Click & Grow Had a Hard time Growing Up

A year ago we had a quick look at the green tech crowdfunding boom that included three startups from the region who were all aiming to bring home growth technology into more widespread consumer markets. Since this type of technology was and still is quite new, the cool idea of growing tomatoes in your kitchen with a simple click can encounter some credibility problems once it runs face to face with common sense.

Turns out common sense might be wrong.

Estonian Click & Grow was one of the three startups who waged a crowdfunding campaign under greentech banners last April. Though they were doing quite well even before the kickstarter campaign (around 50k units sold), it’s no secret that they did even better after it; more than 10 000 individual backers gave Click & Grow an impressive €626 851, making their campaign one of the 50 most successful kickstarter stories told so far. Today they have sold 130 000 products around the world.

ArcticStartup got in touch with Click & Grow founder and CEO, Mattias Lepp, who promised us an exclusive story on how did it all come to be.

“For me, it all started around ten years ago while I reading an article about an NASA expedition to Mars. One part of the article was about growing plants in space without soil, which back then sounded impossible. The idea stuck, and so I started developing prototypes for growing tomatoes using this technology, based on NASA’s open information. Eventually, the tomato started growing through the device, even though it was winter (winters can get pretty cold here in Estonia). It was a miracle”, Lepp said.

“6 years later I read an article which stated that people threw away $30 billion worth of house plants every year, which made me realize that there was a need for a device like the one I had been working on.”

In 2009 an opportunity presented itself in the form of a four month long Estonian BrainHunt Competition, Ajujaht. Though his idea was seen as crazy, he passed the selections nonetheless, and one month into the competition he had already gotten himself a seed round investment. Things were looking more than good.

However, once the initial excitement settled down a bit, problems started emerging.

“1-2 weeks after the investment, we understood that the technology didn't work, at least on a small scale. We had a clear idea of what the product would look like and how big it would be. The NASA technology was only valid on a much larger scale, so we started to develop our own technology based on the NASA tech. By the end of competition we had our first working prototype”, Lepp said.

The idea for the solution came from a field of science known as biomimicry. In biomimicry scientists try to find solutions for problems from the nature. One well known case of biomimicry use would be the speedo suit olympic scandal during the 2008 olympics when a shocking number of swimming records were broken. The speedo swimsuit had been designed to mimic the texture of shark skin (the swimsuits have been banned from the olympics since).

Once Lepp realized the NASA technology wasn’t really doing the job, he took the biomimicry approach for Click & Grow, which helped him create an optimal microenvironment for plant growth. As a result, Lepp’s prototype won the contest and its main prize of roughly €30 000.

But once again, what had looked like the beginning of easier, less stressful times, turned to be quite the opposite.

“We were convinced we would only need five months to have the product finalized. Right after the competition we received the first batch of electronics and it turned out the device would work sometimes and sometimes it wouldn’t. The sensors were too unreliable. It took us an entire year to come up with the solution. This time was extremely challenging time and we had many crashes”, said Lepp.

In the end, the hardship paid off once more. Their challenging development period resulted in a very unique type of sensor - one that accurately sensed moisture and nutrients in material which contained large proportions of water. Sensors of this type already existed but their price lingered in the thousands of euros, whereas the patented Click & Grow sensors were only around €20-30. The difference was simply huge.

Speaking of technology let’s go through a quick overview on the principles on which Click & Grow bases its functioning.

In a nutshell Click & Grow combines smart soil - nanomaterial that contains specific amounts of air, water and nutrients - with their sensors. By giving exact doses of water and nutrients the device can make the plants feel stress, which in response raises the plant’s levels of antioxidants and vitamins up to three times higher compared to regularly grown plants.

The idea for a kickstarter campaign was mostly to scout the markets and see if people felt interested towards products like Click & Grow and to get funding for their second generation Smart Herb Garden, which is much like Click & Grow but with improvements and a possibility to grow several plants.

Much like before, the successful kickstarter campaign proved to be challenging, with many problems emerging once the campaign finalized. Since then, most of the kickstarter backers have received their products though and Lepp told us sales are looking very good.

“We’re expecting €11 million in revenue this year and we have 3-4 new products under development” he said.

With a cheap and scalable technology that grows plants three times quicker and increases the amounts of antioxidants the plants contain - making the plants natural and very useful - Lepp says their technology can be implemented from flower pots to farm with millions of plants. In next 5-10 years he sees most urban farms using their technology since there aren't any viable alternatives.

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