Interview with Michael Eaton ‘18, Lisa Condoluci ‘18, and Sivan Sud ‘18
What is Iko Systems, and what sparked your desire to create the company?
Michael: That is something that has definitely been taking us awhile to align in all of the founders’ visions really because we all have big, long-term goals for it. We describe it as a functional, organic design for your home. We were all brought together because we wanted to solve food problems, and we all want to do that in very different ways, but we all think that food is a really big problem whether it be in Manhattan or Texas or Botswana or Southern Africa. This is the first way we are going to be solving this problem, by allowing it to grow efficiently at home. Oh and how it started! Want to hear a little bit more about that?
Michael: I come from Botswana, which is in Southern Africa, and you can’t believe how different it is from Ithaca, you know? I grew up on a farm; it’s pretty lush, and we have a lot of space and a lot of sun. Coming to Ithaca, it’s cold and dark a lot, as you might know. I just tried to grow plants one day in my home because I am used to eating food I grew myself, and the seeds I tried to germinate didn’t even grow much. The ones that did didn’t even grow much. So I said that I would build something for myself, and because I am an engineer like making things, I started talking to my friends. The next thing I knew, I had friends working with me and trying to market something. Pretty organic.
How did you come up with the name Iko Systems? I believe you were called Petal before?
Sivan: It’s a Japanese-inspired design. Michael has always been really into drawing and a Japanese vision, and we once found this handle for a website iko.systems. It fit perfectly with ours because we are all so focused on environment.
Michael: Yeah, initially Petal was something we first just latched onto, and it stuck. You know, we didn’t really think much. We thought, “That’s fine, it’s quick and easy… you can get it right.” And then quickly, Petal became the name of the company and also became the name of this initial product. It was almost like a revelation. We realized we’re become one-dimensional. And we’re not going to be able to grow our vision until we get a better name with a better structure and a broader potential. So we said that we should come up with something that’s not just linked to one product. We’re not a product; we want to be a brand-- a brand that produces products and produces something that is exciting for the user, not just one product. We thought about so many different options, and we threw mood boards around and naming ideas and graphics. Eventually, “ecosystem” is something that came about because we are producing systems, and it kept on cropping up-- the word “systems.” We’re making systems-- complex systems, feedback systems, etc. as engineers, and we thought “ikosystems.” It’s a play on words, it’s fun, “I-K-O” on your keyboard is next to each other, which is kinda cute. We found out that “iko.systems” was available as a domain and we were like, “this is so cool” and we had to go with it. It has definitely allowed us to broaden our scope for what we can do. IKOfriendly, IKOsystems, IKOnomical: you can play on words all day. People gravitate to it; it’s fun, but people mess it up too much, which is annoying.
Was this product originally some kind of ragtag piece of machinery that you put together? What was kind of the design for it? What was the design and business process you went through in order to actually come to the product come to life?
Michael: Yeah… it’s pretty funny. The funny thing is, being mechanical engineers and engineers in general, you want to make things; that’s what you want to do. The first instinct is that I can make this today. The first thing I did even before I asked my friend for help was put wood together build a frame. It was half my height and a bit wider than me, so it was big. So I said this is what I was going to do: I’m going to build this big product and it’s going to be controlled and there will be water flowing through it. It’s so jank. We hooked it up the first time to water, I even had a pump, and I was so confident. I had it in my living room at the time; water was everywhere. It looked terrible. So I told myself, “We have a long way to go.” Since then, we’ve built so many different types of prototypes; we’re still testing them out right now. It’s just been amazing, starting off big but then realizing it wasn’t an efficient prototype. Let’s go small, perfect some aspects of what our design should feel like, the electrics feedback, and grow. Once again, I think it was kind of organic. We started off wrong, but then we started small.
Sivan: A big help to that was being admitted to Rev’s Hardware Accelerator. They have really great resources, and we were able to rapidly make a prototype and really iterate our design and nail it down.
How big is the base product right now?
Sivan: It’s about 18.5 inches wide, 11.5 inches high, and 6 inches deep. It’s like a large shoebox.
