2017: The OpenAg Ecosystem Expands -Research, Non-Profit, Ventures

Caleb Harper
Jan 27, 2017 · 12 min read
OpenAg PFC Hackathon

Over the course of the past year, it’s become clear that the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab has spread itself thin by trying to behave like a startup, non-profit/advocacy group, and academic researchers all rolled into one. What the community needs is more division of labor and specificity to bring the technology alive and spread the word.

In short, we need an ecosystem approach to support what has become a full-fledged Open Agriculture movement. To this end, the team at MIT Media Lab has been listening to and soliciting advice from the OpenAg community forum, racking our collective brains, and talking to world leaders in open source technology in order to shape our thinking. It has become clear that an ecosystem model would allow us all to be focused and smarter, and to operate more autonomously in order to benefit the multiplying global community of #nerdfarmers. New entities are needed to focus on supporting the growth of the contributor community and launching the applications into the real world.

The blueprint isn’t perfect; it’s complex and evolving, but it puts a nonprofit core at the heart of our work, because we want to root an expanding OpenAg ecosystem in open-source science, advocacy, and transparency.

And it’s finally time to optimize it together.

At the core of the OpenAg Ecosystem, we now have a separate non-profit foundation that will be supported by open source research efforts, advance our community development, protect community assets, and interface with the commercialization interests of individuals or groups within the OpenAg community.

The OpenAg(TM) Ecosystem

  1. Research_Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab

The Open Agricultural Initiative will continue to grow research and inventions at MIT Media Lab with the goal of turning farming into a digitally shareable function.

Specifically, we will expand research in:

Open Phenome — We’ll attempt to decode/recode nature by creating open data sets that correlate plant response to environmental variables. We’ll experiment with more advanced climate recipe pattern recognition, correlation, and automation — including introducing combinatory stressors to maximize desirable plant traits like the expression of flavor, nutrition, and other biochemicals, as well as morphological plant expressions like plant fiber length and biomass.

Machine Learning, Computer Vision and Robotics — We are advancing our knowledge of controlled environment platforms through image and data gathering systems that use deep learning, neural networks, AI, robotic operating systems, and computer vision to non-invasively quantify metrics like color, weight, density, biochemical expression, and general plant development in a designed climate.

Open Production Platforms — We’ll continue creating new, and iterating existing, open source hardware and software tools to control and measure the complex environmental and biologic recipes used across our active projects. By experimenting with sensor data and other metrics, we’ll create advanced controls and user interfaces for efficient operations, diagnostics, and resource use in producing agricultural crops.

User Interaction — We are researching how to make OpenAg’s technology as affective as it is effective, and as desirable as it is accessible by exploring how to incorporate the principles of human-centered design, behavior design, and calm technology into user experience/user interaction. We want to create emotionally-. socially-, and culturally-intelligent food production technologies that respond to and support folks who want to grow their own food.

We are proud and excited to continue being supported by, and working collaboratively with, innovative companies like the Target Corporation, the Welspun group, and others in the exploration of future on-demand agricultural systems. Without visionary industry leadership from folks like Greg Shewmaker and his team at the Food+Future in partnership with Target Corporation, and Dipali Goenka and her team at the Welspun group, the depths we have plumbed and the speed at which our research has grown would never have been possible.

The New Open Agriculture Initiative’s Research Facility under construction at the MIT Bates Campus

To accomplish all this, we’ve expanded our physical lab to the Bates Campus, MIT’s retired particle accelerator 45 minutes north of Boston. There, we’re scaling research and continuing to explore our research initiatives.

There are a few other university collaborations in the works for 2017 and we look forward to talking more about them as they develop. We also invite any interested academic labs or research institutions to collaborate with us in open source research. If you are interested, please reach out on our community forum under #universitycollaborations.

Want to read the longer and wordier academic version I submitted to MIT? If you do, please keep in mind that the nature of this statement required me to laud my own accomplishments and talk about myself…a lot. For the record, it was a very uncomfortable departure from my usual collaborative style — in fact, most scientists/academics/researchers wouldn’t open source their internal research statements (for many reasons) — but in keeping true to my roots, here is a LINK.

2015 TED Talk

2. Community and Commons_The Open Agriculture Foundation

The Open Agriculture Foundation (501c3 status pending) will both protect the open-source data and intellectual property and foster our growing community of #nerdfarmers. It is the community’s commitment to experimentation and open knowledge sharing that will revolutionize the future of food, and the foundation will be committed to supporting all of us. The foundation is not “in” with any single academic or commercial entity; in fact, it will stand against the creation of proprietary approaches to farming and agricultural data. The hardware, software, and data that the community creates together will never be sold. Through open source licenses, it will be available in perpetuity to all that are interested in exploration. By crowd sourcing rapid iteration of open source platforms while creating massive data sets that will lead to discoveries in basic science, I believe the foundation will create a competitive advantage for all.

