply and efficiently (sans eco-unfriendly plastic packaging).
- Fully biodegradable and compostable. Once you’ve harvested a crop, the plant pad can be composted or binned.
Funding, testing and tweaking
In August 2016, Replantable launched a Kickstarter campaign, seeking US$50,000 by end October to fast-track the testing and commercialisation phases of the project.
Within three months, they’d been pledged US$61,070 by 220 backers.
Weiss and Subasinghe used the injection of funds to set up a commercial manufacturing facility and recruit 30 beta testers, who trialled prototype Nanofarm units at home in late 2016 and early 2017.
Each tester got the chance to harvest between two and four crops of fresh produce, and were reportedly “very happy” with the results.
Based on beta testers’ critiques, minor tweaks ensued, including the addition of:
- an indicator light “so you know when to harvest”;
- a growing tray that holds more water, with a splash guard for the tray “so it is easier to carry from the sink to the Nanofarm”; and
- a tinted, tempered glass door “so the grow light doesn't light up your whole house” and to keep kids, pets and pathogens out.
With those modifications “and a few changes in the materials used for the frame”, the production model is the same as the beta model, say Weiss and Subasinghe.
Commercial-scale manufacturing began in mid-May 2017, with the first Nanofarm units set to roll off the production line and into the kitchens of Replantable’s Kickstarter funders in October 2017.
Each Nanofarm is expected to retail at around US$350 per unit, each plant pad, impregnated with organic seeds and suitable nutrients, and typically costing less than $6 US$6 apiece.
Wider-scale availability will follow shortly thereafter.
Further information and orders
For more information and tech specs, or to order your own Nanofarm, visit the Replantable website.