Traditional agricultural growing methods rely on a growing medium, but Ames, Iowa-based Nebullam is developing an alternative method of growing that doesn’t require a medium.
The company’s mission is to provide the art of future foods now and they’re doing that through the development of aeroponics.
“With high-pressure aeroponics, we use no growing medium. We suspend the plants in what we like to call a ‘root chamber’ and […] then we pressurize nutrients and water, and hit them with a really fine mist,” explained Nebullam co-founder Clayton Mooney. “I like to say that we put the plants on a boxer’s diet. They get exactly what they need, no more, no less.”
Through their advanced growing methods, Nebullam is able to create an indoor agricultural production environment that uses 95% less water than traditional methods and 40% less water than hydroponic methods. Completely controlled growing environments also eliminate the need for pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and enable a 50% reduction in fertilizer.
“There’s a lot of sustainable proponents that go into our systems,” said Mooney.
From inspiration to reality
Mooney said the inspiration for Nebullam came a few years back when co-founder Danen Pool was on a trip to South Africa. Pool began thinking about the issue of food security in growing populations and how someone would go about securing food production in areas where the land isn’t efficient for agriculture.
“When he got back to the states, he started researching different growing methods and eventually came across aeroponics,” said Mooney. “Aeroponics was originally created by NASA in the 80s to essentially figure out how to grow food in space.”
Pool was intrigued by the concept behind aeroponics. He decided to put his background in biology to use and built his own system, initially thinking of it as a hobby. By early 2015 he had grown his first crop of tomatoes and basil and gave them to his coworkers who were impressed with the quality of his produce and the fact that it was all grown during the winter in Iowa.
Automating the growing process
Pool began thinking about the possibilities for aeroponically grown produce and thought that maybe he had a business idea on his hands. He reached out to Mooney who has a background in ag technology and the two joined forces on creating an aeroponics company, but something was still missing for them.
“Over the summer of last year, we had the third co-founder join us, Mahmoud Parto,” said Mooney. “Mahmoud’s background is in electronic, mechanical and software engineering and he provided the missing link for us, which is the machine learning aspect.”
Nebullam is now at a stage where its aeroponic growing units are powered by automated software. The software remotely monitors, analyzes, and adapts to current grows, which ensures that Nebullam’s commercial growing partners receive the highest amount of yields and the best quality of outputs with very little human interaction between germination and harvest. The system will be fully automated by 2020.
Joining the Startup Factory
Nebullam is currently a part of the Iowa State Startup Factory’s 2nd cohort which runs January-December 2017. The company is housed in the research park of the Vermeer Applied Technology Hub where they have access to offices, work space, a prototyping area and a teaching team led by Bill Adamowski.
“It’s really unique in the fact that [the Startup Factory] doesn’t try to cram everything into a 90 or 100-day accelerator. It’s a full year of support which we think is very very important,” said Mooney. “We have access to all of the teaching team on a weekly basis and they hold us all accountable.”
The co-founders are using their time at the Startup Factory to focus on getting a paid pilot program up and running with partners. They currently have a pilot program in Nevada and on LongView Farms, a 5th-generation farm in Iowa. The programs act as a proof-of-concept and from there, they hope to transition into a commercial agreement where Nebullam can produce in a large production space.
“We do have other deals in the pipeline right now,” said Mooney. “We’re looking around Iowa in the commercial space for leafy greens and microgreens, and then we are looking at opportunities outside of Iowa as well in Colorado and Oregon for pharmaceutical [production].”
The Startup Factory is also helping to prepare the co-founders for a round of seed funding in the next few months to help grow their teach and reseach capabilities. They’ve already accepted an offer from Ag Startup Engine, an investment group that focuses on ag technologies within the Startup Factory. They’re also delivering a private presentation to potential investors within the next couple of weeks.
Taking aeroponics from Iowa to Mars
While the co-founders focus on getting the pilot project up and running, they’re also looking ahead at the future and other possible applications for aeroponics. The technology could be used just about anywhere. The biggest factor in whether or not Nebullam can implement their system into a city or region is simply a question of whether or not there is electricity.
“We see application for locations in Western Europe where a lot of the cities, for instance Dublin, are trying to push for smart-city initiatives,” said Mooney. “As far as applications in more developing regions, we think there’s a lot of potential there as well. […] With more and more energy-efficient and energy-focused projects jumping up in developing regions, solar panels are allowing energy in remote regions.”
Perhaps what’s most impressive about Nebullam’s potential is that the company isn’t limited to growing in one region or continent, or even one planet. The aeroponic systems being developed by the company could be used to grow food on Mars when Mars missions become a reality.
“The big thing that I’m personally excited about are the applications for outer space as well. The whole thing originated with NASA and I could see it coming full circle,” said Mooney. “We jokingly say we wouldn’t mind if we end up being the John Deere of agriculture on Mars.”
Christine McGuigan is the Associate Editor of Silicon Prairie News.