Every Thursday, the team at Grove Labs eats the fruits of their labor. They call it a Grove-grown lunch.
“From some of our prototypes, we’ve harvested a huge bowl of salad for our weekly team meetings,” said co-founder and CEO Gabe Blanchet ’13 of his company’s indoor aquaponic gardens, which grow fruits and vegetables and raise fish.
He and co-founder Jamie Byron ’13 launched Grove Labs over a year ago, but the idea really started when they roomed together in the MIT chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity. Byron built an aquaponics prototype in their room, and the pair started harvesting lettuce, peas, and kale.
“I think we inspired people even with that janckety first fraternity room prototype that growing your own food and maintaining your own ecosystem where you live is really cool,” said Blanchet.
Grove has transformed that prototype into bookshelf-like wooden towers designed to be home centerpieces. The shelves house an aquarium and gardens capable of growing everything from salad greens to tomatoes at a rate 20-40 percent faster than conventional farming and using 80-90 percent less water.
A piping system allows water to flow from the aquarium to clay pebble grow beds. The beds are home to healthy bacteria that convert ammonia in the fish waste into nitrate, a natural plant fertilizer. As the plant roots absorb these nutrients, they clean the water that flows back to the fish tank. LED lights give plants the light they need and mimic the patterns of the sun—rosy in the morning, blue at noon, and golden at dusk.
The Grove staff, nearly half of whom are recent MIT graduates, are also launching a smart phone app to monitor temperature, water level, power usage, and the livelihood of a customers’ particular plants. Blanchet jokes the app “gives you a green thumb even if your thumb is black.” He adds, “we’re not afraid of using technology to bring people back to their roots.”
Blanchet and Byron’s own roots have been nourished by an entrepreneurial environment. Their fraternity has been home to a number of successful entrepreneurs—Genentech founder Robert Swanson ’69, SM ’70 and 170 Systems co-founder and Grove mentor Karl Buttner ’87 both frequented Sigma Chi. Three other companies have been started by other members of their 2013 class.
“When you have that culture you are bound to have unconstrained thinking about the possibilities,” recalled Blanchet. The pair also graduated from MIT’s Global Founders Skills Accelerator program, learning how to raise money, communicate, and recruit.
What’s next? “We’re taking natural ecosystems and shrinking them…eventually for space travel,” says Blanchet. But in the short term, you can grow your vegetables at home on earth.