When Amit Kumar, co-founder of Bitponics moved from southern California to New York City, he gave up gardening, his passion since fourth grade. He lasted two years, before the gardening itch returned and he says he just, “missed having plants around.” Having heard that hydroponics was a good way to grow in a small indoor space, he tried out tomatoes and lettuce.
“It turns out that hydroponics requires a lot of maintenance if you want to do it well,” he says in a telephone interview.
From monitoring nutrients to providing the needed lighting, Kumar found the maintenance involved to be time consuming. As a software developer, who was starting to dabble in hardware, he began to think about how that maintenance could be automated.
While studying at the Information Technologies Program (ITP) at NYU, he was able to use the school’s 3D printer to create the first prototype for his Bitponics system. It was at ITP that Kumar met Michael Zick Doherty, who was working on a parallel project addressing the same issue. The two quickly joined forces and recently launched a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter.com to get Bitponics off the ground.
“Bitponics will be a device and a website that simplify hydroponic gardening,” Kumar explains in a video posted on Bitponics’ Kickstarter page. “You provide it with your set up and what plants you are trying to grow and it provides you with a growing plan that tells you how to achieve the best possible results.” He goes on to explain that sensors in your garden will monitor conditions in real time and transmit the data to a web platform. The system will alert the gardener if the sensors indicate that actual conditions have veered away from the growing plan.
Kumar hopes that Bitponics will help to make hydroponic gardening more accessible to busy urban dwellers. “A lot of people would like to have plants but they end up killing them because they don’t know how to take care of them. The mission of the company is to make that not an issue anymore.”
Kumar and Doherty hope to add a community element to the system, as well. Gardeners can choose to use recommended growing plans or create their own to be rated and shared by other users. “That concept I’m really excited about because I think it’s a new way of sharing gardening knowledge,” Kumar says.
Getting investors to believe in their vision took a considerable amount of effort, Kumar says. “I think a lot of people think that when you set up a Kickstarter campaign you suddenly are visible.” For Kumar, visibility came with extensive outreach to potential investors. During the 30-day campaign, he took trips to Colorado and Michigan to pitch the project in person to hydroponic equipment shops. By the final week of the campaign, he says they had raised only half of their goal. Had they not been able to secure enough investors to reach their goal, they would have lost all funding, according to Kickstarter.com rules.
Kumar adds that his initial investors played a big role in helping to reach their fundraising goal. “Take advantage of the passion that your initial backers have,” he suggests to anyone starting a Kickstarter campaign. By being very responsive to backers, thanking them immediately for their donation, keeping them informed about the progress of the campaign, Kumar says, lets them know that they are a part of the project as well. He added that by establishing those relationships, “toward the end we were able to call on the backer to be our evangelists.”
In the end, Bitponics surpassed their $20,000 goal bringing in over $23,000 from 251 individual investors. Until now, Both Doherty and Kumar have been working full time jobs while trying to squeeze in development for Bitponics. Starting this July, they hope to scale back their hours at their other jobs and spend more time developing their product. So far, they have sensors that can transmit data from the garden to the web, but they need to figure out the most cost effective and accurate way of doing that while creating an interface that helps gardeners interpret that data.
Once complete, the system will retail for $395 (though Kickstarter investors were able to purchase a model for $250 as a thank you for their donation). With the base model, gardeners have access to the web services and storage of data history for six months. A premium model will come with more data history storage. While Kumar says that although there are a few products that do similar things, such as allowing remote control of lights through a smart phone application, most hydroponic management technology is expensive and geared toward large growing operations.
Kumar points to the success of hydroponic window garden modules as confirmation that there is a market for hydroponic home gardens. Kumar says that he and Doherty hope to tap into and help broaden that market. Down the road, he says he hopes that Bitponics can complement those systems already in place. Some hydroponic equipment manufacturers have already contacted them through their Kickstarter campaign expressing interest in selling Bitponics as an accessory to their existing systems.