Researcher works on revolutionizing hydroponic plant growth to feed the masses

Disney's hydroponic system at Epcot Center in Florida. Photo: Antony Pranata / Flickr / Creative Commons

LOS ANGELES — Six years ago, then-16-year-old high school student Sanjay Rajpoot was channel surfing at his parents’ Santa Barbara, Calif., home when a documentary caught his attention. It was about hydroponics — the practice of growing plants in water without soil.

After watching for a few minutes, he was hooked.

“The program showed rooftop gardens in Singapore where you could farm with 90 percent or more less water, allowing people to get 10 times the yield of surface area land compared to soil,” said Rajpoot, now a senior majoring in physics at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and chemical engineering and nanotechnology at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Related: Youngstown school now offering aquaponics, growing opportunity

“It meant you could grow more food with less,” he added. “It just seemed better for everyone, and I wondered why this growing method wasn’t prevalent everywhere.”

New company

That moment of curiosity turned out to be life-changing for Rajpoot, now launching Sustainable MicroFarms, a new company aiming to revolutionize farming worldwide by taking hydroponics mainstream. Rajpoot’s goal: helping to solve the food crisis in underdeveloped nations by making the alternative farming method affordable, easy and accessible.

As a teenager, Rajpoot did not need TV to tell him about hunger. He had already seen it firsthand while accompanying his parents on humanitarian missions to India.

When Rajpoot arrived at USC, he originally studied business and physics with the intention of starting a hedge fund or working in investment banking. But he changed gears.

“I quickly realized that, given my background, the world of high finance probably wasn’t my calling in life and that I would rather do something good.”

Rajpoot’s father is a medical professor from Indore and his mother, originally from New Delhi, teaches medical technology.

“Growing up there was always an unspoken rule that if you are going to do a job, you need to be helping other people,” Rajpoot said. “Every time I’ve gone to India I have seen people struggling to get enough to eat. That gave me very strong motivation.”

Starting out

Remembering that hydroponics documentary he watched as a teen, he began studying environmental science under Myrna Jacobson Meyers, assistant research professor of biological sciences at USC Dornsife and a hydroponics expert.

“I gradually understood that the reason hydroponics is not more widespread is because it’s difficult to understand and execute. It’s also expensive,” he said.

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“I set out to start a business that would solve those problems so hydroponics could become more prevalent in the farming industry, thereby providing a greater benefit to people everywhere, particularly in places like India, China and Africa that lack infrastructure.”

Invention

So Rajpoot switched majors. He believes he must be the first person ever to graduate with degrees in physics, chemical engineering and nanotechnology. During his studies, he developed the Genesis Controller, a device he described as “an out-of-the-box solution to farming with hydroponics or aeroponics.”

Equipped with sensors to measure electrical conductivity and pH, the machine, which retails at $750, automatically ensures that optimal levels of nutrients are delivered to plants, improving output by 10 to 30 times.

“You no longer need prior knowledge of chemistry or horticultural science to use this farming technique because the controller is intuitive, and it’s preprogrammed to automatically do all the things you have to do while farming,” said Rajpoot, noting that hydroponics can be used to grow almost anything, even trees.

He believes the device will bring hydroponics to the masses, introducing the alternative growing method to backyard farmers in America and providing a more efficient way of growing fruits and vegetables in countries where huge populations suffer from malnutrition.

Rajpoot also has his eye on the commercial agriculture industry in the U.S.

Raising money

“We have already raised $160,000 and are currently seeking additional funding to ramp up our engineering and apply our findings to developmental business and technology,” he said.

“This is an emerging market and we want to scale up our solution so we can control its expansion into commercial agriculture where it has enormous potential to take over most of the industry and convert it to sustainable hydroponic or aeroponic farming.”

Rajpoot said the Genesis Controller represents a breakthrough.

“Although there have been similar products in the past, they were never made to be intuitive, easy to use or affordable.”

Rajpoot was drawn to study at USC because of its excellent reputation. Rajpoot said USC Dornsife has allowed him to assemble a team ranging from professors to professionals that would have been impossible anywhere else.

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