The idea began when UConn junior Christian Heiden ’20 (ENG) was working on his Eagle Scout project in high school. It has developed into a non-profit organization that is helping the poor of Haiti and inspiring the curiosity of students in the UConn Child Development Labs.
Through his scout work, Heiden, of Bloomfield, Connecticut, first built a hydroponic greenhouse for his high school, Northwest Catholic in West Hartford. Then, Heiden and his father, Bill, and brother, Nathaniel, traveled to Haiti and built a demonstration hydroponic greenhouse for a community in that nation.
Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without the use of soil and instead relying solely on mineral nutrient solvents in water. While it has been used on a large-scale basis for growing vegetables like tomatoes and lettuce, Heiden says, he has broken it down for the most simplified use yet.
“We wanted something that would only cost a few dollars a day to operate, so we designed our Babylon System which is a 5-by-2 foot system and grows 16 plants at a time,” said Heiden. “It allows people not just to grow produce for their family, but also at market. So they are gaining a way not to just eat but gain money for their family.”
Heiden started the non-profit organization Levo International in his freshman year at UConn to bring hydroponics to those in need in both Haiti and in Connecticut. He soon reached out to Jonathan Moore, an instructor at the operations and information management department (OPIM) in the School of Business.
“Through our emerging tech initiative OPIM Innovate, we have worked on a number of projects,” said Moore. “Christian reached out to me looking for advice on how we could incorporate technology into this work and what the cost would be. He also brought up the path of wanting to develop the for-profit side of the business in order to fund the non-profit side.
“I thought it would be a great idea for him to donate a prototype right here on campus and the Child Development Labs was a natural choice.”
The Child Development Labs are run by the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and provide care for children up to five years old. Much of its staffing includes UConn students in the early childhood development and education program.
Anne Bladen, director of the Child Development Labs, said she liked the idea of situating a hydroponics greenhouse there for several reasons, including that the student-teachers would be able to see what happen when you increase nature experiences in your young students.
“We have a big commitment to having our children being outside in nature and being active,” said Bladen. “Having the hydroponic greenhouse at the Child Lab helps us get the children invested in learning where their food comes at a young age. It also gives us the opportunity to talk about Haiti and those less fortunate.”
UConn senior Eli Udler ’19 (CLAS) has been assisting Heiden and his company in the use of 3D printing in hydroponics as part of his work as a member of the team at OPIM Innovate.
“The goal is to make hydroponics more accessible in terms of cost and how easy the greenhouses are to build from ready made components,” said Udler. “I am interested in exploring this with the use of biodegradable material.”
Heiden sees a great future for the hydroponic greenhouses all over the world.
“Our goal is to bring sustainability into the agriculture system on a global scale,” said Heiden. “We think we have a really unique product that will allow us to leverage and accomplish that both here in the United States and the worldwide market.”