Planting the Seed for Petal with Michael Eaton (‘18) and Santi Alegria (‘18)
Home of Cornell University, Ithaca, NY has been known for growing rich intellectual experiences for students, but when it comes to growing plants, the cold and dark weather is not conducive. After growing up in Botswana, Michael Eaton (‘18) yearned for the big garden he used to have; in junior year, he decided to use his love for making things to discover how to grow herbs given the poor Ithacan weather and his limited apartment space. He reached out to this friend, Santiago “Santi” Alegria (‘18), shared his goal, and shortly after, Petal was planted.
The initial concept of Petal was a plug-and-play compact product that allowed you to grow edible greenery in the comfort of your home. Light and space are typical constraints people have when growing plants indoors, and Petal sought to address these challenges. Eaton said the development process was all about precision agriculture and, “growing these plants in such a precise way that you can’t do yourself without the product.” The first iteration was a tabletop system for four herbs, in which the user placed a plant pod into the system and watered the plants once every 1-2 weeks. These special plant pods were specifically designed and engineered by Alegria and Ben Sword – Petal’s plant specialist – to give plants enough nutrients and structure without burning plants in such a small growing environment. The uniquely engineered pods create continuous revenue stream for Petal. The unit also comes with a complimentary app that allows users to reach the Petal team for customer service, streamline pod purchasing, and track plant growth. This past summer, Petal participated in Rev: Ithaca Startup Works’ Hardware Accelerator program where the team started building a minimum viable product and produced three functional prototypes of the 1-tiered system and a low-fidelity app.
During the accelerator program, Eaton soon realized they had made a classic mistake in entrepreneurship. “We were being too product-focused,” Eaton explained, “We didn’t want to be just an home hydroponics business – we have to think broader. We want to build a brand that encompasses three really powerful forces: technology, agriculture, and design.”
Eaton emphasized that Petal is not just a home hydroponics company. Competitors have been lacking a story behind what they do, and that’s something the Petal team finds important. “Everything we are doing is our story and ethos,” said Eaton. He added that Petal’s main value proposition is, “creating an experience around the brand that makes you feel healthy, green, positive, and eat better. The product is going to provide that real easy growth in your home with greenery and beauty and makes you feel good.” This broader brand focus allows for a product strategy that is guided by how Petal wants its customer to feel – which is healthy, green, and cool.
Like any business, it took a village to get the product up and running. After getting Alegria on board on day one, Eaton looked to expanding their team such as recruiting a coder to make the plant-tracking app and plant scientists to help understand plants. Currently, there are six team members: Michael Eaton ‘18 as CEO, Santi Alegria ‘18 at CTO, Liad Hare ‘18 as CFO, Bhai Jaiveer Singh ‘18 on Software, Sivan Sud ‘18 on Hardware, and Ben Sword ‘18 on Botany. Over the summer, Lisa Condoluci ‘19 also worked with Petal on plant research and social media.
Eaton and Alegria have also connected with many mentors that have provided guidance and advice for Petal. Their strategy is to talk to everyone they can, which has previously included Felix Litvinsky from Blackstone LaunchPad, Pam Silverstein from Life Changing Labs, and Neil Mattson, a renowned plant science professor. Eaton mentioned the benefit of having many mentors is everyone gives different opinions, and they add different perspectives to the business.
To help fund their entrepreneurial venture, Eaton and Alegria have tapped into their resources as Cornell University College of Engineering Kessler Fellows, a program funded by Andrew J. Kessler ’80 that offers a select group of ten engineering students a unique year-long experience to combine learning at Cornell with exposure to the startup culture. Both Eaton and Alegria used their $15,000 grants as “first round funding,” and they each have part-time jobs to support themselves. Furthermore, Eaton described that Petal has a low burn rate because they have been clever, but not stingy on how to spend money. For instance, the team does extensive engineering and botany research before building, which includes reading online, peer review articles and calling up relevant professionals and professors across the country. One bootstrapping technique was that they ended up creating their controlled environment to grow greens and herbs in 10 varied-sized polystyrene boxes. They also mill their own Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs) as actuation decisions and electrical components are still changing.
Like many budding businesses, Petal has faced challenges along the way. Alegria said that, “People will tell you that it’s impossible or you can’t do it. You have to a little stubborn and be on that fine line of ‘I’ll listen to what you’re saying but I know that we are going to create a product that is so amazing that it’s just a matter of time.’” Eaton added “A challenge is convincing yourself, the people you work with, the people who are interested in your company and then ultimately, everyone, that you are not delusional and you can make a life out of it despite not having much insight into starting your own business.”
According to Eaton, one of Petal’s key business challenges is adapting the company’s technology to the variety of consumers’ preferences. The biology, software, hardware, people, and supply chains involved in the development and production of Petal’s initial product is difficult to customize to fit into everyone’s home since everyone has different aesthetic opinions and styles.
The future of Petal is growing, starting with a new name. Originally, with an all-male team, the boys wanted to find a name that was not too masculine. They started looking at parts of the flower and came up with “Petal”. Once the first prototype was made, they realized that the product became Petal and it was one-dimensional. With a strong emphasis on creating a brand and not being product-oriented, they knew Petal had to go. After a new round of brainstorming, the team came up with “íko.systems”. To them, íko represents the functional minimalism that the company wants to incorporate with aesthetic design from Japanese woodwork. The team successfully acquired the íko.systems domain and are working on their new website.
The Petal team plans to disrupt both the agriculture and tech industries. Eaton wants to disrupt the agricultural sector by making the act of growing plants in one’s home part of mainstream culture, where consumers can cut out the long retail supply chain and do not need to go to the grocery store for their vegetables and herbs. As for the disruption in the tech industry, their work has been able to retrieve a lot of data to study complex plants. In one year, Alegria said that they hope to be selling their current 1-tier product and have a minimum viable 3-tiered product. Before that, they have to finish prototyping, build the team, relocate after graduation, or decide to stay in Ithaca.
In five years, Eaton hopes to have more than one product on the market and a reach to designers and agriculture and home markets with a well-known name. By that time, they want to prove that the company has a design aesthetic to make people happy and excited and be disruptive in the home product market. “The next goal has always been to create something we can get continuous value from every single day…we want to get our mechanisms down on a simple product, and then grow to what we really want to get our value from which is creating a routine around our products – something that can fit into your everyday life.”