Ag and Virus Detection Startups Score Wins

Posted: Updated:
The appliance requires only an electrical outlet and has a standalone water system. The appliance requires only an electrical outlet and has a standalone water system.

A handful of Purdue University undergraduate students is still months away from graduation, but already have a company backed by $35,000 in funding and a mission to enable Americans to easily grow fresh produce inside their homes. The company took top prize at the recent Schurz Innovation Challenge, which is organized by the Purdue Foundry. The second place winner is equally ambitious, looking to unleash the power of smartphones to battle disease in low-resource areas.

West Lafayette-based Hydro Grow LLC has created an appliance that grows fresh produce inside a case about the size of a refrigerator. The system utilizes hydroponics, a growing method that doesn’t use soil; instead, plants’ roots grow directly into nutrient-rich water.

“If you buy a head of lettuce at the grocery store, chances are, it was grown in California; that’s where two-thirds of our nation’s produce comes from. By the time you’re eating that produce, it’s a week old,” says Hydro Grow Chief Executive Officer and founder Scott Massey. “I thought if I could make a system that continually keeps produce alive until the moment you eat it, that could change everything.”

The Hydro Grow appliance contains a tower that the user plugs small cups into; the cups look much like the popular pods that make individual cups of coffee. Each pod grows a specified vegetable; the company’s website describes it as “a personalized farmer's market within a home.” The system is designed to be visually appealing, requires only an electrical outlet and has a standalone water system; Massey says, “like a fish tank, you just top off the water.”

The company is initially focusing on leafy greens, such as spinach, lettuce and fresh herbs; Massey says the appliance grows the produce in three weeks, versus several months using traditional methods.

“I’m excited about the possibility of this being in every single American household. I know that’s a huge venture, but to me, it makes too much financial sense to not do it,” says Massey. “You’re not going to the grocery as much; you’re growing your own produce, so there’s a breakeven point.”  

On the heels of winning $5,000 at the recent Foundry event, Hydro Grow earned $25,000 from the Purdue Ag-celerator and an additional $5,000 at the Innovator Connector's Big Idea Pitch Competition. Buoyed by the recent successes, the startup is now building second generation models of the appliance, communicating with potential investors and preparing for more business competitions.

West Lafayette-based Viratect was the runner-up at the competition, working to commercialize a technology that, essentially, converts a smartphone to a specialized microscope to detect diseases in global low-resource areas where conventional methods are unrealistic or too costly.

The point-of-care technology is comprised of three parts: a disposable cartridge, 3D printed hardware that attaches to a smartphone and an app that translates the information to a diagnosis. In the field, a medical professional would collect a sample—such as blood from a patient or a water sample from the environment—and load it into the cartridge, or “test kit.”

“You put the test kit on the 3D-printed hardware that’s attached to a smart phone,” says Katherine Clayton, a Purdue mechanical engineering PhD student leading the startup. “You open the smartphone app, and it triggers the camera to look at that sample in the test kit. There are specialized lenses within the hardware and an algorithm that we developed to analyze those images and give you a result: that pathogen or disease is present or it’s not.”

Because the method uses a smartphone, Clayton says the results could also be geotagged.

“That geotagged data can show where hot spots are occurring, and that information can aid health organizations, local clinics or governments to help them make more informed decisions about how to treat those infected areas,” says Clayton.

The startup earned $4,000 at the competition and is now focused on improving the design for the second generation prototype. The company wants the technology to be capable of processing a wide variety of samples and is looking for partners “to help us make Viratect a reality.”

Clayton says the technology’s ability to geotag information can help track and predict disease outbreaks.
Ultimately, Massey envisions the appliance having an intelligent system that can create optimum growing conditions for each individual plant.
  • Perspectives

    • (photo courtesy of Conexus)

      Getting the Word Out About Manufacturing & Logistics

      As the epicenter of the nation’s advanced manufacturing and logistics industries, Indiana has a compelling story to tell about how Hoosier companies make and move the goods people depend on every day. Our goal is to ensure everyone hears these stories – many of which share a common theme focused on cutting-edge technologies that are transforming the way products are made and moved around the world and the people who use them. Conexus Indiana launched an...



  • Most Popular Stories

    • (photo courtesy of The Times of Northwest Indiana)

      Historic Hospital to be Torn Down in Gary

      A building that once represented the racial divide in the city of Gary, but long provided health care to the African American community, will soon fall to a wrecking ball. The city says it intends to raze the long-abandoned St. John’s Hospital. 

    • Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway

      Red Bull to Discontinue Air Race World Championship

      The Red Bull Air Race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, originally scheduled for October, has been canceled as a result of Red Bull's decision to discontinue the Air Race World Championship following the 2019 season. The company says the races scheduled between June and September in Russia, Hungary and Japan will run as planned. 

    • On-Air

      Find out when and where you can watch and listen to our reports.

    • The Honda Greensburg plant opened in 2008.

      Honda to Invest $4M, Add Jobs at Greensburg Plant

      The American Honda Motor Co. continues to invest in its Greensburg, Indiana plant as it has announced the factory will be producing the company’s first electrified sport utility vehicle in the U.S. The company says it will invest more than $4 million and add 34 new jobs in the plant to support production of the CR-V Hybrid.  

    • Eleven Fifty was previously headquartered at Launch Fishers.

      Eleven Fifty to Cut Ribbon on New Location

      Eleven Fifty Academy will cut the ribbon on its new downtown location September 23. The nonprofit coding academy says it will host a grand opening ceremony November 6.