How did you get involved with Aquatree?
It actually started with a conversation in a Starbucks with someone who was friends with the inventor of the Aquatree. I was working on a large municipal, community-oriented project and happened to overhear a conversation next to me that was about exactly what I was working on. I said hello and introduced myself and the conversation went well. Within days, Kevin, who invented the Aquatree, and I were exchanging thoughts about world changing ideas. He asked me if I knew anything about sustainable food production, aquaponics, hydroponics, etc. As you can see, things evolved from there!
You invented the Mau Mats. What are they?
Mau mats are a special type of seed mat. They were specifically designed for the Aquatree but can be used in other systems and environments. They are composed of a fibrous, highly engineered material that consists of nearly 100% biodegradable components and are proprietary to Grow Local. They are designed to aid in seed health while accelerating germination and the promotion of rapid growth. They facilitate nutrient uptake, and maintain root health during critical stages of growth. Paired with the system that they are designed for, they create the perfect environment for a seed or young plant.
How do Mau Mats work?
You simply drop a Mau Mat into a tray. Sprinkle on the seeds, hook the tray into the Aquatree and watch everything grow. Simple.
Can you tell me a little more about that?
Sure. The seeds drop into the Mau Mat’s structure until they are stopped by the seed barrier. The capillary action of the Mau Mat brings water to the seed and in later stages, nutrient. Roots permeate through the seed barrier and throughout the mat. Airflow is generously maintained until the roots become more mature and the mat degrades away. If left long enough, the Mau Mat degrades within the system naturally and all but disappears. If there is anything left it can be thrown away or composted by at least 98%. Incidentally, we are working toward 100% compostability.
How did the Mau Mats end up with your last name? Was that a condition of inventing them?
*Laughs* No, I didn’t have any naming conditions. In fact, I didn’t want my name on it at first because I’m not a very showy person and I didn’t want to be seen as being full of myself. Kevin, who invented the Aquatree, wanted to give me credit for the hard work I put in and thought my name was unique and fit well with the product I had created. It was actually my Dad who pushed me over the edge to grant permission to use my last name on the mats. My Dad was over the moon about what we had done with Aquatree and that I was a part of it. It was a really prideful moment when he learned that a product could don our last name. It was kind of a legacy moment for him. How could I resist that?
Were you involved in other developments with the Aquatree?
Yes, I helped with some of the innovations that were incorporated into the Aquatree like changing the system over to a different type of pump so we could streamline the design and improve performance. Then there was the sourcing. I did a lot of that for different things like the lights, the pump of course, the seeds, nutrients, etcetera. Sourcing naturally aligned with the research I was doing for the Mau Mats plus I have a knack for finding things and establishing supply chains.
So, you had this amazing system. Do you really need Mau Mats for the seeds?
Well, you don’t always need Mau Mats. Certain crops just don’t require anything else. That is, anything outside of the Aquatree, water, and power for the seed to grow. Oh, and some nutrient if you are growing microgreens or larger plants. We have quite a few sprout offerings that you can dump into the trays and they just grow. Also, fresh cuttings and certain veggie parts grow great just thrown in the trays. In fact, my wife likes to use the trays to root hydrangea, mint, and basil cuttings to use outside around our house or give to friends, and my daughter thinks it’s fun to regenerate celery from the leftover stumps. She has done that with bok choy and a few other things and has recently taken to “Saving” onions and carrots that have started to go soft by re-hydrating and regenerating them in the Aquatree.
But why Mau Mats?
Most seeds need some kind of substrate to grow properly. They mainly need something to grow into for support and root shading. So, knowing this we started searching years ago for what we ended up creating. It meant experimenting with all sorts of things to try and find something that would create the ideal environment for plant growth. There was a lot of research, trial, and error. I had no idea what I was in for when I started that ball rolling.
How did you even know where to start?
I started by just going to Lowes, Home Depot, Walmart, Target, and other big box stores to see what they had that might work. The selection was pretty limited so that lead me to specialty shops and companies and that filtered into local organizations that were trying all sorts of things. I went to trade shows, met with manufacturers, met with universities. I bought everything I could get my hands on to try and find something that would work. Then, as is pretty common these days, I jumped online to see what I could find.
Thousands of dollars and years of testing allowed us to outline specific criteria but there was not off-the-shelf solution that would work well in our system that wasn’t expensive or somehow harmful to the environment -and believe me, we tried everything!
You mentioned that you developed specific criteria. What did your criteria consist of?
That’s easy to list out now but it wasn’t so easy to figure out. Off the top of my head, we had to create something that:
- Could contain even the smallest seeds yet allow water to pass through even after moderate root growth.
- Had sufficient light protection for germination and to maintain root health.
- Could mimic the desirable properties of soil.
- Maximizes air and water flows; especially during critical stages of crop development.
- Was cost effective for the consumer.
- Did not allow harmful mold and bacteria growth.
- Did not emit terrible odors.
- Could keep seeds hydrated for days on end in the event of a power failure or some other catastrophe.
