By Jamie Smith Hopkins, The Baltimore Sun
September 3, 2013
Earth Starter is having the sort of year startups dream of.
The company, founded by University of Maryland graduates, sells a kit designed to make gardening easy in small spaces. You lay the 4-by-6-foot mat on your plot of dirt, push the provided seed balls through the mat's holes and water them with the included drip irrigation system.
Since Jan. 1:
•The mats came to market — for sale online, up to $80.
•The company won first place, and $52,500, at a national business competition held at the University of Maryland.
•And the founders raised over $100,000 on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to expand their manufacturing operation — 50 percent more than their original goal.
It's been a good year, if exhausting.
"I'm just recovering from Kickstarter, I kid you not," co-founder Phil Weiner said last week, a month after that fundraising campaign wrapped up. "I became addicted to caffeine and sweets and chocolate, and I was crying under my desk some days."
Weiner, 26, earned an economics degree from UM in 2011; co-founder John Gorby, 25, got his environmental science and technology degree there the same year. They started working on their product then, founded the company in 2012 and are now running it from both coasts — Earth Starter is in a three-month program with a San Francisco business accelerator.
So far this year, they've moved their manufacturing operations from a basement in Potomac to a sliver of a warehouse in Frederick to a basement in Hunt Valley. Now, Kickstarter funding in hand, they're shopping around for a production facility in the Baltimore region.
As if that wasn't enough change, Weiner and Gorby just decided to rebrand, using feedback from Kickstarter backers. They're changing the company's name this week to UrbnEarth and the product to Urbmat from Nourishmat, and redesigning it to fit in smaller — urban — spaces.
Weiner said he had his "aha" moment, the initial idea for the gardening kit, in a sustainable farm management class his senior year. He immediately emailed Gorby, who later made the first prototype.
Dale Johnson, the course's teacher and a farm management specialist with University of Maryland Extension, is an enthusiastic supporter.
"It's one of those things — 'well, why didn't I think of this?'" Johnson said. "You have a mat that the weeds can't get through, so you don't have to weed it. You have the irrigation built in. … You take these seed balls, these clay seed balls, push them into the soil, and that clay actually absorbs water so the seeds germinate better. It's easy to plant, it's easy for anybody to do. You roll it out and you grow your garden. It's just a great idea."
And while it might seem aimed at beginners, Johnson knows longtime gardeners who like it. His sister, for example.
"I gave it to her last winter, and she put it in this spring," he said. "It's the best part of her garden."
The company calls it "paint by numbers — for gardening."
The mats tell you what to plant in each hole: The top row of the Nourishmat has tomatoes, carrots and marigolds, the latter a flower that helps repel some pests. The kits come with 82 seed balls that can be planted in the spring, summer and fall, and Weiner said the mats themselves are good for three to five years of gardening.
So what's in a seed ball? Seeds (not genetically modified) in a mixture of clay, earthworm castings, organic matter and chili powder. Yes, chili powder. "To keep away pests," Weiner said.
The company has been selling Nourishmats for $64.95 to $79.95, along with narrower, less expensive "Herbmats," but that's about to change. The founders recently began making the new Urbmat design: 3 feet by 2 feet, a quarter of the real estate taken up by the Nourishmat. Those variations will retail for $59 or less, Weiner said.
The change was driven by Kickstarter and social media feedback, he said. "Folks were like, 'Look, this is amazing, but none of this fits my space.'
"Three feet by 2 feet would fit on any fire escape in any city," Weiner added.
The company is teaming up with firms that make small raised gardening beds, the sort you could put on an apartment balcony, but it's also designing Urbmats for indoor use. The idea is to lay one on a table or even hang it on a wall. Weiner hopes to add LED lighting, too.
The products are inspired by the victory gardens of the world wars. Johnson talks about them in his class, and Weiner remembers hearing stories of his grandmother and great aunt's own victory gardens in Northwest Washington.
Weiner could see the appeal of many people growing their own fresh food. But the farm management class underscored for him how much effort it takes to start and manage even a small garden.
"The thought of doing it is just daunting for people," he said. "I thought if I could remove like 90 percent of that, I might have something."
Julie Lenzer Kirk, executive director of the Columbia-based Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship, which runs a business incubator and two accelerators, liked the idea immediately when Weiner pitched it to her in March. The company joined the center as an affiliate the same day.
When she's told early-stage investors about the mats, "they immediately want to go and buy one," Kirk said.
The mats are made of polypropylene — like shopping bags — in North Carolina. Staffers make the seed balls and assemble the package in Hunt Valley. Assembly time per mat: three minutes. By hand. Eventually that can be automated, but not for a tiny company just getting started.
"We'll be able to invest in machinery later once we're scaling," Weiner said. "We can probably do 3,000 units a month right now, just in our small little basement."
Kickstarter funds will allow the company to rent a 5,000-square-foot facility. Nearly 1,300 people backed the firm's Kickstarter campaign, which emphasized the company's healthy food mission and included donations of mats for schools.
"We had people give us $5,000 just because they believed in what we were doing," Weiner said.
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