“Here, eat this.” Alexander Olesen hands me a lettuce leaf. “It’s part of your journalistic duty to experience this first hand.” Although I do not typically eat lettuce unless it is smothered in some type of dressing, I found it surprisingly delicious. “I’m glad you think so,” Olesen said in response to my compliment. He pauses and walks me over to another system. “You can see we have one little guy over here.” Olesen points to a small tomato barely the size of a marble. “I expect it to grow a lot more over the next couple of days.”
Introducing Babylon Micro Farms, Olesen’s brainchild and the home of the aforementioned vegetables. A 2017 graduate of the University of Virginia, Olesen’s idea for his hydroponic based indoor furniture originated as a result of one of his undergraduate courses. “We were told we had to build something that could easily be used by refugees entering the country.” And so, the idea of a small, electricity-free hydroponics system was born. “I’m not an engineer or a scientist, but I knew something like this could be modified and used in the home.”
Olesen’s concept for his farm-to-furniture continued to evolve after his class had concluded. What started as two plants being grown with no electricity became whole systems with a furniture design and the ability to control nearly all of the system’s internal factors (i.e. aeration and p.H.). “We’re also working on some enclosed systems that control internal, as well as external, factors like humidity and CO2.”
But why? As with all great inventions, the purpose behind the Babylon Micro Farms was at the forefront of my mind. Why go through all this work when someone could grow vegetables in a flower box or small garden of their own? “For one, you need a smaller area to grow plants twice as quickly using 90% less water, no GMO’s and no pesticides.” And so, there it was. One six feet by four feet hydroponics system that could do it all at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the time.
“I’ll admit, the initial investment can be a lot, but when you consider how much you’re saving in the long run, it all becomes worth it.” The University of Virginia’s Dining Services had already bought three of the older models from the sustainability initiative and had preordered three new ones by the time this interview took place. In addition, there is one located in Clark Hall, the University’s environmental sciences building.
Having hired their first full-time time employee, a recent electrical engineering graduate from Colorado, Olesen and his team will be welcoming another full-time employee later this month. “All that being said, we’re still trying to find a botanist to help figure out what will be the most efficient things for us to grow.”
As I took one final look around the i.Lab, the current home of Babylon’s operations, I couldn’t help but ask Alexander Olesen how he felt. “Being in a room with so many other people trying to start their own thing is amazing. Obviously, it can be difficult to find patience when searching for the right people for our team, raising money and trying to market a product all at once, but in two years I see us with a product on the market, two in production and a patent filed.”
And there’s no doubt in my mind that Babylon Micro Farms will do each of those things.
Featured image from UVA Today.