HAPI Project Aims to Create Scalable Platform for Food Production

We’ve all either seen some sort of documentary or read a research article or two about the problems with our industrialized food system. While it’s great to be able to enjoy ripe tomatoes year round, there are countless negative side-effects from the chemicals used in the processes, the toll taken on the soils of mono-cropped lands, and the simple flavors lost in the engineering processes to ensure availability.

Those reasons and more were enough for Tyler Reed to want to make some changes. He’s the founder of HAPI, an open-source platform for food production that turns the system on its head, making local food growing systems more readily available and technologically automated for efficiency.

We spoke recently with Tyler to find out more about how HAPI works. Our full Q&A interview can be found below:

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your personal and professional background as it relates to hydroponics and aquaponics?

A: I grew up on a small farm in northwest Ohio. My father was an agriculture agent through the OSU Extension program. We had a huge garden, an orchard, strawberries, raspberries, elderberries, mulberries, grapes and some livestock. I spent seven years in 4H. I’ve pulled an uncountable number of weeds. In 1993 I graduated from The Defiance College with a B.S. in Mathematics and Computer Science. I’ve spent the last 20 years working mostly in hi-tech areas. I’ve had a lot of consulting roles in software development and created several of my own technology-oriented start-ups.

In 2010, I wanted to complement my backyard garden so I built a small hydroponic system in the basement. I had a mixed set of successes and failures. I could see that some of the problems I experienced could be resolved with a little automation and I started to think about the best way to go about doing that. I let it stew for a couple of years. Last fall I decided to move forward with that effort and HAPI was born.

Q: What exactly let to the development of HAPI and what are the goals of the project?

A: The purpose of HAPI has evolved quite a bit over the last 9 months and it continues to evolve. The goal of HAPI is to create a scalable platform for food production. It’s a goal that is simple to say but hard to contain with just a few words. We’ve got about eight people now that actively contribute to different aspects of the project. Some are focused primarily on engineering, some on automation & technology, some on plant science and others on broader aspects such as designing systems to optimize for nutritional profiles and environmental constraints. Jointly, we have a warehouse grow room in an industrial part of Columbus, a DIY greenhouse with aquaponics outside of Nashville, a Dutch bucket system in Virginia, a micro-greenhouse in Slovakia and the list keeps growing. Everyone involved brings a unique set of skills and resources. As our collaboration grows our focus is strengthened and our diversity increases. It’s exciting to be a part of that.

The business model is also still taking shape. We’ve all agreed that the core activities of HAPI need to open and accessible. All of the designs and codes and knowledge that we generate will be freely available to the public. But there are quite a few commercial opportunities arising from this effort including consulting, fabrication, authoring. One likely scenario is that multiple businesses will be created around the project. Those will involve project members, external customers, companies, non-profits, maybe governments. There’s a quickly growing movement towards producing clean food locally so I can only think that doing what we’re doing can only make good business sense in the near future.

Q: What are the benefits of developing an open source platform, from both an end usage standpoint, as well as your own standpoint as a developer?

A: A strong open source platform for food production will force the industry to evolve. We’re significantly reducing the cost of growing food in greenhouses, hoop houses, basements and warehouses. So if commercial interests don’t want that to impact their bottom line, they’re going to have to innovate faster than we are. That’s good for the end consumer because not only does HAPI provide them with additional alternatives for growing, but it will also drive down the overall cost of production.

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As a developer, this project is a blast. We’re all learning new things. One of the really special aspects of this project is that it culminates in visceral, touchable things. We flow water, read sensors, control lights and grow things; all while being complete geeks with the tech-side. And to top it off we get to form relationships with other people, sometimes in other parts of the world, who share common interests but bring diverse perspectives and skills. It’s a lot of fun and we get to eat the end results.

Q: Where do you see this technology eventually going, and what changes do you think it can make to food systems large or small?

A: Our current food system sort of resembles the mainframe computing approach from the 70’s and 80’s. It’s all very centralized around large processing activities. Your food comes from huge farming operations that grow massive plots of mono-cropped land using amazingly efficient techniques, oceans of chemicals and staggering levels of negative externalities. I think the next phase will mirror the shift in computing paradigms and we will begin to move out of centralization and into distributed processing. The only reason you can buy lettuce from Mexico in an Ohio store is because fuel is artificially cheap. When fuel prices rise, local production will begin to make more sense. However, we don’t have the space in Columbus to plant the hundreds of thousands of acres we need so it will be fragmented. Food production will be distributed, specialized and localized. HAPI will be the ideal platform to support that type of scenario. Flexible, scalable, non-religious. And by non-religious I mean to say that high-tech automation is not the only path… low-tech is awesome. Dirt if beautiful and sunshine beats grow lights whenever it’s shining. The technology and approach have to complement the constraints of the user and their environment.

And then there are the robots…. don’t forget about the robots.

Q: What sorts of business resources have you been able to utilize here in Columbus?

A: The Columbus Idea Foundry has been critical to our survival. The network of people there represents such a huge resource of know-how and innovation. It would be difficult to get that kind of access in a large corporation and almost impossible for a start-up. A simple post to the CIF member forum and you can tap experts in welding, carpentry, machining, electronics, fabrication, design, graphics, business, you name it. And we all share pretty freely with one another and it’s not rare for one member to contract the services of another. Access to tools is important as well, it’s very convenient and cost effective. But the real resource is the community.

We haven’t had much contact from other businesses or resources here in Columbus. We did, however, recently get a little seed capital from the Human Services Research and Technology Institute. It’s a 501(c)3 based in D.C. We’re using that money to expand the grow room at the foundry, convert our Nashville site to run on solar power and promote our upcoming KickStarter campaign.

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Q: What upcoming timeline milestones are you anticipating in the near future?

A: We are ramping up for a KickStarter campaign that will launch in mid-June. Funds from that effort will be primarily used build grow systems for individuals and urban farming organizations. A smaller part of those funds will be used to expand and extend our development activities. And we’re actively looking for sponsors to build out a large hoop house with hydroponics, maybe even aquaponics. The structure is already funded and will be owned and operated by Franklinton Gardens, so we’re just looking to fund the materials required to build a year-round production capability inside of that.

Structural designs for our first product, a vertical channel grow system, should be complete by the 4th of July and a Beta version of the automation platform will be released before the end of June. So we are obviously focused on near-term activities at this time. But the long-term, big picture is a beautiful and horrifying thing that we occasionally visit in late-night Skype conversations.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: We’ve become the society of delegators. We delegate responsibility for almost everything. The making of our clothes, our cars, our houses, educating our children, running our government, changing our oil, growing our food. And when we delegate that responsibility we forfeit control over the activity and become by-proxy supporters of the values, or lack thereof, of those to whom we delegate. If we don’t like the way something is being done, the only real solution is to un-delegate it, to bring it closer to our homes and families.

More information can be found online at www.hapihq.com.

Photos provided by HAPI.