Co-founded by engineers and entrepreneurs Alex Weiss and Ruwan Subasinghe, Atlanta-based startup Replantable’s nanofarm promises to give even the least skilled of urban farmers green fingers. Spurred by the rise of local food movements and urban farming and a growing consciousness of the long distances that food must travel from farm to fork – not to mention the huge volume of food waste – Weiss and Subasinghe co-founded Replantable in 2015 in an attempt to make farming more accessible to urbanites.
“The inspiration for Replantable came from frustration with the way we get our produce. Fresh greens are shipped hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles before they end up on our plates. When it finally gets there, it’s not very fresh and it spoils quickly. I just got tired of always having to throw away half a bag of salad every week because it would spoil in just a few days,” says Subasinghe. He explains that realizing that delicate greens needed to be eaten fresh or not at all inspired him to try and make farming more accessible to urbanites.
The nanofarm arrives fully assembled; owners are required to plug it in, fill the tray with water and insert a Plant Pad to set it up. Replantable’s patent pending Plant Pads, which “consist of multiple layers of paper and fabric,” have seeds and nutrients that are customized to each type of plant. They draw water into the tray, much like soil would, but without the threat of insect eggs or pathogens, while LED lights and a fan provide lighting and ventilation – with the latter providing the added benefit of pushing oxygen-rich air out. Once the produce is ready to be consumed, a “harvest” indicator comes on, after which food can be harvested for two weeks. Once all of the food is harvested, the Plant Pad is discarded and the tray, which is dishwasher-friendly, can be washed and used for the next batch.
Designed primarily for urbanites who do not have the time or space for a home garden, the nanofarm also targets those who do not get enough sunlight to grow their own. Through the nanofarm, even the least experienced farmers can grow salad greens, herbs, microgreens as well as root vegetables like radishes and beets in their kitchens.
But what is unique about Replantable is that it requires almost zero interaction. As many a novice urban farmer knows, setting up an urban grow-pad may be easy, but sustaining it through the seasons and ensuring that light and temperature settings are consistent is less so, leaving aspiring farmers with wilted weeds.
“Other products on the market require some interaction. Whether it’s seeding, watering, or fertilizing, all of these things add one more task to our busy days. We’ve found that most people are too busy for another hobby, so we’ve built a system that’s totally hands-off. The seeds and nutrients are embedded into to each Plant Pad, so when you get the Plant Pad all you need to do is put it in the nanofarm and walk away,” explains co-founder Alex Weiss.
What sounds like a convenient, time-efficient and labor-light process can also be construed as farming for lazy people, although Subasinghe is adamant that it is quite the opposite. “Most of [our customers] work demanding jobs that leave them tired at the end of the day. When they come home from a long day of work, the last thing they want to do is pick weeds in the garden just so they’ll have produce to eat that week,” explains Subasinghe. “I also don’t think having a nanofarm and having a garden outside are mutually exclusive. In fact, many of our customers have regular outdoor gardens as well, which they maintain as a hobby. And for urban dwellers who simply don’t have the option to go out in their backyard and farm, the nanofarm provides a way to bring a piece of nature into the concrete jungle of the city.”
Although the team initially designed the nanofarm for home kitchen-use, they are excited about the prospects of expanding into commercial applications as well, particularly after speaking to chefs about their needs. “What makes chefs most excited about the nanofarm is being able to grow specialty and exotic ingredients that are hard to find fresh. For example, a chef at a Mexican restaurant in New York City can grow fresh Epazote [a Mexican herb plant], allowing flavors unattainable when using the dried herb. We’ve also explored using nanofarms in schools as an educational tool. Five of our beta models are being used right now to teach lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics,” says Subasinghe.
And while the model nanofarm is quite small, allowing users to stack up to four on top of one another, the team plans to develop taller modules to accommodate vining plants like tomatoes and peppers. “The reason we are focusing now on salad greens and herbs is because they are much quicker to grow and will yield much more produce. In the future, we plan to develop refrigerator-sized units that are capable of growing all the food you’ll need to eat,” explains Subasinghe.
With their four part-time team members, in addition to support from mentors and advisors, Weiss and Subasinghe will launch a Kickstarter campaign later this month; from there, the team plans to go straight into production and delivery of nanofarms, before working to provide a larger variety of Plant Pads. Replantable will be sold primarily through the team’s website for US $350, while Plant Pads will cost US $5. The team is also looking to sell the nanofarm – as well as the Plant Pads – in stores across the U.S. at a later stage, as well as to expand into markets outside of the U.S.