Social Entrepreneurs Grow A ‘Computer Garden’ At Zahn Innovation Center

I cover for-profit social enterprises and impact investing

A “computer garden” for urban farming that grows food without soil or harmful chemicals. That’s the mission of SyStem, a fledgling New York City startup founded by two engineering students at The City College of New York.

“Our mission is to grow food for people in the future,” says Alex Babich, a junior electrical engineering major, who founded the company with Adrian Logan.

SyStem's radishes (Photo credit: Wildbloom Photography)

Wildbloom Photography

SyStem’s radishes (Photo credit: Wildbloom Photography)

It’s also the winner of this year’s Zahn Social Impact Prize, awarded earlier this month. That’s a business pitch competition run by the Zahn Innovation Center, a semester-long incubator for City College students and graduates.

The co-founders created what Babich calls a “food computer”–a three-foot-wide by two-foot-deep box with a computer in it, along with an automated controlled environment for growing plants hydroponically. Various sensors monitor such factors as the temperature, humidity, the CO2 in the atmosphere, and the water’s pH level. If, say, the latter is too low, the system will pump up the pH solution. “For whatever plant you want, you put in a recipe–software programmed to take the plant through the whole life cycle successfully,” he says.

Ultimately, the startup aims to address a looming crisis–as world population increases, there will be less land available on which to grow food for more people. At the same time, the effects of climate change are likely to make it harder to produce enough sustenance. “We’re developing ways to bring food closer to where people live and grow it in a more efficient way,” says Babich.

But to develop technology capable of providing food on a large scale, according to Babich, time is of the essence. “That’s why it’s so important to be working on this type of technology now,” he says.  The plan is to build a modular system that has a central computer. Thus, you could create a large system with many modular sections or, with just a few, build a much smaller one in, say, someone’s home.

Recently, Logan and Babich grew their first crop–radishes, which took about eight days to pop. “They came out really well,” says Babich. Next step: Over the summer, they plan to develop their hardware platform. Plus, they’re working with a fellow Zahn startup City LABscape to build the hardware for that company. City LABscape, which recently won the Standard Chartered Women + Tech4NYC Prize, has developed a curriculum and prototype for hands-on indoor agriculture STEM education for middle and high school students, using small hydroponic-growing systems.

SyStem’s founders met each other in a CCNY engineering class and discovered they worked together well. One day, after he learned about the Zahn Center, Babich told his friend that he was interested in doing “something with an app.” Logan wasn’t crazy about the idea. Then Babich  told him, “I really think it would be cool if there were a skyscraper growing plants automatically.” So they tossed around ideas, like, for example, a computer that could grow plants, and were accepted into the Zahn program. A semester -long incubator, it takes 24 teams through a boot camp that trains them in how to move from an idea to building a prototype and forming the beginnings of a business.

Then they applied for Zahn’s summer-long, a full-time accelerator program, which accepts 10 startups and is aimed at launching their business. Each of those teams gets $10,000, so they can spend the summer working on their startups, instead of at a summer job.