A Carleton University business grad says his new startup is planting the seeds of a flourishing global horticulture enterprise with a soil-free system that grows herbs and leafy vegetables in a container small enough to sit on a kitchen countertop.
Alberto Aguilar launched fledgling biotech startup Plantaform last spring with longtime friend Kiwa Lang, an industrial designer who attended high school with Aguilar in Dubai and now lives in Australia.
Lang was looking for sustainable alternatives to traditional horticulture and discovered a concept called fogponics, a technique pioneered by NASA that nourishes plants with nutrient-enriched water vapour rather than soil. He immediately reached out to his old pal, and a truly international startup was born.
“It’s extremely efficient,” Aguilar says of the technology, explaining that it uses 95 per cent less water than traditional soil-based horticulture operations.
Unlike more well-established hydroponics systems, Plantaform’s product – dubbed Rejuvenate – doesn’t submerge plant roots in water. Rather, it circulates a fine mist loaded with nutrients throughout an egg-shaped device roughly 60 centimetres high by 60 centimetres wide.
The high-tech indoor garden can grow up to 15 plants at a time, ranging from herbs such as basil and oregano to leafy greens including lettuce and kale.
35-day growing cycle
Customers set the proper lighting and nutrient mix on a smartphone app. Aguilar says the system can effectively run itself for up to three weeks before the water supply needs to be replenished, and it takes roughly 35 days to harvest a crop from the time seeds are “planted” in the device.
Plantaform’s own growth path has been a little rockier.
Backed by about $100,000 in funding from the founders’ family and friends as well as investors in Aguilar’s previous startups, the company stumbled out of the gate early last year.
The initial design for Rejuvenate failed, and it’s taken about half a dozen iterations to get the concept just right. In addition, Aguilar notes ruefully, the firm’s original team “collapsed” after several employees quit last summer because the founders couldn’t afford to pay them full-time salaries.
Meanwhile, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the startup’s supply chain, forcing Aguilar and Co. to abandon foreign suppliers in China and elsewhere and manufacture the bulk of the components for the prototypes in their own homes on 3D printers.
But the plucky grow-op persevered, overhauling its development staff and bringing on veteran Ottawa-based engineer Georges Hamoush as chief operating officer. Plantaform eventually signed a Chinese contractor to manufacture most of the components, which will be assembled locally at Stittsville’s L-D Tool & Die.
If all goes according to plan, the first units will be shipped to customers this fall – and Aguilar plans to personally deliver as many as he can.
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but you know what? We’re not giving up,” says the budding biotech magnate, who grew up in Barcelona, spent some of his teenage years in Dubai and moved to Ottawa in 2014 to finish high school at Lisgar Collegiate before studying international business at Carleton.
"I’m really trying to put Ottawa on the map."
“We’re confident that if we keep trying, it’ll eventually work out.”
The 24-year-old Aguilar boasts an accomplished entrepreneurial resume. Plantaform is already his third startup, and he earned spots in Invest Ottawa’s pre-accelerator and uOttawa’s Startup Garage with his previous ventures.
He’s hoping to secure additional seed funding for Plantaform later this year, with an eye to landing a series-A round early in 2022. The company also has its sights set on even bigger markets – it’s currently working with the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, a non-profit organization based near Niagara Falls, on a system to grow cannabis using fogponics technology.
The worldly Aguilar says he’s hoping his venture can elevate his adopted hometown on the international biotech stage.
“I’m really trying to put Ottawa on the map,” he says. “We want to go global.”