It would have been a neat PR backflip if BerlinGreen’s two co-founders had met at work – fusing their passion for environmental innovation and buildings. After all, both Filip and Olga hail from Poland, both studied at technical universities in Germany and they both spent years working in engineering and construction. But when I ask how the dynamic duo found each other, I learn they met on an English-as-a-foreign-language course in Poznan. Filip laughs: “It’s not very fancy or very tech, as origin stories go.”
Happily, if your product is compelling enough, maybe you don’t need a very fancy origin story. BerlinGreen’s plant/lamp hybrid is so easy to love that when the team brought one of their GreenBoxes into the hubraum Berlin campus one day, people were drawn to it as if by a mysterious magnetic force. “It kind of reminded me of people sitting round a fire,” Filip says, grinning. “They all just sat there, gazing into it.”
Which suggests the Berlin-based startup is already cracking the problem they wanted to solve. While working as an architect, Filip noted that he didn’t think of buildings “as a pile of bricks or a piece of concrete or single structure but rather an environment where we spend 80 percent of our lifetime – indoors, basically. There’s a significant lack of connection with nature.”
The team did their homework, researching online and stumbling across a study which suggested that green buildings make for a higher performance in the workplace. When they carried out their own survey online, the BerlinGreen team found that 89% of their respondents wanted greener working and living spaces, but simply couldn’t afford the costs of this. Plants weren’t necessarily a practical solution for everyone, especially in office spaces, where you’d always need to find someone to look after them.
The solution? Combining a plant with IoT technology to make keeping your plants nourished effortless. Their GreenBox is a compact smart garden that can grow eight plants at the same time, providing them with nutrients and appropriate light and water conditions. It’s connected to an app which alerts the owner when they need to refill the water tank.
Filip hoped that his product might be able – to some extent – to bring about wider change. Circling back to his work in the construction industry, he argued that “typical real estate investors are not interested in innovation, or making the world a better place” but only in securing a maximum return. “As you can imagine, this is not an environment in which you can think about creating real change. That’s why I also decided to focus on a smaller, scalable solution for everyone, which would be manageable on a smaller budget.”
While I point out that at almost 150 euros, it’s not necessarily that affordable, Filip argues it’s more than just a plant. Given the fact it needs 16 hours of light per day, you can use it as an office or bedroom lamp. You can also set the timer for the light which means it could also act as an alarm. It’s one up on your usual lamp or alarm, too: you can program it for different light spectrums – say, a warm light in the evening and a colder light to wake up to in the morning.
Besides, he points out, sustainability doesn’t come cheap. Most of the outer body is made out of European birch plywood and it employs very energy-efficient LEDs so it uses as little electricity as possible (about the same as a simple 20-watt table lamp, according to Filip).
But he doesn’t want to make over-the-top claims about sustainability: Filip is clear about the fact that he thinks initiatives on environmental sustainability should be led from the top — by governments and policy makers, not startups. “Of course I totally support all the green energy initiatives. But I’m not sure one little product is going to change everything.”
The industry doesn’t necessarily agree with Filip’s modest assessment of his product: in 2019, he won a space on Business Punk’s 2020 Watchlist, where he was listed as one of Germany’s top 100 innovators.
This makes sense! Filip himself agrees that his product has potential for gamification and as such, education. “When you have a system infrastructure up and running – apps, sensors, control of lights – you can easily build on top of that. For example, you could create games for kids, teaching them about sustainability or apps to collect environmental points and so on.”
Given his success, I wonder what advice would he give to someone launching a product in the IoT space?
“First of all, hardware is hard. In general you need way more money than you think you will at the beginning and it takes way more time than you expect.” His face softens. “But on the other hand, we’re effectively working on turning science fiction movies into real life, we’re changing the way people live in the future. I have no doubt that what is developed right now will totally change and influence what our apartments look like, we’re basically getting rid of all the unnecessary stuff and plastic. It’s like what happened to office equipment when computers were introduced. If you’ve seen those movies from the ‘80s, you’ll know offices looked different — desks were totally cluttered with calendars, papers, books, telephones, telefax.” He hopes that technology will usher in a similar change: “Everything should be interconnected and as much as possible should be invisible.”
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