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What started as a dorm room project of PVC pipes and UV lamps is now Boston-based Grove: an in-home aquaponics “ecosystem” that allows individuals to grow their leafy greens, culinary herbs, small tomatoes and peppers indoors. Close to the release of the second-generation version of their product, Grove will join us at our upcoming Food Loves Tech event (tickets on sale now!) on June 10-12.
We recently caught up with Gabe Blanchet, co-founder and CEO, to discuss the company’s origins, opportunities at the intersection of food and tech and his hopes for Grove to educate and inspire the masses.
Edible Manhattan: What sparked the idea for Grove?
Gabe Blanchet: It’s kind of interesting how we started. While I was at MIT, my best friend and roommate, Jamie Byron, and I were both studying engineering. During our senior year, Jamie worked on a farm and saw firsthand the ways our current industrial food system is hurting our planet. Seventy percent of the world’s water and 40 percent of its land is used for farming. And the food we’re consuming is resulting in an American population where 100 million people are obese and 69 percent of cancer can be linked to diet. The status quo is not good for our planet and not good for our individual health.
Around the same time, I was working with a start-up and saw firsthand the importance and opportunity of entrepreneurship and building an organization from the ground up. Slowly, food crept into our dorm room quite literally as Jamie built an aquaponics system. At first, I was opposed, but after a few months I loved living in the same space where my food was growing and realized the power this grove had to educate and inspire. So, that’s how Grove was born. We’re on a mission to help people grow their own food. Some will use our hardware, but ultimately it’s just inspiring and educating people to get started in growing their own food.
EM: How do you think Grove will evolve?
GB: Well, it’s already evolved from a small, personal project in our dorm room. We were so excited about the notion that this could be a standard fixture and investment in everyone’s home—just as a nice, high-end refrigerator or cooking range, which are roughly the same cost as a Grove ecosystem.
It’s been almost three years to the day since we started. We were fortunate enough to participate in business accelerator programs with MIT, at the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship. From this, we received nearly $20K in funding and were able to raise another $30K from friends and family in that first year. After this, we participated in Techstars Accelerator, which connected us to a vast network of entrepreneurs and netted us another $120K in funding. Since then we’ve raised additional venture capital, built out our team, prototyped and iterated, and started fulfilling the promise to our customers!
But the coolest part is working with so many smart and engaging people. Software engineers work alongside botanists. Environmental engineers and marketing folks are collaborating. It’s a diverse group of people working on this.
EM: What are Grove’s plans to make products more accessible to the masses?
GB: As I mentioned, our product is about the same price as any high-end kitchen appliance and ours actually allows you to grow your own food, not just store or cook it. Our research tells us more people are investing in their homes and health and this will be an integral part in that. The question is, how do you place value on knowing where you food comes from or the change in air quality you’ll see in your home after installing Grove? For lots of people, especially families, this is far more valuable than the $4,500 price point.
EM: How do you see food and tech working together to rebuild our food system?
GB: I think there are two main components driving the regeneration of our food system in the next 15 to 50 years. Behind the scenes, there are technological advances in productivity and organization of sustainable farming. This is the stuff consumers don’t generally know or need to buy into to keep moving forward.
Then, front and center, we have what can bring pockets of humanity into a greater consciousness of how food affects their body—how we eat and live. Yes, companies like ours are developing products to grow better food but we’re also creating a dialogue around the food system. We’re educating and inspiring people to have the confidence to grow their own food but also shift how they navigate the grocery store and structure their diet. For example, since we started Grove three years ago, my diet has shifted toward a mostly plant based one. Harvesting fresh greens each day reminds you to make better food choices.
Our research tells us more people are investing in their homes and health. The question is, how do you place value on knowing where you food comes from?
EM: In what ways are you educating people on their food?
GB: Our education program comes primarily from our mobile app, Grove OS. It’s not publicly available quite yet, but Grove OS already enables our ecosystem customers to understand what aquaponics is and how they can use what they grow. For instance, if someone plants Cuban oregano, the app shows how it should grow, what it should look like, how to optimize its growing conditions and so on. We’ll even show recipes and uses for each leafy green, culinary herb and fruit that our customers grow!
For our “Grove Education” program, we’re committed to putting hundreds of ecosystems in schools across the country as a perfect science, food and social science learning tool. We have a clear curriculum that doesn’t require every student to be connected to their phone.
EM: What are future plans for Grove?
GB: We’re really focused on the ecosystem right now, as we’re gearing up to ship generation two to hundreds of eager customers. Over the next few years, we’ll be thinking about how to help more people grow their own food at multiple price points. It’s about educating and inspiring people! We’re well on our way!