Student dining at the University of Virginia has begun chopping some of its greens and herbs from an unlikely source — trays of ultraviolet-lit plants set up in Clark, Newcomb and Observatory Hill halls.
The innovative hydroponics system is the brainchild of UVa alum Alexander Olesen, who founded Babylon Micro-Farms last year. Olesen is now relying on UVa’s support to launch the company’s next phase as it begins selling the tables on the market.
Hydroponic farming grows plants without the use of soil, typically in water or nutrient-rich solutions. Most hydroponic systems are industrial-scale, but Babylon’s system, about the size of a pool table, is meant for personal use.
On a recent Saturday, Olesen set up at Charlottesville’s City Market with a 5-foot by 4-foot table clad in pinewood. The wooden finish shields the Babylon team’s real pride: wires and sensors that measure water, light and temperature and adjust systems for maximum yield. Small cups set in the top of the table hold individual marigold and pepper plants. Purple LED grow lights hang above the plants.
“We provide all seeds and nutrients pre-measured, and there’s an automatic system of text updates so users don’t have to do anything,” Olesen said. “No one’s doing hydroponics like this. We’re one of the first doing something like this on the Eastern Seaboard. I mean, at an industrial level, everyone’s doing it, but no one’s doing automated, no one’s doing quality design.”
UVa has provided invaluable support to Babylon Micro-Farms, Olesen said, from giving grants to helping him brainstorm the next phase of the business.
“The idea is bringing micro-farming to a whole new level, in your living room,” said Christine Mahoney, director of UVa’s social entrepreneurship initiative, which helped fund Babylon’s prototypes. “Social entrepreneurs can solve the world’s toughest problems with smart business ideas.”
Now, Olesen is in talks with Bob Creeden, managing director of new ventures and the Seed Fund for UVa’s Licensing and Ventures Group, which connects innovators with funding sources.
Typically, the group helps UVa faculty who have business concepts or inventions, Creeden said, but he has a steady stream of students who want to bounce ideas off him.
“I sometimes think of us as one-stop shopping,” he said. “If you come to us, we’re going to be able to connect you with funding, or grants or staffing.”
Creeden has given Babylon advice about how to raise capital and scale its project, and right now he’s thinking about whether to invest in the company, he said.
Olesen’s models cost about $2,000 apiece. He has sold one to the Corner Juice Bar on the Corner, and said several restaurants are interested in custom projects.
He’s also received some interest from schools, and thinks they could help teach children about food and sustainability.
That’s why UVa Dining got three of the tables and planted basil, cilantro and mint. The tables drive awareness and education about food production, according to Samantha Jameson, UVa Dining’s sustainability coordinator.
“We encourage students to come in and pick what they need,” Jameson said. “All of these ingredients students can use to add to any dish or take to cook on their own.”
Olesen has sold about 15 tables so far, and he said he expects to deliver those orders by the end of the year.