Growing a Greener Future

Two young UVA grads’ micro-farming startup is flourishing. And so is their lettuce.

“We never actually got those to work,” Graham Smith (SEAS ‘18) said with a laugh, pointing to a large, overgrown plywood planter outside the window. “But it was a good learning experience.”

I laughed too; looking around the Babylon Micro-Farms workshop-turned-office where we stood, it was clear that Smith and his team had come a long way. Smith’s comment seemed to perfectly fit the startup vibe of the space. Electrical engineer Patrick Mahan (UVA ‘19) assembled hydroponics technology fifty feet from where the marketing director, Will Graham (UVA ‘15), typed on a laptop. A $10,000 check from the Dominion Energy Innovation Center dated from earlier this year hung proudly above the door.  

One of the team’s original planters outside of the Babylon Micro-Farms office.

Smith and his co-founder Alexander Olesen (UVA ‘17) have been working on building sustainable, user friendly hydroponic growing systems, Micro-Farms, since 2016. They kick started the venture in Hustle, HackCville’s startup program, as second years.

“The original goal was essentially to make a food machine that could feed a family of four,” Smith said, gesturing back to the planters. “This model wasn’t practical for that yield though, so that’s when we made some changes.”

The team has made significant strides since The Pioneer first wrote about them last fall. They overhauled the Micro-Farm design to allow for more plant diversity and have sold systems to Three Notch’d Brewery, Boar’s Head, O-Hill Dining Hall and Cava on Barracks Road. 

“It’s pretty cool,” Smith said, looking at the Micro-Farm models around us, each in a different stage of completion. “We have a product that works and we found people willing to pay for it.”

What drew these large clients to a relatively new local startup? Well, for starters, the systems are user friendly and one of a kind. Their product allows for eight different growing zones, as opposed to the two that similar products advertise.

“We designed the Micro-Farm with staggered growing zones, so you can grow different types of plants in the same system,” Smith said, leading me to the testing rack in the back of the office. “Basil and lettuce need different nutrient solutions, but with this design you can grow both.”

Smith and his team recently started working with a San Francisco based design company, Ammunition Group, to mass produce the products on a larger scale. The system to be installed at Boar’s Head will allow the resort to be completely self-sufficient in salad greens, producing around 300 heads of lettuce a week.

Proof of concept for Babylon Micro-Farm’s Fold-Out Farm

While these new developments are exciting, the team has also been working towards bringing the company back to its founding purpose with their Fold-Out Farm initiative.

“We sort of circled back to the original goal of a low cost farm,” Smith said, “and we are working closely with UVA to develop this.”

Given that they are barely four months out of college, Smith and Olesen have built quite a business. I couldn’t help but ask if HackCville played a role in their success.

“HackCville helped a lot because we didn’t have to come in with an idea,” Smith said. “I didn’t know I wanted to do a startup, I just wanted to find cool projects.”

His ‘cool project’ has certainly turned into much more, and I have no doubt that Babylon Micro-Farms will continue to thrive.

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