Nebullam: Indoor farming

Nebullam Lettuce that was grown and harvested last Friday from inside the Nebullam model farm near Nevada. Photo courtesy of Clayton Mooney

For the founders of Nebullam, they hope 13 is a lucky number.

What started seven years ago as a way to address food security, production and sustainability led to 13 different prototypes and a model farm near Nevada. And if all goes according to plan in 2018, Nebullam will have a second model farm near Ames and additional capital to help send a product to market by 2019.

The Ames-based agtech startup pairs high-pressure aeroponic technology and software to grow different types of leafy greens indoors.

The company was founded by Clayton Mooney and Danen Pool, who first met while attending Indian Hills Community College. They stayed in contact and three years ago, Pool contacted Mooney to run a business idea by him.

“He started tinkering on hydroponic systems which led into aeroponic systems,” Mooney said of Pool. “He was very intrigued by the early research NASA had done on aeroponic systems back in the 80’s. Throughout the first half-dozen prototypes, he (Pool) was able to grow tomatoes, basil and lettuce varieties. One winter, he took tomatoes into his coworkers and got great feedback.”

Aeroponics is a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient-rich solution without using soil. And when those tomatoes—that were grown indoors—tasted like they were from the garden, a business idea formed.

It was no longer a hobby.

“We thought our original business model was to go around Iowa, set up in warehouses, grow leafy greens and get them into grocery stores,” Mooney explained. “The more feedback we received, it really came back to the technology and that was more interesting to scale than just the production side.”

Mooney said along with Pool and third co-founder Mahmoud Parto, they realized the industry needs to be automated.

“Eventually you need an indoor, vertical farm producing at full capacity without any human interaction,” Mooney says. “We are trying to bring it to the forefront so if we have to trail blaze a little bit, we’re ready.”

To fund Nebullam, Mooney said they raised a “friends and family” round of investment last year and received some funding from through the Iowa State Ag Startup Engine last year when they were going through the program. Nebullam also received a $25,000 loan from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

This year Mooney said they hope to raise $1 million by the end of June.

Fewer parts, fewer problems

With high-pressure aeroponic expertise and startup experience, Nebullam was looking for a partner who had a background in software and automation.

Mooney said that’s when Nebullam welcomed Parto, who has helped implement software and automate as many of the processes between germination and harvest as possible.

“From there we’ve considered ourselves a 50 percent hardware and 50 percent software company,” Mooney says.

In total there are six employees working for Nebullam in some capacity, with interns to be hired this summer. Mooney said the team should reach ten people.

Nebullam partnered with LongView Farms in Nevada to create a 300 square foot model farm.

“Hardware is tough and the more pieces you have in a product, the more that can go wrong,” Mooney explains. “In our model farm location, we have just under 5,000 parts total. And that’s across four growing units.”

But Mooney said they’ve streamlined the process to get it to 2,000 parts.

“For the 13th prototype that was our entire focus, how do you reduce the required labor?” Mooney asks. “We think we’ve figured that out. We see ourselves as a technology provider to new, indoor growers.”

He said the hardware, software and inputs such as nutrients and seeds are bundled into a monthly price. And over an 18-24 month contract, the grower pays off the hardware and reoccurring revenue comes from seeds, nutrients and an annual licensing fee for the software.

Mooney said they are in negotiations for a second model farm that would be nearly 1,500 square feet and serve as a showcase for potential customers.

“Do we see corn and soybeans being grown aeroponically? Not at this time,” Mooney says. “But leafy greens, herbs, micro greens, flowers and cannabis, we feel pretty good about those segments.”

Previous coverage

Ames: Top 10 happenings of 2017 with a 2018 preview – Dec. 26, 2017

Startups receive funding from Iowa Economic Development Authority – Nov. 20, 2017

ISU Ag Startup Engine announces pair of investment – June 12, 2017

Clayton Mooney hits the ground running and never stops – March 21, 2017