Ever thought of growing what you eat? These Chennai-based NIT grads are enabling urban indoor farmers do just that
This announcement is sponsored by Tissot
When Deepak Srinivasan and Ashish Khan were studying at NIT Trichy, they were driven by a passion to solve some of the most basic problems the world faces today. Life, though, had other plans for them after they graduated. Deepak, a chemical engineer, worked as a product analyst and Ashish, a mechanical engineer, as a design engineer. The idea of creating something that would have immense impact remained. The duo – friends for over six years – experimented with various ideas before deciding to collaborate with a group of friends on a DIY project to localise food production.
Eventually, Deepak and Ashish narrowed this down to explore the possibilities offered by aquaponics, and began developing a prototype. Aquaponics is a system of aquaculture in which the waste produced by farmed fish or other aquatic creatures supplies the nutrients for plants grown hydroponically, which in turn purify the water.
Nine months down the line, in March 2016, they quit their jobs to begin their entrepreneurial journey, and launched their startup – Crofters. The startup’s flagship device is an intelligent, self-cleaning, indoor aquaponics ecosystem that helps to grow completely organic food even from inside a living room.
Deepak says, “Crofters helps people farm their fresh, healthy food in a sustainable manner. We are making urban indoor farming a reality for a lot of passionate gardeners living in houses without a backyard or a terrace of their own.”
This innovation won them the Tissot's Signature Innovators Club award for January 2017.
The young entrepreneurs are very upbeat about their product and the impact it is likely to create. In Deepak’s words, “We are innovating mankind’s oldest industry – agriculture, by combining it with the power of technology. Through our product, we feel we are making it practical for people to grow what they eat.”
‘Grow light’ an integral component of Crofters’ journey
Crofters has created hardware and software that integrates with a device and enables people to grow their own food. It took them six months of prototyping to develop their first product and another three months to make it ready for the early adopters.
Together, with 15 early adopters, who are beta testing the product, Crofters is gathering and incorporating user feedback to make the product market-ready. Deepak says, “We are aiming to launch the product by the end of February 2017.”
The product’s greatest strength is their LED grow light technology, which has been developed in-house. The co-founders say that this technology will help to convert indoor farming areas in urban living spaces into farms and reduce water consumption by 80 percent, paving the way for practical vertical farming making optimal use of available spaces. “The grow light technology and the product design makes farming possible in areas previously considered unsuitable for farming. These are our unique strengths,” says 23-year old Deepak.
While the LED grow light is one of their key product highlights, a few months ago, in the prototyping phase, it was the biggest challenge for the team. Ashish says, “Initially, we found it challenging to develop world-class LED grow lights that mimic sunlight for efficient growth of plants indoors. Through our continuous R&D, we now have created grow lights that use only the red and blue spectra to mimic sunlight in an efficient manner.”
A year that could define Crofters’ market success
The Crofters team comprises six members, who work on automation, design, and engineering. As far as the co-founders’ key responsibilities are concerned, Deepak handles operations and management, while Ashish handles product development.
As the Crofters team continues to fine-tune the product for its market launch, they are seeing regular visitors at their office in Chennai, who are all keen to experience the product. Deepak spends his afternoons in client meetings and interacting with suppliers for sourcing raw materials, followed by product deliveries in the evenings.
Crofters’ products are currently only available online with door-to-door delivery and service. They also have a consumables model where people order add-ons and additional accessories regularly. In the past three months, since the launch of their early adopter programme, apart from successfully onboarding 15 early adopters, they have been getting queries from across the globe. Deepak says, “We are hoping to have at least 200 clients in the next six months and make the product globally shippable by the end of the year.”
Sharing details of their marketing, sales, and product development plan, Ashish says, “We are currently partnering with online distributors to make our product available on other online platforms as well. We are also coming up with a series of products available at various price ranges to help us increase the reach. And, the option to buy add-ons from our own online platform will enable to push up our revenues.” As a near long-term plan, Crofters is also looking at collecting system data that will help them scale for larger urban farms. “In the next two years, Crofters will be launching large-scale urban farm products to make fresh healthy food locally available.”
Talking about the growth potential for Crofters, Deepak says, “Vertical farming is expected to reach $5.5 billion by 2020.The factors driving the growth of the vertical farming market include the demand for high-quality food with no use of pesticides, less dependency on the weather for production, a growing urban population, and interest in farming with reduced negative environmental impact, among others. And Crofters fits in beautifully here.”
He adds, “While the concept of indoor farming, be it small scale or large scale, is yet to catch up in India, we are seeing a lot of conversations around it. And soon, the conversations will convert into interest and thereby demand for a product like ours.”
Making indoor farming simple
Among the many things that make the Crofters team happy is seeing their customers happy. Narrating a customer story that the team considers has been part of Crofters journey, says Ashish. “When we were designing the Crofters Ecosystem, one of our friends gifted our ecosystem to his dad, Shanmugam, who after retiring, was exploring indoor farming but facing difficulties with conventional methods.” Ashish calls Shanmugam ‘a dream customer any startup would want’, because, “he was patient and understanding, kept answering the questions that the Crofter’s team were continually seeking to improve their ecosystem.” And, in the past five months, Shanmugam has been successfully growing various leafy greens and herbs using Crofters’ product. “For him and his family, the Ecosystem has become part of their life. He spends his evening around the Ecosystem enjoying nature right inside his home. This is a highlight for us,” says Ashish.
Delving on the role of innovation for Crofters, Ashish says, “We have built an intelligent, self-cleaning, aquaponics systems that helps people grow completely organic food in the comfort of their homes. We have combined nature and technology to build intelligent systems with a mobile app and sensor units that help control and monitor all ecosystem parameters remotely. And all this comes with zero-maintenance. Innovation plays a major role; in fact, innovation forms the core of our business.”
The two youngsters feel every inch of their effort has been worthwhile. “The idea that we will empower people to grow their own food is exciting. The idea motivates us to keep going.”
He explains that people have been able to grow varieties of leafy greens, herbs, and other small plants for their consumption in an effortless manner, which previously was a cumbersome process. “We have bought food home again,” gleams the young entrepreneur. “Products like ours will play a role in shaping the lifestyle of the generations to come and take notice of the quality of food we eat.”