Tucked away in an unassuming office park in Overland, local startup MARSfarm is changing the way people across the world learn about agriculture. By bringing countertop-sized greenhouses to classrooms, the agtech company is helping students from elementary schools to research universities better understand plant science, greenhouse management, and more.
The idea for the St. Louis-based company, which officially launched three years ago, began around seven years ago when Peter Webb, co-founder and CEO; Drew Thomas, co-founder and COO; and a group of fellow St. Louisans were brainstorming about open-source hardware and software for plant-growth chambers. That initiative led to the creation of a $300 “food computer” that, Webb says, he initially expected to be purchased by hobbyists and citizen scientists. “We didn’t expect there to be a demand from the education market,” he says.
Yet today MARSfarm technology exists in classrooms from St. Louis to South Africa, spanning nearly 600 schools across 12 countries. Customers range from STEM-oriented research institutions studying the confluence of plant and data science to rural high schools preparing their students to run the farms of the future.
“For many schools, maintaining an existing or buying a new greenhouse is a couple hundred-thousand-dollar capital expense,” Webb explains. “So, more and more schools are opting to not have a greenhouse (on campus) but still have these agricultural programs.”
Compared to a traditional greenhouse, MARSfarm units are both cost-effective and incredibly compact — measuring in at 1.5 feet tall, 1 foot wide, and 1 foot deep, according to Webb. Each unit includes a Raspberry Pi, a small single-board computer, so students can configure individual settings for their greenhouses. Different pieces of equipment for the units are also made on 3D printers at MARSfarm’s office, where a storage closet-sized room is lined with shelves of 3D printers running all day long.
Version 1 of the technology costs around $1,600, and some schools receive the product for free through nonprofits or loaner programs, Webb says. Even more unique is the fact that MARSfarm tracks the conditions inside each miniature greenhouse and provides data on factors like temperature, light, and CO2 levels, allowing students to closely monitor growing conditions.
By tying this type of data science to tangible outcomes, MARSfarm enhances the teaching and learning opportunities afforded to each classroom, Webb says. Beyond agricultural science, the technology is being used in biology, chemistry, and even math classrooms. Teachers can access an online community forum to gather and share ideas about how they are using the technology. Applicable uses range from teaching students how to keep agricultural logbooks to preparing for the math portion of the ACT and SAT by learning to read charts and graphs, Webb says.
It also serves as a way to attract students to agriculture who may not have otherwise considered it as a future career. “There’s a real opportunity to get these students who are developing these exceptional STEM skills to see agriculture as a career and as a real way to make an impact,” Webb states.
The company also provides invaluable learning opportunities for students who are set to inherit family farms and need to learn the complex science of agriculture, Webb explains. He visits classrooms in rural schools in Missouri and Illinois to better understand how these students are engaging with the MARSfarm technology and how it can best prepare them to operate their own greenhouses and farms someday.
Webb also notes that MARSfarm is an “optimistic way to get kids engaged about agriculture” by focusing on the possibilities of growing crops beyond earth. The company offers grow kits for crops that NASA is looking to one day grow on Mars, which is where the name MARSfarm comes from.
“We try to use this idea for students that they need to create the optimal environment for different plants that we could potentially take to another planet,” Webb says.
St. Louis is the ideal environment to launch this type of innovative business because of its proximity to agriculture as well as the fact that the city is home to several large institutions in the plant-science sector, according to Webb.
“It was the maker community and some of the ties to manufacturing and big industry in St. Louis that kept me here, in addition to the agtechnology (community),” he says. “When you think about plant-growth chambers and what opportunities there may be in developing a better product for the market, it makes total sense that would happen in St. Louis.”
Webb points to local corporations such as Bayer as well as nonprofit research institutions such as the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Creve Coeur as reasons why the St. Louis area is the ideal place for a pioneering company like MARSfarm. The business, which started in a garage, is now located in a 3,500-square-foot facility in Overland — giving it easy access to some of the world’s leading genetic plant-science research organizations, he says.
Webb also credits local resources such as the St. Louis Science Center and the St. Louis AgriBusiness Club for promoting a strong community of innovative growers, scientists, and business people who are preparing for the future of food. There’s even a MARSfarm unit featured in the Science Center’s popular GROW exhibit.
“I think St. Louis has a lot of opportunities to really participate in agriculture as it’s shifting over the next 20 years,” Webb says.
As a provider of seeds through companies like Bayer as well as a source of academic expertise through institutions like the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, the city is perfectly positioned to be a leader in controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, Webb says. This type of food production, which includes technology such as indoor farms and vertical greenhouses, is set to change the way the U.S. — and the world — produces crops, Webb predicts. And MARSfarm greenhouses can play an important role in preparing students for this shift.
Beyond educational purposes, MARSfarm technology could one day be utilized by industry leaders to deepen their understanding of plant science and improve crop production, Webb says.
“Our long-term vision is to sell these products to consumers at places like Bayer, Google, or other start-ups in genetics,” he explains. “There are all sorts of places where we see demand for hardware to grow plants and learn about them by collecting the type of data that is collected by MARSfarm.”