From A Closet To Five Acres: How Motorleaf Aims To Boost Indoor Growing
A year ago, Alastair Monk and Ramen Dutta had a seedling of an idea: If you can automate a home, why not a greenhouse?
The two entrepreneurs and residents of Sutton, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, were not professional farmers by any stretch of the imagination — but they were hobby growers in the middle of Quebec’s breadbasket.
Dutta, an agricultural engineer, programmer and tinkerer, put together his first prototype of the connected greenhouse’s central nervous system last November. He called it the HUB, short for “huge, ugly box.”
Fast forward to today, and Monk and Dutta’s company, Motorleaf — a name inspired by British rock ‘n’ roll band Motörhead — is filling orders, meeting with major company bigwigs and is closing in on a $1 million seed investment round.
“A year ago, our objective was to see if what we had built should and could be made available to other indoor growers,” says Monk. “Since then our ambition has grown significantly, mostly in part because of our participation in the FounderFuel accelerator program.”
Motorleaf’s founders participated in last spring’s cohort of the FounderFuel accelerator, a boot camp of sorts to help technology startups speed up the process of forming profitable companies.
In Motorleaf’s case, it happened at a breakneck pace.
Dutta’s original HUB was meant to be one piece of hardware to rule the greenhouse. But during the accelerator program, the design was revised and separated into four parts to create a modular, scalable approach.
Monk likes to boast that Motorleaf’s network can now be scaled for growing spaces as tiny as a closet, up to five acres. The pitch has clearly worked: Monk says he’s got thousands of dollars of sales lined up already.
The HUB is now called “the heart” — a piece of hardware that communicates with other elements of Motorleaf’s product suite, forming a wireless mesh network. The network, in turn, can monitor and control a couple dozen growing factors, including pH level, nutrients, humidity, temperature, lighting and reservoir water level.
Growers can then use a desktop or mobile app to remotely monitor and control growing conditions. Meanwhile, artificial intelligence and machine learning components baked into the process can learn from the plants, self-correcting to eventually optimize a perfect nutrient and atmospheric cocktail for each crop.
“The idea is not to replace people, but to take the guessing out of growing and prevent mistakes from happening,” Monk says.
Motorleaf’s solution may be ripe for the marijuana biz; certainly, growing weed is often an indoor activity across surface areas that would be well-served by what Motorleaf makes.
Monk shrugs that idea off. He says there are plenty of legitimate businesses, particularly in the technology sector and urban-farming movement, that are seeking his company’s services.
“Our goal is to be the default operating system for indoor growers around the world,” he says.
Over the summer, Motorleaf installed its system in a tomato-growing display case inside an upstate New York Price Chopper grocery store. Now it’s working with the same company, Vermont Hydroponic Produce, on a series of installations in Sutton and in New England that will allow students to grow food inside their schools.
“The Motorleaf system is a great tool for the kids to get involved in the actual processes of the growing method,” says Jeff Jones of Vermont Hydroponic, a subsidiary of Upper Valley Produce Group.
Jones backs up Motorleaf’s claims that it offers a unique product to relatively small-scale growers.
“When we were looking for automation, we went through three different small companies that provided aspects of what Motorleaf provides, and we were disappointed with all of them,” he says.
Although Motorleaf is still a small operation — currently with four employees, it’s looking to add another dozen staff with its seed money — it’s been making some big moves.
With little funding and exposure to date, the startup has received inbound inquiries from potential customers in 20 countries since July, and has letters of intent to purchase from growers from the Canadian Arctic to South America.
At this point, the company is focused on responding to demand by stepping up production. Monk says manufacturing will soon move from an in-house environment to a Canadian manufacturing facility. New and prospective partnerships with established greenhouse-automation companies, tech giants and other startups, have propelled the company forward, as well.
“All of their prospective customers know that it’s more efficient to grow year-round in a controlled environment than to roll the dice with changing weather patterns and unpredictable factors that are out of their control,” Monk says.