August's spark of genius article

Growing the Distance

Erin Block : Office of Innovation Development (Extern)

If you find a problem that needs solving, chances are there are others who have the same problem. Sometimes, however, you need to convince them they have a problem.

This was the case for Dr. Nate Storey, inventor of the ZipGrow Tower and co-owner of Bright Agrotech in Laramie, Wyoming. The region’s climate presents particular problems for growers; most produce must be grown in greenhouses for at least part of the season.

“Those heating costs are high,” Nate said, “and they are something that a lot of cold-climate growers deal with.”

ZipGrow is an innovative way of gardening that differs from traditional soil gardening in several ways. It uses a soilless hydroponic or aquaponic method where the plants are arranged vertically rather than horizontally.

According to Nate, “That's what the methodology comes down to: analyzing the production potential of an area based on volume as opposed to square footage.”

Essentially, the ZipGrow Tower vastly increases the amount of vegetation that can be grown in a small amount of space. While Nate developed the technology specifically for commercial growers, it is versatile enough for urban and home garden applications as well.   

After recognizing that his invention had many advantages over traditional gardening, Nate took on the task of educating and convincing others that he’d found the solution to a problem they did not know they had.

Nate received both a master’s and a doctorate in agronomy from the University of Wyoming and came up with the invention while doing research for his master’s degree. Nate did not begin his education with the thought of becoming an inventor or starting a business, but after trying to use some of the systems available at the time, he realized that “none of them really worked for the applications I wanted to use them for.”

An innovation was born.

Nate knew he wanted something modular, easy to move, and easy to use. Typical hydroponic systems use a “growing medium”—often small rocks or pebbles submersed in water that allow plant roots to bind to for support while absorbing nutrients from the water.

“I wanted a media-based technique, but one that was not any of the traditional plant production media.” So, he set out to create a better solution.

Nate’s invention process was not without its problems. Since he was developing his idea as part of his master’s degree studies, he had access to the Research Product Center at the university, which Nate credits for giving him and his two partners the ability to start their business.

“We were a bunch of poor kids who had no business starting a business,” said Nate. “Without the Research Product Center, we would not have a business.”

Nate indicated that the most difficult part of the invention process was sourcing the material for the growing medium.

“It took me a long time to find a material similar to what I wanted and then work with a supplier to develop a material specifically for my application.” The final product was composed of a polyester matrix.

In starting the invention process, Nate did not necessarily think of commercializing the idea or starting a business.

“I was just looking for a better way to do something that would solve my problem at the time,” said Nate. “It’s very selfish. But, once you fix it you say, well maybe other people have this problem.”

It was around this time that Nate and his partners thought it would be a good idea to create a company and take the invention to market.

Thanks to the Research Product Center’s help during the filing process, Nate’s invention received U.S. patent no. 8,327,582. Because the idea was developed while Nate was working toward his degree at the University of Wyoming and with the university’s resources, the patent is assigned to the university and Nate is listed as the inventor.

Nate said that it was the protection of the patent that encouraged and enabled him and his partners to start the company.

“We spent every penny we had to get started—buy our initial inventory, get going, and figure out manufacturing,” said Nate. “That would not have been possible without feeling like our idea was protected.”

Because the university owns the patent, Nate’s company licenses the use of the technology for its product. Nate said that “for [student] inventors who have interest in commercializing their patents, oftentimes there is an opportunity to come in and license the patents from the university on very good terms,” adding that “it’s really a leg up if you’re a small business.”

Nate currently has several patent applications pending at the United States Patent and Trademark Office for improvements and other innovations based on the technology he developed.

“The beautiful thing about being an inventor is that you really are the first person to know about what you invented. So if you are doing something really unique that could spawn a bunch of other technologies, you have the opportunity to develop your tech and then to build on it and continue to file patents on all the other great things that you can invent in the same line.”

Nate indicated that one of the hardest and most challenging things has been figuring out how to run a business and get it off the ground.

“You are up and down a lot,” said Nate. “It took many, many years of me working for no pay—working 80-100 hours per week for no pay. You never get that time back. A lot of people told me to quit.”

But determination and a good product paid off.

“We’re trying to scale our business like a software business, but we’re manufacturers,” said Nate. This model has worked for the company, as Bright Agrotech grew by 800 percent last year and is on target to do at least the same this year.

The company started with all of its manufacturing in Laramie, Wyoming, but as Nate said, “We can’t scale our personnel at the rate we are growing our business if we’re going to do all the manufacturing in-house.”  

Although the company has had to find manufacturers outside of Laramie, everything is made in the United States and assembled in Laramie.

While running and making a go of the business has been the most challenging and difficult thing, Nate also said it is one of the most rewarding aspects as well.

“There aren’t a whole lot of people out there who have the opportunity to build equity in themselves. I love the idea that when I go out and I break my back and I sacrifice things and I work long hours for years on end . . . that sacrifice is rewarded, and it’s mine and not someone else’s.”

When asked what advice he would give to others, Nate said “You have to be wise and you have to listen to the people you respect as far as the value of the product and the potential of the product. If the product doesn’t have the potential then it’s not something you should be doing, but at the same time, there is always a certain rebellion that has to go with it too because a lot of people tell you you’re an idiot for even thinking about it or starting. And you pretty much just have to fly in the face of conventional wisdom on some issues and do it anyway, and that’s the hard thing—making that judgment call, but once made it’s 100 percent about endurance.”

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