Gabe Blanchet on Success, Setbacks, and Home-Grown Produce

Grove is the aquaponics company everyone is talking about. Their first product, a sophisticated indoor farm powered by LED lights and fish waste, promises produce year-round, as fresh and as local as it gets. Users can monitor their crops with a mobile app, tracking two separate gardening beds in a true integration of food+tech. We talked to Grove cofounder Gabe Blanchet about his company's journey and the lessons he's learned along the way.

Branchfood: Where did you get the idea for the Ecosystem?

Gabe Blanchet: My roommate and best friend -- now my cofounder, Jamie Byron. He built an aquaponic system in our fraternity room at MIT, during our senior year. We started growing anything from lettuce to tomatoes to peppers to pea shoots. But it was more than just the food in that room -- it was the cleaner air we had, more oxygen. It was the centerpiece for anyone in the fraternity. We realized this could have a profound impact on people's lives, and it's just fun! It's fun to have, and it's fun to grow your own food.

BF: What was the first thing you grew?

GB: One of the coolest things about the Ecosystem is it's not a single-crop machine. We had some culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley -- basil, of course. We had leafy greens and fruiting crops. Jamie even planted a pomegranate tree! Which never grew into fruition. It's just great to live with; it's like a slice of nature in your home.

BF: How did you get your project off the ground?

GB: MIT was our first supporter. They gave us $20,000 in non-dilutive capital, which was incredible. Then we did a small friends and family round, and then we actually started raising some venture capital from venture firms and angel investors. This past fall, we raised almost half a million dollars on Kickstarter. We put our first product up there, the Grove Ecosystem.

BF: That's incredible. Did you face any setbacks?

GB: There are setbacks you have to work around every single day. There are macro things, like it's hard to raise money. And although we've done a great job, it's hard to maintain an A+ bar for new hires. There are micro things, too. You have to learn how to file taxes as a business, and how to update investors and build a great product and make sure that customers' feedback is heard and integrated into your approach. There's challenges all over the place.

BF: Did you have any mentors along the way?

GB: Oh, so many people. Some of the key folks are just MIT in general, specifically the MIT Trust Center for Entrepreneurship and its managing director, Bill Aulet. They've been a cornerstone of our experience with Grove, and I'm very thankful to them. Beyond that, we've got a great set of investors who all advise me on how to do this, and why. Our friends and family are super supportive -- not only Jamie's and mine, but also of the sixteen people on the team. We get a lot of support across the board.

BF: How has your Boston location affected your business?

GB: We love being a big presence on school campuses around here -- we've just got so many smart, energetic young people and it's really fantastic to be a part of. We've got phenomenally talented people in Boston. In terms of capital, it's a little bit harder to raise money. In terms of customer base, our fifty early adopters in the area have been fantastic partners for us. They bought prototypes of the first product and have continued to grow with them throughout.

BF: Who's on your team, and how did you build that team?

GB: We're about sixteen people now, just fantastic people. We've been fortunate enough to recruit people from top schools like MIT and Harvard and Olin, a lot in the Boston area. We've been able to recruit great engineering talent from Bose, from SpaceX and Apple, and we've been able to tap into the Boston finance scene. We're all inspired by the same mission: let's get people inspired to grow their own food. People really walk into the office with a sense of purpose, and I think we've done a great job cultivating that. We've got a very strong product engineering team -- that's where most of our manpower is focused. The product should speak for itself, so most of our marketing is talking about our mission and our product and our culture. You don't need a big marketing department if your product is so interesting and strong.

BF: When hiring, what are some qualities that you'd look for in a candidate?

GB: We look for the self-starter. Are they entrepreneurial and do they take initiative? The person who sends in a resume and says, "Hey, do you guys have any open spots?" hasn't done their homework. That person isn't fully engaged with the information that we have on the web, hasn't asked around and tried to speak with our partners and investors and maybe even find a customer of ours to speak with. I look for people who come in the door having done work. It doesn't have to be, you know, that you built your own aquaponic system. You could've written tons of blog posts about gardening and growing your own food and why it's important. You could've built an app that helps gardeners, and even if it's not released yet, the fact is that you're thinking that way and you're able to build it. I love it when people come providing value from the moment they say they'd like to work with us. Show us what you got! People love the idea and the energy behind Grove. We get plenty of applicants, but the ones that really shine are the self-starters.

BF: They're the ones already thinking about the business and what could happen next.

GB: Exactly. They're inspired to take action rather than ask for a project. But beyond that, we want to make sure we're hiring people that really align with our values and our culture here. We don't have a specific rubric for that, but if they're in a room with ten of us, are they going to be able to effectively voice good ideas? We have to be careful not to hire homogenous, similar people. We want diversity in every way, but they have to be able to jive with what's here.

BF: How did you get to know your customer?

GB: Fundamentally, what we're doing ties into everybody on the planet. Everybody eats, everybody lives together in the world's ecosystem. The core of our product and of our brand speaks to a lot of people differently. Some see it for education, some for the actual food output, some just because they're inspired and want some nature in their life. But the idea appeals to just about everybody. Some of the groups that we've seen really stand out recently are schools -- teachers love the Ecosystem as a teaching tool. One teacher estimated that over 80% of the stem curriculum can be taught through aquaponics. We're talking everything from the chemistry of the water to the biology of the plants and fish, and the microbes that convert the fish waste into plant food. The physics of LED lights and the wavelength and intensity of those lights. We're talking about hardware and engineering, building these systems and then integrating them with software like a mobile app. There's just so many lessons for any level of education. In terms of individuals consumers, we're finding there's a broad variety: young folks who just moved into their first home and want a centerpiece, to be more connected to nature and be a part of the technological revolution. We've got young families who see the Ecosystem as an all-family activity that'll enrich their children's lives. Then we've got some older folks who see it as a way to garden year round and be close to food. There's all sorts of different people.

BF: Grove is about to launch to a much larger consumer base. How has the scaling process been for you?

GB: We'e got a super talented, experienced team. Manufacturing is hard -- it takes a while, you have have to be conscious of your supply chain with all your vendors and partners. But we don't have too many problems in terms of technical issues, it just takes time. The biggest issues we've faced are around patience, actually. As young founders, Jamie and I have big plans and we can't wait to change the world and inspire people. We can't wait to build a lower-cost option of the Ecosystem that makes sense in more homes and more schools, to open-source design so people in developing countries can be inspired to grow food more sustainably close to home and save money. We can't wait to do all these things, and we can do all these things. But it's about being patient, continuing to learn and grow and build, and to focus inwards on the culture. We create a great culture here, but it's not just Jamie and I and the sixteen people we have now -- it extends far beyond the people in the room. We just need to be patient.

Gabe Blanchet spoke at Branchfood's Mystery Speaker Series in Boston, MA on March 2nd, 2016. To learn more about Grove, visit more upcoming events, visit conducted by Chloe Barran.