Kettering University Entrepreneurs Creating Real-Life “FarmVille”

The game ‘FarmVille’ has become one of the most popular Facebook games because it combines giving the players the chance to simulate working on a farm — harvesting crops, raising livestock, etc. — while also being a part of a community within Facebook where those playing the game could socialize and communicate with each other.

Two Kettering University entrepreneurs, current student Austin Lawrence and 2010 graduate Brian Falther, are working on a similar social experience based on farming … only the crops the users are tending will be real ones.

Falther and Lawrence plan to distribute small-scale aquaponics grow systems for personal home use. These modules will allow owners to take care of fish — the key component of an aquaponics setup — and learn how to grow sustainable crops such as lettuce, basil, leafy greens and other vegetables. They’re also developing an accompanying website, which will allow ‘farmers’ to photograph and track progress of their ‘plots’ as well as interact with others to find successes/failures and even compete to see who can grow crops the fastest.

“We think the gaming perspective — ‘advancing to the next level’ — makes this a project unique,” Lawrence said. “If learning is entertaining, it makes people more eager to learn.”

Falther and Lawrence are both proponents of holistic food sources. They hope their project helps educate users on the benefits of sustainable farming.

Falther and Lawrence recently were awarded a $5,000 seed grant from Start Garden, a $15,000,000 Grand Rapids-based venture capital fund for innovative ideas that could potentially turn into businesses.

The actual units will have a footprint about the size of a laundry basket. People will be able to grow anything including leafy greens, herbs and other crops. Users will also learn about things like soil pH, water quality and other factors that impact the ability to grow or not grow crops. The systems will have integrated sensors so people can track these variables too.

Although individuals will certainly be able to own these products for their homes — they’d be a ‘conversation starter,’ as Lawrence puts it — they’d also be extremely useful in a classroom setting for teachers to use with students. The students in classes that have them would also be able to communicate with each other and virtually ‘visit’ other farms to compare progress.