In addition to protecting the commons, the foundation will take the lead for the OpenAg Ecosystem’s outreach, education, and advocacy, and will manage an open standards body.

The stated purpose to the IRS of the organization is as follows:

“To educate the public about open agriculture and open agriculture technologies,and to fund development and deployment of charitable applications of that technology.”

The foundation will work alongside the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab and other research labs on collaborations in the education, humanitarian, and advocacy spaces. The foundation looks forward to near future deployments with Boston and NYC area schools, National Geographic Educators, TEDEd Innovators, the World Food Program of the United Nations, the United States Department of State and the Museum of Science in Boston.

Ultimately, the foundation would like to see food computers and other open source agriculture technologies in hundreds of thousands of schools in the US and abroad, to spotlight next generation farming as an appealing STEM/STEAM career path for young people eager to change the world.

In addition, the foundation is exploring the idea of Open Agriculture Foundation Chapters (inspired and initiated by multiple interested community members) and we will be working to support pilot chapters in 2017.

Interested in forming a chapter? Have ideas of what that should mean? The Foundation will open up a thread on the forum and have more to share on that later.

You may also notice from our diagram that the foundation owns a public benefit corporation (BCorp). Currently, the IRS makes it very difficult for non-profits, particularly newly formed ones, to develop, distribute, host, and maintain open source code, hardware, and data as a function of their nonprofit status. In fact, this makes them quite nervous. Enter the OpenAg Holdings BCorp. Much like the relationship between the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation, OpenAG Holdings is a secured home for all the community developed assets and is a wholly owned subsidiary of the foundation. We designated this entity as a BCorp so that we could apply a double bottom line to its decision-making process — giving it the power to make decisions that are not exclusively motivated by profit. (The BCorp structure is relatively new, and was not in common use when Mozilla was created.)

The OpenAG Holdings BCorp also owns and administers any trademarks associated with the ecosystem. You’ll notice a new trademark behind “OpenAg”(TM) in this blog post. In open source projects, trademark is king, and we wanted ours to be owned and controlled by the non-profit foundation. As our community grows and “food computing” as a general term takes root, we’re learning from other successful open-source projects like WordPress how important it is to create a differentiating mark for our community, the software, and the hardware. The trademark is therefore the next step in our commitment to remaining an open-source project and protecting our open-source community.

We will be soliciting ideas and comments from the community on the trademark rules, but at bottom, anyone who wants to use the trademark and be active in the community will have to follow the rules determined by the Foundation for the community. In short:

· Any derivative work based on the Open Agriculture Foundation code will need to be licensed with a compatible open source license.

· Any OpenAg derivative hardware must be minimally compliant to our hardware standards and application program interface (API), though you can of course go above and beyond, and licensed with appropriate open source licenses.

· Any compatible hardware that wishes to remain closed but advertise compliance can be certified by the Open Agriculture Foundation and use the mark “Works with OpenAg,” and must share back the data generated (*still working on this piece, data is a new frontier for open source licenses).

This should serve as a nice system of checks and balances for those wanting to commercialize related tech and the growth of the commons, you’ll see more about trademark rules on the OpenAg Wiki in the next few weeks.

After a long search, I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve found an amazing person to direct the activities of the Open Agriculture Foundation — Sarah Laskin. Sarah comes from 16 years of distinguished service to the National Geographic Society, with her last position being the Chief Operating Officer of the Science and Exploration Programs. Prior to National Geographic, Sarah was the Associate Director for Fisheries and Coastal Issues at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and comes with an educational background from Duke and Harvard. She has dedicated her career to making the world a better place, and we are proud to have her as the Executive Director of the Foundation.

Over the course of this year, Sarah and her team will be bringing the Open Agriculture Foundation to life and will welcome your help. In addition, the Foundation would like to invite the community to vote as a member of the Open Agriculture Foundation advisory board to make sure your voice is heard. If you have interest in joining the Foundation team, or nominating someone from the community for the advisory board, we will be opening a thread in the community forum under #OpenAgFoundationTeam.

3. Commercialization_OpenAg Inspired Commercial Ventures

Interest in a related OpenAg venture ecosystem has also been growing. The community has expressed a need for OpenAg food computer kits and compatible hardware. This is clearly not he work of the MIT Media Lab or The Open Agriculture Foundation. The call is open to all that are interested. In an effort to keep everything transparent, I am highlighting below the two entities that I’m currently aware of in this space. If there are others, please let everyone know on the forum under the thread #OpenAgVentures. We hope that these efforts in commercializing technologies in the OpenAg ecosystem inspires others to do the same.


