Halifax-based Electric Owl is preparing to launch a digital garden management platform targeted at the 46 million households in North America that grow their own food.
The social enterprise aims to launch its Garden Manager product in the spring of 2020. The Garden Manager will advise users on how to grow fresh and nutritious food. The aim is to improve food supply and reduce the environmental impacts of food transportation.
Founder Margaret Dron said the market is worth $20 billion annually, although around $5 billion a year is wasted because of gardners make mistakes or don't have the information they need to grow food properly.
“A key part of the solution for preventing and repairing food deserts is supporting communities with technology that helps foster sustainable food systems,” she said. “If we change how and where we grow food, the environmental impact would be massive."
A serial entrepreneur with two successful exits behind her, Dron has spent the last year refining her product, seeking expert help and building a database.
“We’ve created the foundation and have a plan, technology, and data,” she said.
The venture’s database is being collected by its botanist who is based in Vancouver. It will include key plant physiological and environmental needs while connecting with weather stations and optionally integrating soil sensors.
The money helped Dron gain market validation and input from users of her initial product. She said she also has personal experience of the “decision paralysis” faced by new gardeners as they search the internet for gardening advice.
Her subscription-based product will take users from one end of the growing season to the other, showing them how to optimize their gardens and their crops. Garden Manager’s advice will be so detailed it will even warn of an impending cold front and tell users how to guard against it.
There are competing garden management products but Dron said none are using the location-specific data and AI-driven coaching that Electric Owl is integrating into its product.
“We can support any city in North America with a population of 80,000, for ninety percent of crops typically grown in urban areas,” Dron said.
Electric Owl’s long game is to gather anonymous consumer data in order to improve its service and develop tools for small-scale farm management.
Dron is herself a recent transplant. She moved to Halifax from Vancouver after a vacation led her to conclude that Halifax offers opportunity and cost-effective access to talent and nature.
Her team is based at Volta, Halifax’s startup house, and includes herself and a developer, with the botanist working remotely from Vancouver. Three co-op students will come aboard in the new year, and Dron is in the process of bringing on a PhD in Machine Learning from Dalhousie University.
For those who are thinking of growing their own food, she offers some advice: “Always invest in deep planters,” she said. “Soil depth opens up your options for year-round and indoor food growth. Roots need homes too.”