Meet the maker behind Sage Smart Garden

By Dustyn Roberts. Posted

Last summer in Britain was a scorcher, with plants drying up under a red-hot sun. You’ll have seen DIY watering systems offering a makery answer to this, but even the simplest solutions need a modicum of know-how to put together. Dustyn Roberts is the CEO of Sage Smart Garden, a startup trying to take the smart garden experience to the masses. We spoke to her to find out about how, why, and the importance of not being a jerk when you’re running a business (Apprentice contestants, take note).

“I just moved to Philly from Delaware and in Delaware I had a system set up in my yard with a drip line for irrigation. But, either I forgot to turn it on or I forgot to turn it off. If you get a timer, you can set it to come on automatically, but it’s still going to water when it’s raining, and it’s really hard to fine-tune it. You can’t give it an extra shot of water at noon on a hot day and things are getting fried because you’re at work. So, I started trying to fine-tune a system that would work for me.

"We started talking to landscape designers and green roof companies, and they had the same problems: they wanted to be able to automate irrigation."

“Sage is a system of smart gardening modules that enables you to automate irrigation. The hub which is a white box sits inside, next to your router inside your house, and then there are two modules: the water valve that goes outside fits into a hose or a sprinkler, and the soil moisture sensor sticks into the dirt in your garden and tells you how wet it is.

“So, it allows you to close the loop and, say, ‘water my garden if it’s dry.’ Or, ‘water my garden every day at 7am if it’s dry, but not if it’s going to rain that day.’ It can pull in weather data through the API and not water at all if it’s going to rain that day.

The original system was a Raspberry Pi hub, Arduinos, and XBees (little radio modules). Now Sage is using a Texas Instruments CC1310

“At its simplest, it’s a remote on-off switch for water; at its most automated, it’s doing everything for you. You can pick a tomato on Saturday and not have worried about it while it was growing – which is why I want it, because that’s how it came to be.
“We started talking to landscape designers and green roof companies, and they had the same problems. They wanted remote management, they wanted to automate irrigation, and they wanted to use resources efficiently so they didn’t have to send people out to monitor the plants, see that they’re not dying, and so forth.

“In Philadelphia, there’s a makerspace called NextFab. It used to be a machine shop that has a membership model like a gym, so you pay an amount per month, you get to use water-jet cutters and 3D printers, and laser cutters and things, so it’s a professional hackerspace. They started a hardware startup accelerator, so we’re in their hardware business accelerator programme now, as of two weeks ago, and that’s their whole job, to help us be market-ready.

The Sage Smart Garden system guarantees that your lettuce won’t dry out when you go away on holiday

“The plan is in three to six months, you’re going to see a Kickstarter or Indiegogo launch, and that’s where we’re going to get presales from. And, in the meantime, we’re going to landscape designer conferences and working with early adopters to
help us develop this.

“We actually launched a Kickstarter about a year and a half ago; we cancelled that after a couple of weeks because, at that time, we weren’t ready to go into sales. We were trying to raise some money for prototyping, basically.

“But the rules of Kickstarter were weird: like, you cannot promise the hardware unless you already have a prototype – which makes sense. We want to really do this when we have the thing ready to go.

“If you search with Google ‘smart garden’ – or go on Instructables or on any website, these DIY content websites, and search for ‘Arduino garden’ or ‘smart garden’ – you’re going to find everyone who has ever hacked together their own versions of something. But, you still can’t buy it anywhere. That’s why we decided to turn it from a project into a startup, and hopefully a sustainable model, that we can earn enough money to keep making hardware and not be jerks about it.

“I’ve been on a lot a business training that talks about ‘extracting value from customers’, and I don’t want that. I don’t care what their lifetime value is, or whatever other metric you’re using; I want to make enough money to sell cool stuff and use it myself, then enable more people to grow their own foods.“

This story is an excerpt from HackSpace magazine Issue #14. Interested in regular updates from the world of making? Join thousands of other readers in becoming a HackSpace magazine subscriber.

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