While Heliponix’s in-home computerized vegetable-growing machine has always seemed like a great idea, the coronavirus pandemic might be the push needed to get the wider public to realize what the company’s two young founders have been espousing since the startup sprouted in 2016.
Since March, interest in the firm’s product—called GroPod—has been rising faster than Jack’s beanstalk.
If the concept of a dishwasher-sized machine that can produce a head of greens every day isn’t compelling enough, the fact that Scott Massey, 25, and Ivan Ball, 26, originally bootstrapped the company with money they earned delivering newspapers in West Lafayette is certainly icing on the cake—or perhaps more appropriately, dressing on the salad.
Massey and Ball—both Hoosier natives—met while they were students at Purdue University working on the design of a NASA-funded, hydroponic growth chamber under the direction of horticulture professor Cary Mitchell, with the ultimate goal of growing sustainable food in space colonies.
During the project it dawned on Massey, a mechanical engineering technology major who studied fluid mechanics, that the technology they were working on has applications right here on earth.
“We were working on cutting-edge research for future uses, but Ivan and I thought there is a way to use this now,” Massey told IBJ. “We want to make the technology that we discovered in the NASA research project available to everybody.”
The duo built the first dozen units in Washington, Indiana. Getting started, they made components with a 3-D printer. They’ve since headquartered the company in Evansville due to its long history in appliance manufacturing and now contract with several manufacturers—all in the U.S.—to make the patented product.
In 2018, Heliponix won a Mira Award for Best New Product. The judges for the Mira Awards—Indiana’s largest and longest running technology awards program—called the GroPod “a potential category killer in the fast-growing vertical farming market.”
Heliponix’s GroPod product fits under a homeowner’s kitchen counter, much like a dishwasher or wine cooler. It uses a hydroponics system, which means no soil is needed.
It costs $2,000, but Massey is confident that once production ramps up, the price of the unit will decline, possibly to half of what it now costs.
Despite the GroPod’s hefty price tag, the biggest revenue generator for the company will be seed subscriptions.
“We make more on the subscription in a year than we do on the machine at one time,” Massey said.
The seed pods are relatively cheap, and the price goes down the more you buy. Ten seed pods—bought on a monthly basis—are available for $26. Sixty seed pods are $99.
The GroPod, which has a glass front so users can watch their plants grow, can hold 60 seed pods or plants, which rotate so they get an even amount of light exposure on all parts and grow more efficiently and uniformly. The plants grow on a 30-day cycle, and Massey said the GroPod is the only machine on the market that produces ready-to-eat vegetables “every single day.”
The GroPod can grow an array of plants.
“We can grow almost all leafy green vegetables, most culinary herbs, some ornamental flowers, and a few fruiting varieties such as peppers which is unique to our under-the-counter model,” Massey said.
Ball, who graduated from Purdue with an electrical computer engineering technology degree, and Massey outfitted the device with software and hardware that allows two-way communication between the buyer and Heliponix officials, and permits the company to monitor and assist with the growing process when needed.
Much like computer software or an internet-of-things device, updates to the GroPod can be done remotely and automatically.
For instance, as the company continues to study optimal rotational speeds for maximized growing, it can adjust the rotating speeds of all its machines currently in use and enabled with the cloud software. It’s one of the first such devices at the consumer level to have this feature.
There are other—potentially revenue-generating—features that could be added through the cloud connectivity. The machine could even deliver advertising messages to users, but Massey said the company is a long way from determining if that idea will be harvested.
But by monitoring growth rates and performance from all its GroPods in the market, Massey said there’s a great opportunity to continue to enhance the computerized machine.
“Simply learning through cloud software is profiting from it,” Massey said.
Massey emphasized that while the device is high-tech, it’s easy to use. And you don’t even have to be a green thumb.
“You don’t need to know anything about agriculture to operate the GroPod,” Massey said. “We’ve done all that for you.”
And because the unit is fully enclosed, no pesticides or chemicals are needed to grow the plants, Massey explained. It’s also been designed to eliminate molds and pathogens.
After the company sold “a few dozen units in 2018 as a beta,” Massey said it spent last year learning from those units sold.
Heliponix was preparing to ramp up production modestly when the pandemic hit in March.
That’s when inquiries came pouring into the small company with four full-time employees. Heliponix is tapping the brakes on 60 GroPods sold this year.
“It isn’t that the demand isn’t there yet. If we wanted to, we could sell thousands of units,” Massey said. “I’m turning people away daily. I’m getting calls from all over the country and internationally. But we want to grow at a controlled rate so we’re not missing any learning opportunities.”
Heliponix’s target market are individuals—not companies, schools or other institutions. Massey said most GroPod buyers are “people who want better, fresher food. They’re foodies. They want the quality and they want it to taste as good as possible.”
Massey said the growing desire for fresher organic food along with the disruption in the food supply chain during the pandemic has sparked interest and sales.
“The coronavirus has been a rude awakening with the food supply chain being disrupted,” Massey said.
Massey declined to say how much capital the company has raised or if it planning to raise a round of funding soon. Massey did say that Elevate Ventures, Purdue Research Foundation—through its Ag-Celerator fund—and a few angel investors have invested in the company. Massey and Ball remain majority owners.