Cal Poly grad wants his invention to be the next must-have home appliance

Farmbot Inc. hopes to revolutionize food production one garden bed at a time.

At the heart of the San Luis Obispo-based company is an automated and open-sourced farming machine, the FarmBot, which gives people control over how they grow their food.

Rory Aronson, chief executive officer, has described his invention on social media as a “giant 3-D printer, but instead of wielding a plastic extruder, its tools are seed injectors, watering nozzles, plows, sensors and more.”

With the FarmBot, individual gardeners and small-scale farmers can customize what they grow and how, and even grow many types of plants at once, in the same area and with efficiency, Aronson said. FarmBot is controlled using software that allows customers to tailor the design, seeding and watering of their gardens.

Aronson developed the idea as a mechanical engineering student at Cal Poly. However, he didn’t begin working on it in earnest until after graduation in 2013. Aronson took an entrepreneurship class through Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where he met Clint Slaughter, a local physician and CEO of SLO MakerSpace. The membership-based workshop allows people to learn skills, collaborate and use machinery in such areas as woodworking, laser cutting, ceramics and 3D printing.

Ultimately, Aronson developed FarmBot while he was involved with MakerSpace, where he’s now chief operating officer. FarmBot sold its first machines last year.

Aronson, 26, recently shared why he developed FarmBot, his hopes for the company’s future and agriculture. Here’s an excerpt.

Q: How did the FarmBot idea come about when you were a Cal Poly student?

A: I wanted to grow my own food. I wanted to see what that was all about and take ownership of that process, and so I started a garden in my own backyard and struggled with it. Those struggles caused me to want to know more. I took an organic agriculture class, and in that class, I had the idea for FarmBot.

I asked the question, what would it look like if we rebuilt agriculture today...on a small scale and localized in our backyards, and in greenhouses or on our rooftops, anywhere where there’s available space? And what would it look like if it were fully automated and all done with computers? We wouldn’t be out there down on our hands and knees putting seeds in the ground or going out there every single day watering. All of those tedious and backbreaking tasks would be done by machines.

Q: Even so, isn’t a lot of agricultural production still dependent on labor, which provides much-needed employment to people?

A: Only 2 percent of people work in agriculture; there are very few and in short supply. There’s not enough labor because no one wants to do it. It’s not a fun job. For some people, it’s a pastime or hobby that they do every once in a while. It’s a nice way to connect with your family, but not a lot of people enjoy doing it. ...

There are still going to be farmers and people going into that profession. The adoption of the FarmBot will be slow in terms of the grand picture, it will never fully replace jobs. But I could see people potentially working and managing FarmBot.

Q: How did FarmBot eventually get up and running?

A: We worked on prototypes for three years. Last year we launched a crowdfunding campaign on our website, and we created a video (about) our product, and if you’d like to get one, you can pre-order and we’ll deliver in a few months. That was successful, and we sold $1 million of FarmBot in the last year.

We delivered 350 of them out of our San Luis Obispo warehouse to places all over the world. In every corner of the world, people are beginning to experiment with them, tinkering with them and figuring out how to make the technology better.

Q: What kind of feedback have you received so far?

A: Overall, people thought the idea was really solid, and they’re excited about the prospect of FarmBot and the future. The hardware itself, people are impressed with it. It feels good in the hands, looks nice and functions well. The software is a work in progress. It will be awhile before the software is really powerful, but the response to that has been well received. We’re excited about the software and where it’s going, and every few weeks, we push out new updates that go on the Web app, which makes FarmBot easier to use and fixes issues you’re having.

Q: Where would you like to see FarmBot go in the future?

A: We want FarmBot to be a home appliance. Most people have a refrigerator, and a microwave and a washing machine. We want FarmBot to be ... readily available and ubiquitous. If there’s a space in a yard, there’s a FarmBot there, and it’s easy to use. You give it some seeds, plug in the hose, give it power, and the FarmBot does the rest. In five years, we want it to be easy to get and low cost enough.

Q: How must does it cost?

A: Right now, they are $2,600. It’s fairly pricey, but we hope to bring the cost down over time via economies of scale. When you’re producing more, you can sell at a lower cost.

Q: What do you see as some of the key reasons for the success of the company so far?

A: The most important factor of our success is the fact that our entire product (hardware, software and data) is open source, meaning that anyone can freely view and modify our 3D CAD models, source code, and the data that is used to power the FarmBot. People don’t want to support proprietary agriculture anymore; they want something that is open, that they can control, and that they can truly own inside and out. Our long-term viability stems from the reality that everyone on this planet needs to eat three meals a day and that the population is exploding right now.

Q: What’s the advantage or disadvantage of operating in SLO?

A: I love it here. Once I graduated, I had no desire to leave. There’s not necessarily a business benefit to being in SLO. There’s also not a business drawback to living in SLO. I guess the business benefit would be that me as a person is very happy to live here. So having my work here is beneficial. I don’t have to move to the Bay Area, L.A. or New York to run a tech company.

FarmBot Inc.

Owner: Rory Aronson

Title: Chief executive officer

Web address:

Employees: 11 (five full-time; six part-time), plus 8 Cal Poly interns

Financials: Grossed over $1 million in revenue in first year and is profitable, Rory Aronson said. The company, which sold out of its first production of FarmBot machines in January, has shipped 350 globally, and anticipates shipping 10 times as many devices in its second year.

FarmBot works with contract suppliers and manufacturers, although limited manufacturing has been done through SLO MakerSpace. The final packaging and aggregation is done in San Luis Obispo.