Niwa, a startup supported by China-based HAXLR8R, integrates hydroponics technology with smartphones and allows people to grow their own produce

[caption id="attachment_67733" align="alignnone" width="748"]Image Courtesy: Niwa Image Courtesy: Niwa[/caption] Ever headed to your apartment kitchen, wishing you too had your own garden from which you could pluck a smidgen of rosemary or thyme, rendering your pasta that “oh-so-heavenly” touch? Niwa, a UK-based startup seems to fully get this desire of urban dwellers. It has addressed the limitations faced by them in the form of an innovative smartphone-controlled hydroponics platform designed for home use. It is founded by Javier Morillas and Agnieszka Nagaruk (Aga), who are graduates of HAXLR8R, a hardware accelerator programme based in Shenzhen, China. The duo took part in its four-month long programme, working intensively with industrial designers and factories, and coming up with what would come handy to people living in constrained spaces in cities. This is an excerpt from their chat with e27 about their product, which they say will change the way people and hydroponics interact.

How did the founding team of Niwa end up collaborating? Javier: We met when I was working on a prototype. I was looking for a partner to manage marketing and business development and that's when I happened across Aga. We met at a startup event in the UK Startup Weekend at Manchester in 2013, and the company kicked off from there. We'd met previously at network events but in this case, the synergy was right and we ended up collaborating with Niwa.

What led you to create Niwa? Javier: I come from Almeida, Spain. Growing up, I saw trucks travelling around 2000 kilometres to deliver vegetables every day, and it got me wondering: Why not grow vegetables locally? So I looked around for an answer to this problem and found out about urban farming. I tried myself and realised it was super difficult.

Many urban dwellers don't have backyards. So I decided to work with farmers, take their experience and consolidate it into a single platform - Niwa. It's ideal for small houses and apartments, enables local production and solves the problem of time, knowledge and space.

Aga: We want to allow city dwellers to make use of modern technology as an enabler, by giving them an agricultural platform, which can be integrated with the smartphones they use in their daily lives.

What is your primary geographic market? Aga: Our main market is city dwellers who are limited by time and knowledge, but have the desire to grow, as well as young professionals who are conscious about sustainability. One third of American households planted gardens last year, and most of the attention we're getting comes from the US, but there's a huge interest in Japanese market, also from city dwellers interested in growing their own food.

Who are your primary backers? Aga: We're currently supported by HAXLR8R and our personal funds.

Do you have any plans for commercial growers? Javier: We intend to target the international market, focussing specifically on the B2C aspect and targeting home users first. Our tech is scalable to industrial uses but we want to get traction first. What will differentiate us in the B2B market is our simplicity, compared to a lot of industrial machines. There are tremendous opportunities in the industrial market, but we intend to focus on the consumer sector.

Aga: There's nothing really available on the consumer market right now. Smart herb gardens are smaller and aimed at smaller plants. Big hydroponic tents are hard to use, not aesthetically appealing and require significant effort, investment and expertise to configure. Our product is superior because of the simplicity.

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What's your primary differentiator? Aga: We take the complexity out of the growing process and consolidate it all into a single platform. We took the knowledge of farmers and loaded it onto the computer. So with Niwa, you get simplicity, functionality and a design that can be used in the living room, kitchen or anywhere else in the house.

How many plants are currently supported? Javier: Our current model supports up to six plants, but only small plants.

Aga: Niwa won't replace grocery shopping, but you can grow small peppers and tomatoes every week. In the future, we plan to incorporate green walls using our hydroponics technology, or grow plants, while functioning as a kitchen highlight. Form factor is not a limitation for us, as our models develop.

What are your future development plans, from now until 2016? Javier: Well, we intend to produce our first batch of Niwa's and are now working on the second generation, which is using LED lights and different form factors. It will probably be our second product, and will be released along with accessories we are currently developing. We also intend to offer our customers membership schemes, where we can ship to them different nutrients, accessories and seeds from our online store. One of our other projects also involves us working with architects. It's a house with hollow walls that can integrate hydroponics.

Aga: Right now our business is focussing on the B2C aspect and getting Niwa to our Kickstarter backers. The retail aspect is the next step for us.

Do you intend to add capabilities for aeroponic or aquaponics to future models? Aga: There's no advantage to using aeroponics, and it's quite easy to adapt Niwa to aquaponics. In the next year, we might integrate aqua. We plan to make accessories available to customers, who can use them to convert it into an aquaponics system. From the first model, the only thing that you'll have to change are the legs and the water reservoir. For instance, you can simply change out the pump and put fish in the water reservoir instead.

What's your current design and the plans for Niwa at this stage? Aga: We're currently using an ARM Cortex M-3 microcontroller, but we started off using the Arduino for our prototype. We're also busy running our Kickstarter campaign, which has been more successful than we expected.

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