In the summer of 2017, when Dan Webb was in high school, he received a nasty letter from the homeowner’s association telling him to take down the tomato plants in his backyard. A frustrated Webb didn’t want to give up gardening, which had helped him cope with his depression. So, Dan propped up a tent in his living room and set up his plants there.
The only problem was, Webb didn’t want to pay hundreds of dollars for an LED light fixture. As the true designer and tinkerer he was, Dan paired with his soon-to-be startup co-founder Stelios (“Steve”) Vailakakis and created a cheaper alternative to a pre-assembled model by assembling individual off-the-shelf components into a kit.
With an investment of $10K, Webb and Vailakakis manufactured 100 kits overseas and sold every last one to small growers across the globe. The seeds of Raleigh-based Folux Labs were thus planted.
After dipping their toes into the world of indoor agriculture lighting, Webb and Vailakakis didn’t want to leave. But they quickly discovered that selling those kits wouldn’t be a sustainable business model; they were relatively cheap to make, and Chinese companies started flooding the market with cheaper and cheaper copies. Eager to stay in the industry, they got to know their customers and began to brainstorm a different innovation.
While working closely with small crop growers—mostly cannabis farmers—Webb’s interest was piqued by how growers really understood their plants. They knew the correct wavelengths of light that they needed, and at what time, to produce maximum terpenes and cannabinoids. (Terpenes gives cannabis aromas and flavors while cannabinoids are the active compounds, the best-known one being the psychoactive compound THC.)
“The industry refers to this as a ‘light recipe,’ and there’s many ways to mix this light to change outcomes,” Webb said. “Some studies show that different lighting can change the nutritional value of food as well.”
It’s easy for small farmers to monitor each crop and alter its lighting, but for commercial farmers overseeing much larger indoor operations, it’s impractical and laborious.
What if a lighting system existed that could interpret sensor and camera data to determine what stage of growth a plant is in, and in response alter its lighting through specialized modular panels that commercial growers can modify as the plant grows?
The Folux Lab team currently consists of Webb, now a second-year student who is dual-enrolled at Wake Tech and N.C. State; Vailakakis, and Grant Gupton, a first-year NC State student majoring in electrical engineering.
Vailakakis, who lives in New Orleans, oversees electrical engineering, manufacturing, supply chain, and other core business aspects of Folux. Webb and Gupton are currently using NC State’s Entrepreneurship Garage makerspace and Hangar6 prototyping lab in Research Triangle Park to prototype their first MVP, a hyperion lighting modular system for commercial growers that is slated to be completed in about three months.
A more integrative prototype, which will utilize machine learning and the Internet of Things to execute optimal lighting recipes for each crop using data collected currently from growers, is expected to be completed in 6 to 12 months, Webb said.
“More or less, we’re looking at these individual growers and their ability to create remarkably high-quality outcomes in their crops, and trying to find a way to make that same process work for mid-to-large-scale food producers,” Webb said.
Folux is currently participating in the 12-week RIoT Accelerator Program. The NC Biotech Center has also tabbed them as a good fit for potential future grants, and Folux expects to receive an official endorsement to that effect that could help their odds on that front. Folux is currently seeking early-stage seed funding, non-dilutive grants, and corporate partnerships. After all, Folux is all about growth—literally and figuratively.