- Was biodegradable but had degradation timed to match plant maturity.
- Was compaction resistant during early stages of growth.
- Absorbed and retained nutrients while filtering out solids and impurities.
- Was chemical free.
- Was food safe.
- Was fish safe if aquaponics was used.
- Was made in USA.
That sounds like it would be very hard to achieve. Did you ever feel like giving up?
Yes, I got very frustrated at times. It was always easy to meet some of the criteria but at times it felt like I had an impossible task. I didn’t give up though. I just kept researching, talking with experts about materials, reading studies, gathering industry information, and just trying things; even if they seemed crazy.
It sounds like it was a heck of a learning process. Is that valid?
It was quite the process. It definitely was not easy or straight forward. I explored everything from what goes into manufacturing the Scotts sponge that sits in countless kitchens across America to cocoanut fiber mats to the cutting-edge stuff like carbonized bamboo netting and graphite cloth. That said, I liked the challenge and the little discoveries along the way. Inherently, I’ve always liked to figure out how things work and the “why” behind things. Along with good timing and connections, I feel that is why I have experience success in business and other things I put my efforts into.
What was your biggest takeaway from the inventing process?
I think there were two. The first was to just keep chugging away and grind through the tough times because you will get there eventually -maybe. I guess it is really about having a continual hope that you will get there and a drive to see if you can. That means you really have to keep going no matter what.
So, you don’t give up! Instead, you pace yourself and keep exploring, taking notes, mental and otherwise, along the way. You talk with people, ask questions like why? and what would you do, and who can you point me to that might be able to help? And of course, just try things. All that in total is “the grind.” If you keep at it, if you are truly committed, something always presents itself if you are receptive to it. It is really a function of time and how hard you go at it. Well, and maybe a bit of luck. Sometimes a lot of luck. Sometimes it doesn’t work out though which means you have to throw away everything you poured yourself into for weeks or months or years because it’s a dead end or just isn’t going to work. Then you get to start again.
The other take away was the learning part. I love learning about things. To have exposure to so many different people’s knowledge and experience and to see how things are made and what is out there. It is really just mind-blowing what exists in the world and who you can connect with. From scientists to farmers to kids to governments I’ve listened and asked and listened some more and have just been continually amazed.
I guess there may be a third takeaway and I suppose it’s that I’ve seen first-hand that the world is truly an amazing place. I have traveled the world and met with so many people really trying to help and make a difference and achieve something and just strive to live. I’ve seen the bad too but I have to say that the things that we as humans have figured out and have an understanding of boggle my mind sometimes. It truly inspires me when knowledge is paired with people who are driven to make a difference in the world we live in.
It seems like material science may have been a huge part of your journey; especially when you talk about the criteria you had and the searching you did. Can you tell me a little more about what that looked like with an anecdote?
Material science was a big part of the equation for the whole thing. It really meant putting knowledge gained from years of grade school and university courses, that at the time I really questioned the value of to work.. Well to try to remember all of that and put it to work. I had to do some re-acquainting. Its funny, we now are encouraging schools that want to use the Aquatree to explore these sorts of processes and explorations with their students. It is incredibly valuable. Nevertheless, adhering to the basics like use of the scientific method was critical. Still, everything needed to focus on the established criteria and ultimately, ease of use for the user or customer.
Can you tell me about that and what the customer wanted?
Our target demographic wanted ease of use and simplicity. At first, we thought this meant giving Aquatree users a drop-in solution where seeds, nutrients and a substrate were combined into one drop-in item. Sort of like Keurig with their drop-in pods. Turns out we were at the beginning of a painful education at that point in the process.
As a company, we didn’t want to mimic systems like Aerogarden because what they were doing was not really environmentally friendly and it was expensive. So, I looked at adhering seeds directly to a substrate in a way that met all of our requirements. It was a massive undertaking. I tried everything and I even developed a food-safe fibrous organic polymer plasticized clay to deliver on what was envisioned. Trouble was that it proved to be very costly to manufacture and had barriers that made scaling up manufacturing around such a construction very difficult. Also, the seed shelf life was measurably reduced and this meant there was a greater potential for excessive waste. Back to square one.
So how did you get back on track?
I took a step back and looked at the core of every successful product: simplicity, cost, functionality, and performance. I realized I was so focused on making the experience so simple, I was making things too complicated. When I took the idea back to mirroring a traditional planting process where things are not combined until a certain point in a process, I had it. I then thought through all of the material properties I had encountered and the science behind them, and the lightbulb went of! I literally sourced the material within a few hours of having the idea, assembled the materials into a working prototype, and started testing and tweaking. After all that exploration, learning, money, and time spent, I had done it. I had come up with, and brought to life, a stunningly simple idea that met all of the criteria and it worked perfectly with the Aquatree as a system. And not only did it work, it cut germination times by as much as 50%!
So, what’s next for you?
There are so many things we are planning to do with the technology. We are actively working on a number of things for the next generation, and add-ons, and of course the peripherals. Then there’s the commercial system. Once you get into this sort of thing, it really is an endless well.