Boxee co-founder Idan Cohen's most recent stint may have been in the smart TV space — but now he wants to build a box that'll help you grow some lettuce outside your home.
That might seem weird, but after many dinners spent feeding guests with vegetables grown from his roof, he and his team are now launching a smart planter called GROW. Initially starting as a hobby to grow vegetables he couldn't find in the United States, Cohen's rooftop garden has now morphed into a startup that's raised $2.4 million in a financing round led by Resolute Venture. It starts at $249, with a pre-sale of $199 starting first. The company then hopes to have an accompanying recurring model where you get seeds and such over time, giving it a continuous business for everyone that ends up buying a planter.
"I didn’t know what I was doing, but being an engineer this made me think there’s a better way to do it," Cohen said. "There’s no reason I need to do conflations in my head when we can sense when I should plant my tomatoes. It made me think we could develop a vertically integrated solution, a smart planter that has some sensors and auto irrigation — which can make it hard for people to figure out whether you're watering too much or too little — and give them advice using all these sensors."
GROW, at its heart, is a planter. You buy it, put soil in it, lay down some seeds, and in theory harvest some greens from it eventually. But like many other techy approaches to traditional hobbies led by founders who build techy approaches to traditional hobbies, the GROW planter is designed to help you handle any speedbumps (or inexperience) to ensure that your gardening process still ends up with something that ends up on your plate. GROW sends over seeds, soil, and nutrients, and tracks everything to ensure the environment stays healthy.
This then feeds into your phone, which gets a microclimate profile and the best advice for how to manage your plants and ensure they end up with something you can actually eat. Each plant has a kit, and the hope is that the company can figure out which vegetables are most likely to be successful in your climate. Then, you get seeds or seedlings, as well as nutrients, through the life cycle of the plant and instructions as you go along.
Here's the kicker, though: the barrier to entry for something like this is going to be pretty high, and not because of the price. GROW requires a water source for its irrigation, which means if that's not handy this won't be something for you just yet. All this means that GROW is, at least initially, going to be a niche product for those with an itch for gardening and the resources to build a more robust garden otherwise. While Cohen may have worked with this idea from a rooftop to begin, the whole concept is to reduce the initial effort required to tap into that latent green thumb — but that means starting with the most accessible audience first.
The whole process still required a bit of a balance between making it automated and easy and still accounting for the zen that comes with gardening. It takes away the everyday ritual of watering, which might be something that you're into doing as a cool-off-from-work kind of thing, but that's intentional because the goal is to actually get vegetables growing and helping you actually pick something healthy. That's just one example of a careful balancing act that GROW had to take, which we'll have to see play out before we know whether or not the planter finds that sweet spot.
GROW is also starting off as something that's only for sale on GROW's website. The company might end up in retail stores, but that's further down the timeline — as it's something that can lead to a ton of challenges for a company that's building a hard physical product that people will buy. "We definitely learned that mistake at Boxee, and as soon as we went to retail it became much harder to keep it as a leader," Cohen said.
"When you hand off the relationships, you don’t own the salespeople," Cohen said. "It becomes hard to control the message. When you control the whole funnel, basically the journey from coming to a website down to supporting the customer through usage, it’s much easier online. One of the lessons is we’re not gonna move [into retail] quickly."
There's going to be plenty of competition for GROW. There are a lot of companies attempting the kind of let's-grow-real-plants-in-climates-where-they-don't-necessarily-belong projects, like Agricool, which just raised $9.1 million. Starting off with a niche, GROW is going to have to make a very good product that consumes the entire wants of that niche and then eventually expand to other low hanging fruit (like a table in an apartment, hint hint). GROW is also going to have to make sure it delivers on those continuous touchpoints and work with customers throughout the entire growing cycle of their plants.
"Building hardware wasn’t easy, but these days hardware has a lot of advantages," Cohen said. "The world of consumer software is so saturated and noisy. Hardware has the advantage of building slowly a customer base of people paying hard dollars. The main lesson I've learned in building products is to build one with a service layer. Some kind of recurring revenue is very important."