Silicon Valley is currently fueling a future food product blitz, and one of the most intriguing plays yet isn't fake meat or sci-fi-tinged full-meal substitutes—it's iPhone-controlled hydroponics. Today, a European food technology startup Niwa is debuting a "smart food tech device which will turn your house into a smartphone controlled greenhouse," according to one of its founders. The product is essentially a small, slick-looking hydroponic farm you can set up to grow plants of every stripe in your living room.
A couple weeks ago, I noticed I'd received an email with the blunt declaration "The future of food is not Soylent" in the subject line. The message turned out not to be hate mail regarding my Soylent piece—which I got plenty of, from both proponents and opponents of the controversial food replacement—but from a founder of Niwa.
The company was in full pitch mode; its representative exhorted that the food of the future is fresh, home-grown produce, cultivated with the help of cutting-edge gadgets and the connectivity sure to arrive with the age of the smart home.
"We use advanced technology to stimulate the best possible environment for your plants," co-founder Aga Nazaruk wrote, "for the first time you can take care of your plants from your smartphone, understand its progress and interact with them or just put it on autopilot." She said a consumer could grow anything, "from timeless tomatoes and peppers to strawberries, orchids and medical plants." The corresponding app "will load a specific program setting up the right values for your plant."
"No green thumb needed," she added.
Naturally, Niwa is starting a Kickstarter campaign for what it calls the "first smartphone-controlled growing system." The company is asking for $100,000 in funds—notably, the same amount that the Soylent crew aimed for—and is offering a range of Niwa hydroponic systems as rewards. $199 will snag supporters a small in-home greenhouse; $399 gets you a large one.
In an email interview with Niwa's founder, 32-year-old Javier Morrillias, the entrepreneur told me the idea was born out of a frustration with our inneficient globalized food system, and from firsthand experience growing up in a region that's one of the world's top producers of vegetables.
"Everyday, I would watch 2000 trucks filled with different vegetables leaving [my] home town Almeria in Spain to travel 2000 km on average and be delivered to various countries across Europe," he wrote. "Almeria is the largest producer of tomatoes on earth with hydroponic greenhouses visible from space," he said. "I started working with agricultural experts to see how can take that advance technology and put it in hands or ordinary people so they can grow their own food at ease. After 2 years of research and development, multiple prototypes and trials we finally created niwa."
Though the substance of his replies were often clearly pulled from pre-existing press materials, they nonetheless describe an interesting project, so I'll bite:
Niwa is based in hydroponic technology – a soilless way to grow plants, where the plant is taking nutrients directly form water. The most important part of Niwa is its brain – a powerful microcontroller loaded with custom made software which has all the knowledge of an experienced farmer, so you don’t need to worry about when to water your plants or what is the ideal temperature to get more juicy tomatoes, Niwa knows…
It uses an array of sensors and actuators to create the perfect growing environment for your plants controlling humidity, temperature, and light as well as watering… Niwa is constantly gathering feedback from the sensors but also from the user. Each plant needs different conditions at different stages of growth. In order to know which phase your plants are accurately, the app will ask you simple questions like “Can you see flowers?”. If you answer “yes”, a new stage and new settings are triggered. This creates superior performance and ensures that your plants will grow strong and healthy
You make those responses and control the settings from the attendant smartphone app, which also allows you to remotely track and understand your plant's progress. "More seasoned growers can use the system for incubation, experimentation or create and share their own growing settings with the community," Morrillias says. And yes, some of those more seasoned growers will surely be interested in growing more than tomatoes or strawberries.
The system uses a compact fluorescent lamp, and its maximum consumption is 200 watts when the heater and light are on. Morrillias says an LED version that will use even less power is on the way. The system utilizes a reservoir of water that must be refilled every other week.
"With hydroponics and our current range of sizes, you can grow just about anything that will fit inside the tray (no trees though—we’ve already tried! And no root vegetables). This includes most house plants, flowers, and vegetables, several kinds of fruits and various herbs and medicinal plants."
The company, which is usually based in the UK, is currently operating out of Shenzen, China, as part of the hardware startup incubator Haxlr8tr. The first Niwa units are slated to ship in March 2015.
It's a smart, fun product, and nice to see the startup crowd trying its hand at high-tech gardening: The slick interface and smartphone interactivity may yet spawn a few new local food aficionados. It'd be ideal for urban eaters, like me—I might garden if my apartment came with a yard—as it's also relatively affordable. That said, as tends to be the case with every startup ever, some of its bold claims are a little over the top: it's unlikely a single, little hydroponic farm could meet a significant portion of a family's daily vegetable needs.
If successful, the true benefit of Niwa will be that it offers users a novel, gadget-laden path to a hands on experience with food production. Strip out the buzzwords, and Niwa is essentially pitching gardening to the hacker crowd. If 'Buy Local' and 'Eat Organic' sound too hippie, they're insinuating, maybe something like 'Use your phone to grow your own' could stand to catch on.