Are you planning to expand to a bigger product, or is it more so for a home-design?
Lisa: The vision was a three-tiered system. You have your different layers where you could grow arugula, lettuce, and bigger greens on one of them, and you could grow your cilantro, parsley, and basil on another. Right now we are trying to perfect the one-tiered system, and we’re also going to try going deeper and adding two layers as opposed to one.
Are you targeting people on the high end and looking to grow their own plants?
Sivan: Right now we have narrowed down to three customer segments. One of them is a cook, someone who cooks so they don’t necessarily want the level of involvement a traditional gardener wants. The second one is someone who tries to display more exotic plants, and the third one would be gourmet--someone who wants better taste. One interesting thing we are researching is basically adding flavors to the herbs by process. So that could be a great differentiator for us.
Michael: That’s very special-- the control we are giving them. Just adding to what Savan said, you asked about high end. The first time I had this problem, The first thing I did was look online. What’s out there? What can I solve my problem with right now? I bought two products and I was disappointed; that’s why I’m on this journey, because I was disappointed by what’s out there. There’s nothing with quality. Everything out there that helps you grow at home is plastic; it has no story, it’s non-compostable, and that’s what we are trying to do. That’s what we do: it’s high end, it’s quality, it’s something that can fit into a stylish home next to other quality products.
So it’s not just food plants that you are supplying for, it’s other plants as well?
Sivan: That depends on what we ultimately decide to target but now we are mainly focusing on herbs.
You mentioned that you are from Botswana. Do you plan on launching there or sticking with the U.S. for now?
Michael: Botswana has too much space and sun and not enough of a population for it to be successful there. The United States is the perfect place to own a business and is perfect for innovation. We are looking at a lot of other seasonal places-- places that suffer agriculturally through seasonality. We have been talking to a lot of people in Europe, especially London where they have a lot of problems with rain and not light. Israel is another awesome place for controlled agriculture. But we are definitely lucky to be in America, especially the northeast, for a start.
Speaking of Israel, one of the problems they face is with water usage. Does your product take into account water usage?
Sivan: The plants only uptake exactly what it needs, so it is very minimalist when it comes to water usage. We use very few resources to make these organic pods. It all goes along well with our story of helping the environment.
Michael: Being environmentally conscious when it comes to agriculture is synonymous with being precise, and being precise with agriculture is also being sustainable. We provide the utmost form of precision at this scale. There are no evaporative losses from our system which is unique. There are very cool forms of equalisation in our system which is cool. We are inspired by systems from places like Israel that do a lot of good agriculturally.
Do you pour the water into your system, or is it hooked up to a faucet and connected all day?
Sivan: Now we have a reservoir inside that keeps water. Our target is to have it keep water for about a week. We have sensors inside that tell you when you are low on water. Something we could look into are the restrictions where you can put it, especially in cities. One of our goals is to have it easily installable, so experts do not have to come in and do it for you.
Michael: All you have to do is add water in the top of the pod and then it waters the plants. We have a goal to make it mainstream.
Sivan: That is something we learned from customer discovery: the level of involvement that these people want. Maybe they like watering it and form a habit around the product and begin to use it more.
Michael: We also have vacation mode for when people travel. People who travel a lot on vacation or for work definitely fit into our customer demographic.
What are the next steps for you guys?
Michael: We have been going down an awesome path with Cornell and eHub. Right at this moment we are recruiting more people; we are trying to maybe double our team. We have had a lot of interest. Hopefully we can get this out to alpha-testers before the winter break. The product can be in homes for the winter season which would be amazing. By the time we graduate we can hopefully be selling. Making revenues by then and getting it into people’s hands would be great. We will most likely stay in Ithaca after graduation. This is a phenomenal place to be with our resources and advisors for a small company like us. So, yeah, the next stage is to get it to people, start making money, and expanding the product.
A big differentiator for us is that our system creates an isolated environment. It is actually closed off from the regular environment, so we could control the temperature and humidity of the system which allows us to create flavors in plants that you wouldn’t normally get from this environment. We can grow a plant as if it was from Italy. No one does this now, so it is super exciting.