Can Advanced Technology Bring Us Better Food? This Startup Has the Answer

Can Advanced Technology Bring Us Better Food? This Startup Has the Answer

By Melissa Simpson

If we had our way, we’d all probably be eating fresh produce that we grew on our own properties. Unfortunately, due to time and spatial constraints, we usually end up heading to the grocery store or our local farmers markets in order to source our fresh foods. Even then, our options can be limited — sometimes the obscure leafy greens that we crave are not even available in Whole Foods. This is where services like Replantable come into play.

Replantable is an Atlanta-based nanofarm startup that enables consumers to grow fresh produce in the comfort of their homes regardless of whether they live in a townhouse, in the suburbs, or in a small studio apartment in a vibrant metropolis. The nanofarm is a 17.4 x 13.9 x 13.7 inch box made of steel and sold bamboo that uses plant pods made of seeds, recycled pulp, cellulose and wax to grow a variety of vegetables.

Replantable was founded by Ruwan Subasinghe and Alexander Weiss in 2015 when the pair realized that the way our food is grown, packaged and shipped does not allow for freshness or a robust, full-bodied flavor the way nature intended. The pair did extensive testing in order to figure out how Replantable could assist the public in growing the best quality produce possible within their homes.

“With growing plants, it takes a long time to know whether a change you made to the product is a positive one,” says Subasinghe. “We’ve grown used to the long feedback cycle for testing, but it was a stumbling block early on. I don’t think it’s unique to our company since there are other products out there with long testing cycles. It can take some creativity to apply lean startup principles, which were developed with quick-turn software development in mind, to businesses like ours.”

There are a lot of moving pieces that have to be considered when running a startup concerned with innovative ways to increase accessibility to fresh food. While experimenting with different lighting, seeds and growing mediums, it was important for the founders to streamline and automate as many processes as possible.

“We wouldn’t be able to scale nearly as quickly without the many digital services that allow us to outsource many of the functions of our company,” says Subasinghe. “We have an e-commerce platform that allows us to easily design our online store and take payments and accounting software that makes it easy to keep track of our books.”

In the early years of Replantable, Subasinghe and Weiss participated in Create-X, which is “a faculty-led, student-focused initiative that provides students with the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences to confidently pursue entrepreneurial opportunities,” at Georgia Tech. By participating in a startup incubator like Create-X, Subasinghe and Weiss had a leg up when it came to starting Replantable.

“Create-X gave us a shortcut past many of the early mistakes we would have made. Our mentors there knew the pitfalls of early-stage startups and helped us avoid them,” Subasinghe explains. “For example, they made sure we didn’t get too focused on ‘vanity metrics’: likes on Facebook, website visitors, etc. Instead, they told us to keep a laser focus on metrics that matter: customer acquisition rate, churn, lifetime value. Focusing on these important metrics are helping to keep us on course as we grow.”

It goes without saying that startup leaders will experience a few uphill battles, even after utilizing tools that help to streamline their practices. It is just a fact of life when starting a business. For Subasinghe, one of his biggest challenges arose in the early stages of Replantable while he was searching for a clear path for the company.

“One of the biggest struggles I’ve experienced has been the amount of uncertainty in starting a business,” says Subasinghe. “It’s tough to push ahead in one direction when there’s no way to be certain that it’s the right direction. We try to be objective, using data to inform our decisions, but a large part of entrepreneurship is making guesses and taking chances. As an engineer by training, it’s somewhat counterintuitive to me.”

Despite having to occasionally take a few chances, Subasinghe was wise to incorporate raw data into the decisions that he was making for Replantable. According to Danielle Cohn, Executive Director, Entrepreneurial Engagement and Head of LIFT Labs for Entrepreneurs at Comcast NBCUniversal, data and research are some of the necessary building blocks when starting a new business venture.

“Every entrepreneur should to do his or her research to know if there is a need for that particular idea; what does the competitive landscape look like; is there a similar product or idea already available and so on,” Cohn says.

Comcast NBCUniversal was once a startup itself, and continues to value and support that entrepreneurial spirit, The company recently launched LIFT Labs for Entrepreneurs, a collaborative learning environment where startups serious about developing the next generation of media, entertainment and connectivity innovations connect with Comcast NBCUniversal product teams.

A primary component of this is the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs Accelerator, powered by Techstars, kicking off this July in Philadelphia. Startups selected for the 13-week accelerator program will receive one-on-one mentoring from Techstars, a worldwide entrepreneur network that supports entrepreneurs through access to mentorship and capital, and will work directly with mentors and product experts from across Comcast NBCUniversal’s businesses, including the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks, film studios, and cable networks, and Xfinity products and services.

The goal is to help founders, like Subasinghe and Weiss, elevate their ideas even faster.

With all of the learning experiences behind them, Subasinghe and Weiss are able to bask in the open-ended nature of being a startup leader. Although it can be difficult to find structure in the beginning, the amount of freedom is the greatest reward.

“There are very few jobs where you have complete control over your daily tasks and see the direct benefits when you make the right moves,” Subasinghe notes.

If you’re a startup focused media, entertainment, or connectivity, you can apply for the Comcast NBCUniversal Accelerator, powered by Techstars now through April 8.