Houston, TX-based Startup Co. Looks to Make Aeroponics an Affordable Reality for Urban Farmers
August 30, 2012 | Missy Smith
Imagine sitting in a café enjoying conversation and waiting for you order, while watching the restaurant’s employees pick fresh food for your meals. This is the very idea that jump-started the company Indoor Harvest, Inc., of Houston, Texas, a company that develops aeroponic growing systems. Originally started as a retail business venture that would create soups, sandwiches and salads geared toward vegetarians and foodies, it soon switched gears and began designing the very growing systems that would provide the fresh food in such a cafe.
“Once we started conducting due diligence on the business, we realized there was a greater opportunity to build and design the actual systems that would be used,” explains Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, Inc. “We really couldn’t find a commercial system that was going to suit our needs available in the market. When we realized we would have to design a system from scratch, we figured other people entering similar markets would also have this problem.” As a result, the company began focusing on how to build and design aeroponic systems for people who want to grow herbs, leafy greens, micro-greens and other plants in a controlled indoor environment. Aeroponics is a method of growing plants with air or mist without the use of soil or a growing medium.
“We chose aeroponics because it’s been proven to simply be the most efficient method for indoor farming,” says Sykes, who personally invested his money in most of the company’s initial research and development, tooling and setting up the business. “What makes aeroponics so amazing is that, unlike aquaponics or hydroponics, the roots are not submerged in water. By having the roots suspended in air and feeding them with a finely atomized mist, the amount of oxygen that reaches the roots is increased, which allows the plants to grow more vigorously. It also uses a fraction of the water consumed in other hydroponic methods. Aeroponics does require a little more fine-tuning, but once a grower finds the right balance of feeding times and mist volume, it simply can’t be beat in terms of production. The only thing that limits the technology today is people’s imagination.”
And, imagination is what it took to come up with Indoor Harvest’s designs. In conducting the research and development for the startup, Sykes found that most people involved in aeroponics are of a do-it-yourself mentality. So, as a plumber for 11 years, Sykes created a design similar to a plumbing fixture. “People were literally making aeroponic systems out of plastic storage totes, five-gallon plastic buckets and PVC fence posts and pipe,” Sykes explains. “We spent weeks searching for something we could use and finally decided to manufacture our own aeroponic root chambers. We really just took the design many hobbyists were using and we designed a system that was large enough for commercial use.”
R&D and Costs Create Obstacles for Aeroponic Farmers
The biggest challenge that Indoor Harvest faces is the lack of real world research and development, a task that the company has had to and will continue to take up on its own to determine feeding schedules, nutrient programs and yields. “The benefit to consumers, however, is that we as a company will be taking on the burden of conducting this R&D. Once we have developed methods, we intend to draft up standard operating procedure manuals so that all the guesswork is taken out for our customers. If we can provide a complete turnkey system right down to the best industry practices and methods, we will be able to eliminate the biggest barrier to entry into the indoor urban farming market.”
In addition, the cost of aeroponics is currently a challenge for those looking to start indoor farms, because this method of farming is currently not very popular within the urban farming community. Sykes says some systems require an initial investment of $400 per square foot and the cheaper systems lack a lot of the features suited for a commercial operation. “This has forced those that have decided to pursue aeroponics to develop their own systems and by doing that, they must spend money on R&D that could otherwise go to purchasing a usable real world system,” says Sykes. “What our design does is address these issues and I believe once the word gets out, growers will be very interested in our system.”
What the Future Holds
Social networking is one business practice that Indoor Harvest is working toward come mid-September. Once it completes its proof of concept, it will start developing interest in their systems on various Websites. “We plan on launching a social media campaign where we are going to conduct a Youtube video series that documents our efforts at ‘proof of concept’ [as well as demonstrates various growing techniques],” explains Sykes. “Ultimately, we wanted to give growers a lot of options so that we could custom tailor the system to meet their budgets and growing style. Our goal is not only to provide an inexpensive aeroponics system, but to provide the knowledge and know how to go along with it.” The aeroponics system designer will also be blogging on Facebook and Tumblr, and will soon launch its official Website.
While Indoor Harvest will mostly focus on the manufacturing and developing of its aeroponic systems, it plans to create its own 5,000-square-foot commercial sized demonstration farm in Houston, Texas, where it would produce a variety of products for local markets. “We also anticipate generating revenue by providing project management and contracting services to develop and build farms using our fixtures for clients,” Sykes says.
“Becoming a developer of modern indoor urban farms is our goal, but who knows, we might even launch a few of those cafés we first envisioned building. The urban farming industry is very young and there is a lot of room for growth and expansion. There is no telling where this journey might take us, but I’m surely excited about starting it. Our primary objective right now is a pretty simple one: to make aeroponics an affordable reality for urban farmers.”