Startup Seeks to Shape Future of Urban Agriculture with Fish, Automation and Well Designed Hardware
January 17, 2013 | Missy Smith
Two young mechanical engineers, Brian Falther, 24, a 2010 graduate of Kettering University (Flint, Mich.) and Austin Lawrence, 21, a senior at Kettering University, have teamed up to bring small aquaponic grow systems into people’s homes, with each system being connected to an online farm community. Their concept is at once a virtual world with online interaction and connectivity and an authentic reality where real, clean, healthy food grows in a large collection of personal micro-aquaponic systems in homes throughout the world. They call their idea Future Tech Farm.
“The way we have been describing our home grow system is as a ‘node’ of the farm. The sum of all the nodes equals the farm. In essence, the Future Tech Farm is a singular decentralized and distributed farm—what we are calling a farming platform with a physical and virtual representation,” says Falther. He explains further that “users will open up their grow systems, fill them with water and fish, plant what they want, plug them in, watch them grow and engage with a community of technology-based farm systems.” Each system will have Internet connectivity, which will allow people to track all of their grow cycles, see what other people are growing and compare variables for improving yields.
Users of the system will be able to produce fresh vegetables year-round in the micro-aquaponic systems—which will be about the size of a microwave or laundry basket—without the use of pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.
Striving toward a system that will be in people’s home all over the world, the young business pair envisions their home micro-aquaponic system evolving into an appliance. But, initially they are concentrating on several market segments including urban residents, hobbyist growers and classroom students. “Kids have such uninhibited imaginations,” says Falther. “I can’t wait to hear the ideas they come up with when they see what we have.”
The company’s product line will range from a base model novice system to a professional system with a variety of accessories and upgrades available, says Falther. “Our target price point for the base model will be $50-75, with upgradeable components available to further automate the micro-aquaponic experience. We are also developing a research tool at a price point of about one order of magnitude higher, which would appeal to anyone who is especially concerned with plant quality and yield, specifically scientists, engineers and commercial growers in particular.”
By introducing their systems in homes around the world, Future Tech Farm hopes to change people’s thoughts on modern farming practices. Inspired by Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm, Future Tech Farm also believes that people should produce food as close to the source of consumption as possible, in this case, in their own homes, giving farmlands a chance to return to natural poly-cultural forests.
While their passion toward a sustainable future is driving them toward the change they desire, their path hasn’t been without hurdles. Falther says that the biggest challenge is working on the development of Future Tech Farm, while holding down a full-time job. At the same time Lawrence is taking classes at Kettering and working at a co-op position in Chicago, living about two hours away from Falther. “Conservatively, I work on the development of Future Tech Farm eight hours a day and work full-time as a mechanical engineer,” he explains. “Until this venture is economically sustainable enough to walk away from the day job, it’s a challenge to find enough time in the day.”
But, with their smart, inventive ideas and a robust mission toward a sustainable future, they have a lot to look forward to. “The next steps for us are pretty exciting,” says Falther, explaining that the company will be completing designs of it consumer product, phone app and web platform over the course of the next sixth months, with a goal to start shipping in 2014.
Falther and Lawrence have shared their product development plans on their Facebook page as a means to obtain working feedback from the public as they develop their ideas and technology. The two friends are also hoping to get other like-minded people on board. “We’re completely confident with our approach and strategy that we invite people to explore the same idea,” says Falther. “Competition is exciting and it generates innovation like no other circumstance. Just take a look at history.”
The innovation behind Future Tech Farm is fueled by the friends’ strong desire for a sustainable future and to contribute positive change with technology. “Whether it’s growing food outside or inside, the absolute bottom-line issue that everyone needs to be thinking about is: ‘How do we do that in the most efficient and sustainable way possible in which we are not depleting our planet’s natural resources?’” says Falther. “Future Tech Farm is our contribution towards this thought process.”