A Gatineau biotech startup that’s developing a soil-free system to grow herbs and leafy vegetables has gained a high-profile financial backer as it pushes toward its market launch.
Plantaform has raised $500,000 in seed funding since it was founded in early 2020, and recently landed another $250,000 from Gatineau entrepreneur Olivier Benloulou.
The multimillionaire businessman – who started Quebec-based weight loss company Ideal Protein in 2004 – has quickly become a trusted adviser to Plantaform co-founder Alberto Aguilar after the two met through mutual friend and fellow investor William Fisher a few months ago.
Aguilar said Benloulou is helping the company navigate the typical supply chain, distribution and manufacturing hurdles young enterprises face while “opening up the doors” to potential retailers such as Canadian Tire, Costco, Home Depot and Walmart.
“He’s going to be very, very helpful in that,” says Aguilar, who started Plantaform with longtime friend Kiwa Lang when they were looking for sustainable alternatives to traditional horticulture methods.
The company’s system uses a concept called fogponics, a technique pioneered by NASA that nourishes plants with nutrient-enriched water vapour rather than soil.
Unlike traditional hydroponics systems, Plantaform’s product – dubbed Rejuvenate – doesn’t submerge plant roots in water. Instead, 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.
Users set the proper lighting and nutrient mix on a smartphone app. Aguilar says the system can run itself for up to three weeks before the water supply needs to be replenished.
While initial prototypes took about 35 days to harvest a crop from the time seeds were “planted,” engineering advancements have cut the growing period to 28 days for some plants such as lettuce and bok choy.
Now at 12 employees, Plantaform joined startup incubator and co-working space Institut Innovation Gatineau two months ago. Lang, who lives in Australia, will be relocating to the National Capital Region early next year so he can play a more hands-on role in the product’s anticipated summer 2022 rollout.
To further accelerate its financing push, Plantaform is working with LaunchBoom, a San Diego-based marketing agency that specializes in crowdfunding efforts.
Seeking government grants
“They have a great track record on Kickstarter campaigns,” Aguilar says. “It looks quite promising that after a launch with them, we’ll be able to have more of a stable cash flow.”
At Benloulou’s urging, the company is also seeking additional funding through Quebec government grants and is negotiating a potential loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada.
If all goes well, Aguilar says the countertop garden – which is expected to be manufactured at Stittsville’s L-D Tool & Die – will be on store shelves by next July.
The startup journey hasn’t been without its detours. In Aguilar’s words, the firm’s original team “collapsed” after several employees quit last summer because the founders couldn’t afford to pay them full-time salaries.
But now, he’s convinced it’s headed in the right direction.
“That’s been our goal since day one – to become the leader in this technology.”