Christchurch-based IT professional Michael Trengrove, founder of tech start-up Electric Garden, talks about plans to launch his educational programme in South Korea, Ireland and Spain.
What does your business do?
Electric Garden is a programme that helps children re-engage with the environment around them using digital tools, such as smart soil and air sensors, that detect data from a vegetable garden and sends it up into the cloud. From there students are able to log in to view their data.
Once that data has been accessed then with the programme students, through the process, rather than introduce them straight to a piece of software that will do the analysis for them, through the growing cycle students are able to log observations, including with pictures, and are able to manually correlate the observations with the data such as a temperature spike or rain event.
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As they get further into the programme we begin to introduce concepts such as artificial intelligence. Much of what modern tech has done is close these systems off to the public and to students especially so we're about lifting the lid on how the fundamentals of computer science work, that's why this is beneficial for teachers and educators where they can meet the requirements of the new digital technologies curriculum and teach these concepts in a meaningful way with a real world application.
The company was created last year and ran a pilot to start with, and the commercial version launched last month.
What was the motivation for starting it?
The business is wholly-owned by Digital Future Aotearoa, a registered New Zealand educational charity, focused on lifting the digital capabilities of New Zealanders. The motivation was around how do we get kids back outside and away from the screens and engaging with the environment, and to care for the land again. In 2016 the Ministry of Education introduced digital technologies as a subject taught at schools for the first time for years 1 to 13 and this programme makes up lessons for classes.
How are you getting schools on board with the programme?
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We launched in January and we've 25 schools using the programme each week and then we're getting one new school each week, our target is to be in about 25 per cent of schools.
We're getting more schools on board through word of mouth and social media. For us, we have an amazing partner with the Spark Foundation and they are help to promote it, plus the Ministry of Education have written a case study on a school that was involved in the pilot. It's a commercial business but being owned by a charity, all profits from the Electric Garden are reinvested into the core mission of the charity which is to deliver digital fluency around the country.
How does Electric Garden make money?
It's a subscription service so a school or community group will sign up and they'll get the hardware and access to the online platform where students can log in and review their data and complete online products. This rolls around each year as we add new projects and hardware improvements.
What are you focused on for the rest of the year?
We're focused on increasing the projects that students and teachers engage with. We'll also be continuing to improve the hardware and get the word out there to more schools and organisations.
What are your long term plans?
We want to look at international markets. We'll be staying focused on New Zealand this year, but certainly through international partners and building relationships we really are looking at bringing this to the European and North American markets.
The Electric Garden is an Internet of Things product so here in New Zealand we utilise Spark's IoT network, so other countries that also have a growing IoT network are perfect. Through partners, we're looking at launching in South Korea, Ireland and Spain.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced starting Electric Garden?
The biggest challenge has been the hardware development side of it. Doing hardware is hard and we've had to learn how to do it but we've got amazing software and hardware teams. It's definitely been a big learning, but I think we're in a pretty solid position now.
How big is your team?
We have seven people on the team - hardware engineers, firmware and software engineer, a project manager, two educational resource developers and a graphic designer.
What advice do you give to others who want to start their own business?
Get great people around you - both at the advisor level and execution level - that's been key for us.