THE AQUARIUM THAT KEEPS ON GIVING
Grove uses Onshape to design their "Ecosystem," a fish-powered, indoor vegetable garden aimed at city dwellers
Grove is an ecology-driven startup company dedicated to developing technology, products and experiences that enable more people to grow their own food in productive home ecosystems
Industry: Consumer Products
Industry: Consumer Products
The number one thing for us as a startup is that we need to be fast, and it was immediately clear to us that it would be faster to use Onshape.
Nick Ambrogi, Grove
Ever hear of a gardening goldfish?
At first glance, the Grove Ecosystem looks like a vegetable garden randomly stacked on top of a fish tank, but the two things are deeply interrelated. The fish waste is processed by bacteria into fertilizer, which is continually pumped through tubing into the soil-like pebbles above. Excess water from the garden is filtered back into the fish tank – and the cycle of life continues.
This unique approach to sustainable agriculture is called "aquaponics," and Grove, a Massachusetts-based startup, is hoping to put their Ecosystems in apartments, office buildings, dorm rooms and other places without easy access to outdoor gardening space.
"One of these units is not going to feed your family," explains company co-founder Jamie Byron. "The goal is really to connect you to your food. It might initially seem kind of gross that the food comes from fish poop, but the point of the product educationally is that it makes you aware that we all exist as part of an ecosystem."
"Our target is that you’ll be able to harvest from it every single day – enough for a small bowl of greens as part of your salad," he adds.
The Grove Ecosystem can produce 8 to 10 heads of lettuce every 20 days. With a constant supply of water and nutrients (from the fish tank) and dimmable LED grow lights "automated to mimic the sun," the garden promises a higher yield than you might get with the unpredictable conditions outdoors.
Owners of the Ecosystem can monitor temperature, humidity and water levels through a smartphone app and adjust lights, fans and pumps remotely. Gardeners can also track crop growth and diagnose problems from their phones. Perhaps the most convenient feature is the self-filtering aquarium. As bacteria convert ammonia-rich fish waste into nitrates, the process simultaneously enriches the soil and cleans the tank. Aquaponic tanks do need to be occasionally cleaned by hand, but require far less frequent scrubbing than conventional aquariums.
After testing the viability of the product with about 50 early adopters, Grove launched a $100,000 Kickstarter campaign in November 2015 and nearly tripled their fundraising goal within the first week. Early bird customers can buy one of the first 125 Ecosystems for $2,700; the expected retail price will be $4,500.
Growing a Company Out of a Fraternity Project
The idea of Grove germinated while Byron and company co-founder Gabe Blanchet were roommates at MIT, where students are encouraged to learn new skills or pursue passion projects during a one-month Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January. At the Sigma Chi fraternity house, Byron built a rudimentary Ecosystem for $600 after learning about aquaponics on YouTube.
"Within a month, Gabe and I had a lot of food growing in our fraternity room. It was our own little jungle," he recalls. "We had about 35 different types of plants growing, mostly salad greens and herbs, but a few weird things like a pomegranate tree, some kiwi vines and a failed banana tree. So I was really just experimenting and it really changed our lives."
"It put us to bed quicker, because of the babbling water," Bryon adds. "It was really nice going to sleep with this running water every night. And it was nice waking up to the bright white light that sort of was the color of the sun."
The fraternity brothers also noticed an improvement in air quality in their room, "a slightly more humid, fresher-smelling air," and found that the greenery and fish unexpectedly became a social focal point at the house.
"More fraternity brothers started hanging out in our room more often as the plants grew and became this beautiful centerpiece," says Bryon. "And they would pick lettuce and watch the fish. It even took away from watching TV. The viewership of the grove shifted our fraternity a little bit and actually changed our lifestyle."
In March 2013, the friends explored turning their fun project into a company – formally incorporating four months later while enrolled in an accelerator program, the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.
Onshape Facilitates Rapid Prototyping
After creating 5 or 6 prototypes using SolidWorks, Grove switched midstream to Onshape, the first full-cloud professional 3D CAD system that lets multiple people simultaneously work on the same model. The design team used Onshape to create another half dozen iterations before finalizing their Kickstarter product.
Hardware engineer Nick Ambrogi says that with Onshape he spends more time designing and less time dealing with the hassles of managing software.
"When we were using SolidWorks, and we needed a new iteration – to break out a new set of files that is version 1.6 instead of 1.5 – it took me about an hour to change all the file names and make sure there were no errors when our assembly loaded," Ambrogi says. "In Onshape, it literally takes 30 seconds. Just click a button, create a branch and you’re off to the races."
"The number one thing for us as a startup is that we need to be fast, and it was immediately clear to us that it would be faster to use Onshape," he adds.
According to Ambrogi, Onshape’s "intuitive" interface also contributes to making him and his colleagues more efficient.
"Onshape is not hierarchical. In SolidWorks, you set the hierarchy from the beginning, and it stays with you the entire time," he says. "So if I start with the first part, that always is the first part and I’m building off of that. With Onshape, I can choose to edit from any part rather than going back to the first one."
"If I have a part in front of me and see a change I want to make, I just do it," Ambrogi adds. "Onshape lets me create parts the way I want to think about creating parts. It works like your brain."
Access to CAD Anytime, From Any Computer
For company co-founder Byron, who prefers to use a Mac, Onshape’s accessibility on any computer has been the biggest productivity booster.
"I’d spend 15 wasted minutes every time I wanted to use SolidWorks," he recalls. "First, I had to go to the back of the building because we had to have a separate computer that could actually run that program. Then I’d boot into Windows, get into SolidWorks and make sure I’m operating the right file structure. And now with Onshape, I just go online and we’re all set. It has taken a huge burden off our shoulders."
"The biggest advantage," adds Ambrogi, "is when I am traveling and I need to use someone else’s computer. It’s really handy to just open up Chrome and have my CAD right there."
"Having Onshape be mobile is something I haven’t seen with any other CAD system," he says. "We were at lunch with a few team members talking about the product and it was really a new experience to be able to have your actual production CAD just sitting on the table. You want to know ‘is it exactly 32.5 inches or ..’ and you can check that before you get back to the office."
Because Onshape runs in a web browser, the Grove team has also saved considerable money by not having to buy expensive, top-of-the-line workstations for every CAD user.
"I bought a desktop right as we were starting the company – basically just so I could do SolidWorks," Byron recalls. "My laptop at the time just didn’t have the processing power to handle it. I made a big purchase to do that and it wound up being our SolidWorks CAD station in the early days. With Onshape, I no longer have to have a super-powerful computer."
The Future of Food?
Although the Grove Ecosystem is being primarily marketed for home use, Byron envisions also selling units to offices and schools.
"There’s a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts you can teach from this, you know, there’s biology, physics, chemistry, and ecology," he says. "Kids can learn where their food comes from but also experience the ecological process of setting up an aquarium. It’s engaging to see how different species interact and how there’s all sorts of different personalities in the tank."
Education aside, the company is hoping they can inspire people to take a more active and pragmatic role in their daily nourishment.
"We see a future where you can grow food in pretty much any environment indoors. We see a future where you’d have food growing throughout the house, maybe even have a room totally dedicated to growing food," Bryon says. "You could have several of these units growing maybe 50 percent of your diet, perhaps almost 100 percent of your diet. It really comes down to how much space you have to dedicate to it."