PodPlants is a finalist for The Australian Innovation Challenge awards
PodPlant’s founder Chris Wilkins was so passionate about his invention — a novel aeroponic system to grow plants by suspending them in nutrient-laden mist — that he dropped out of university to develop it.
Now the Sydney inventor is about to launch the system, PodPlants, as a means of growing greenwalls, or vertical gardens, in office blocks. But he sees this commercialisation phase as only a milestone in the realisation of his dream of adapting the technology to environmentally sustainable agriculture amid fears about global food security.
Wilkins has made the finals of the Backyard Innovation category of The Australian Innovation Challenge awards with PodPlants. The awards are run by The Australian in association with Shell with the support of the federal Department of Industry. The Backyard Innovation category is open to the public and carries a $10,000 prize. Aeroponics involves growing plants without soil. In contrast to hydroponics, in which plants are grown with their roots in a nutrient solution, aeroponics plants are suspended in air with a nutrient solution delivered to their roots in droplets, Wilkins says.
The PodPlants units are black plastic containers 2.4m high, about 1m wide and 280mm deep. About 200 plants are suspended at various levels within the modular units and are supported from their stems by foam collars fixed to the inside walls of the structures. Their leaves venture out of holes in the units’ walls.
Other aeroponics systems are on the market but the novelty of PodPlants lies in part in the way the droplets are delivered to roots from a water reservoir at the bottom of the unit, Wilkins says.
Unlike conventional aeroponic systems which typically use pumps, PodPlants adapts a medical device to saturate the air with droplets without the use of pumps, nozzles or filters, he says. He has a provisional patent on PodPlants, which he has optimised for water and energy efficiency.
“The PodPlants are exceptionally efficient — consuming less than four watts of power per 100 plants and less than 400 millilitres of water per day,” Wilkins says.
The portable, self-contained units, which weigh less than 10kg, can each be installed in less than an hour, he says. The units are positioned side by side to form a greenwall.
“Traditional greenwall systems typically require plumbing, drainage and waterproofing to be installed into existing walls, making these systems impractical for many locations and costly,” he says. “All the water in PodPlants is contained inside the units and the units can be placed anywhere. As there is no waste water run-off, refilling and servicing can be done fortnightly or monthly with a watering can.”
Wilkins’ company will initially lease the units, most of which grow rainforest plants, to businesses for installation in offices. “Eventually, we will sell them outright to plant rental companies,” he says.
A former plumber, Wilkins initially spent several years working on PodPlants part-time in his backyard. He invested tens of thousands of dollars in the project.
He was enrolled in a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science at the University of Sydney but dropped out to found a company and work on the project full-time. He had participated in the University of Sydney Union’s Incubate start-up accelerator program and was later invited to join the portfolio of business incubator, ATP Innovations, when he decided to take the plunge. As part of the program, he has office space at ATP Innovations, in Sydney’s inner city, and access to leading business advisers.
He was awarded a $15,000 grant by the NSW government earlier this year and tutors at the University of Sydney, and takes on interns from the institution. Although he sees decorative greenwalls for the corporate sector as the first market for the PodPlants, he is experimenting with agricultural plants such as spinach. “I’ve got two units with edibles in them,” he says. “The challenge with edibles is the varying nutrient requirement.”
He has experimental units in his office and home, and has even colonised his parents’ and sister’s homes. “Everywhere I go, I’ve got these units,” he says.
Wilkins spends long hours working on the project and is preparing to approach prospective investors. “It’s all-consuming,” he says “It’s all or nothing because I believe in it.”
Copyright Cheryl Jones The Australian. Picture: John Feder