Nick Cannon with the OpenAg PFC at The White House South by South Lawn Event

Over the next few weeks we will announce formation of a funded independent startup, inspired by our work here at MIT Media Lab. Fenome will be offering OpenAg Personal Food Computer kits for sale to the community. I am involved in this organization at a board level and I am a shareholder. We are aiming to create a model citizen of our community to inspire others to do the same. Jake Rye and Gordon Brander, OG #nerdfarmers, have also joined up with this effort.

Led by CEO Daniel Blake — founder of EcoScraps, one of the largest and fastest-growing sustainable and organic lawn and garden companies — the Fenome team is off to the races and heads down in development and execution. They will be sending out their own update soon, and you all will be the first to hear about it. Fenome will test commercial opportunities and manufacture growing environments imbued with OpenAg intelligence — the Personal Food Computers, Food Servers and Food Data Centers — for use in the real world. Most importantly, the software, hardware, and data generated by the community while using the Personal Food Computers built from the Fenome kits will remain open source and be contributed back.

In a somewhat unprecedented move, Fenome has allocated a large portion of the initial equity of company ownership to the Open Agriculture Foundation, with the hope that other related organizations might consider doing the same. The initial equity grant to the foundation is a mechanism that links commercial success to community benefit; if this startup is ever acquired, IPO’s, distributes dividends, etc., the foundation will share in the profits. This is an experiment on the part of Fenome, and an adaptation to current open source business models that takes into account necessary adjacency to venture capital.

Who owns Fenome? Our investors — the Acre Fund and Flagship Pioneering, the founders, employees, and the Open Agriculture Foundation. Expect to hear more from the startup in the coming weeks. Also if you have interest in joining the startup they will be opening a thread in the community forum about opportunities.

Food+Future Spinoff Company

Food + Future PolyBot Prototype

I am proud that the collaboration between the Open Agriculture Initiative at the MIT Media Lab and Food+Future has inspired the creation of another venture, the PolyBot! The PolyBot team is working on a version of a controlled environment for science classrooms and working to imbue it with immersive curriculum aligned to Common Core and Next Generation Science standards. I’ll let them share with you what their venture is all about and who is leading it, but we are stoked to watch them start piloting in 2017 and plugging into the Open Agriculture ecosystem.

Caleb…do you sleep? And is your lightsaber blue or red now?

If you are wondering where I am in all of this, I will continue to spend most of my time in the MIT Media Lab exploring the future. I will also serve on the board of the Open Agriculture Foundation together with Sarah and exciting new board members to be announced soon. In addition, I will serve on the Board of the startup company to support Dan and his team as they embark on this new and exciting journey.

Both the foundation and the startup have their own directors/CEOs and robust autonomous boards and teams. It was important to me to institute clear boundaries and differentiated goal setting between organizations, and I’ll do my best to nudge them in a direction consistent with the vision of Open Agriculture.

As far as my lightsaber goes, it is still blue (and/or green). I am a part of the startup because there is a need for a reference platform for OpenAg technologies; it needs to be in the market in order to prove its value, and it needs to grow food for people to eat! And as part of the foundation, I’ll be doing my best to build a community to change the future of food , and at MIT Media Lab I’ll be working on inventing it.

The OpenAg Ecosystem needs you!

Want to be involved in any part of this? Great! The next step as a community is laying groundwork for the rules of engagement within the ecosystem. We need to make sure to keep relationships in the ecosystem clear and to welcome and support all #nerdfarmers. There is a lot of work to be done on the rules, so I’m thinking we’ll need to start with “General Principles” that include our first draft of the API, the legal terms for using the ecosystem’s trademarks, guidelines on how to interact with the foundation, and protocols for launching related for-profit companies.

The Open Agriculture Foundation would love help on this. With Sarah and her team’s help, a new thread on the forum will be launched to discuss how to best take the next step together.

It is going to be an exciting 2017! I invite everyone in our community and beyond to submit questions, concerns, and ideas to our forum, as well as check in on the Open Agriculture Initiative at MIT Media Lab social media (@MITOpenAG, @Calebgrowsfood) and our lab website (openag.media.mit.edu) regularly to see what is coming next from us. I also have some interesting things in store for the Food Server lab at the MIT Bates campus to try to bring you into the experience (hint: VR,AR, Live Feed, etc.) — but we have to build it first!

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store