Today we will meet the winner of 2017 Spring E*5 KAIST, Imagination Garden!

At Imagination Garden, there are young people who jumped into the farming industry during the aging era of agriculture. Imagination Garden develops various technologies, such as AI and nutrient solution control system, that increases the production of crops, and is leading the smart farms. Let’s meet Byunghyun Ban, CTO of Imagination Garden!

Can you briefly introduce Imagination Garden?

“The most advanced technologies for the oldest industry!” is Imagination Garden’s vision and OS. We are a team that will bring out a new revolution by incorporating 4th Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI and IoT to farming. Imagination Garden was born thanks to E*5 KAIST and is already 3 years-old.

How did students from different universities come together to start Imagination Garden?

I posted on Facebook and in my high school group chatroom that I was recruiting team members. The friends who contacted me then became team members of the E*5 Startup Audition. After the E*5 award ceremony, I asked people to leave the team chatroom unless they were serious about starting a business. The people who remained are now the co-founders of Imagination Garden.

So, the current team members went through the difficulty of actually starting a business instead of stopping at the startup audition stage, and that’s how friends from different universities came together to start Imagination Garden!

How did you decide on this item as your startup product?

At that time, I was on a diet, eating a salad at the café in W8. I was so annoyed and sensitive because I didn’t eat flour and meat for several days, and I got angry at the salad. I thought, “Why do vegetarians eat this terrible and expensive vegetables? Do they have a lot of money?”. That’s how I decided on agriculture as our theme, and I used my technology knowledge to create this startup item.

Initially, we thought of creating a rental model that sells arable resources just like a cloud computer that lends computer resources. We thought of an automated model that receives cultivation requests and grows crops depending on the requested time and amount. However, we chose our current model because of profit concerns.

Can you explain more about smart farms?

Smart farms are usually agricultural production facilities that uses ICT technology. Some people call a farm with a simple technology that opens windows automatically a smart farm, and some people call a farm with AI control system a simple horticulture facility.

Imagination Garden defines smart farms as an agricultural production facility that automates knowledge, information, and decisions. Many farmers still think that farming is something learnt by helping their parents for several years. In this case, the knowledge transfer is very ineffective. We pursue facilities that cannot fail even if a person does not have prior knowledge about farming. We believe that experience, know-hows, and judgement skills obtained from years of farming can be replaced by AI.

The term smart farm is not unified yet, so it is difficult to explain what it is. While smartphones became a trend driven by a powerful company like Apple, smart farms do not have a market-leading standard yet.

The term smart farms sounds familiar, but it is still new. It seems like a system that automates agriculture by incorporating AI technology.

How is Imagination Garden different from other startups that also target smart farms and agriculture?

We are confident in our technology, especially in our nutrient control device. The conventional nutrient solution control system in other companies uses concentration and pH of the nutrient to control the solution. It periodically measures the concentration and pH of the nutrient, adds more undiluted solution if the concentration is insufficient, and adds acid if the pH is too high. However, plants absorb different ions at different speeds. If we only use concentration and pH as variables, the ion balance inside the nutrient solution will become off because the system adds a constant amount of undiluted solution. The ions that are absorbed quickly will be depleted, and the ions that are absorbed slowly will accumulate.

Our technology approaches the nutrient solution from a biosystematics perspective. We see the state of the plant absorbing nutrients itself as a variable, and the state transition is controlled. As a result, the system sees the recalibration of the solution as a system’s perturbation, maintaining the optimal ion balance at all times. In addition, our system can also cultivate crops that do not have nutrient solution recipes by using state transitions.

I got too excited explaining the technology and talked too much! Anyways, our technology was recognized as a “New Excellent Technology” and we successfully registered 7 patents.

Thank you for the detailed explanation of the technologies of Imagination Garden. We believe it will be helpful for anyone interested 🙂

What other ways besides smart farms are there to boost agriculture in this era, and how do you want to contribute?

The reason why agriculture is not active lies in the structural contradictions of the farming industry. You need about thousands of pyeong to farm. We estimate a profit of 10,000 won per pyeong for fruit farming. To support a family of four by farming, the family needs at least 4,000 pyeong.

However, very few people own land, and the people who do own land want their children to become doctors and judges, not farmers.

There are “farm bank” projects run by the government, which lease unused land, but people do not want to invest in land they rented. If you build facilities to help farming, you need to remove it or hand it over to the next tenant once the lease period ends. It’s also difficult to claim residual value because of the depreciation costs. Thus, it’s economically not right for people without land to enter the agriculture business.

Due to the difficulty of entering the industry, the aging of the agricultural population is accelerating and the number of existing farmers are decreasing to the point of extinction.

Imagination Garden is developing facilities that can maximize production. Our products allow a 60-pyeong facility to produce as much as 3,000-pyeong worth of vegetables. Thanks to our soilless vertical farming system with technology that controls light to accelerates the growth rate of plants, many landless farmers find us, especially government-funded research institutes who cannot purchase land.

Imagination Garden is already modernizing agriculture by solving the problems of aging farmer population and land with its technology. In a situation where farmers are scarce and production must be maintained, Imagination Garden plays a crucial role in developing agriculture facilities.

What is the next item Imagination Garden is thinking about?

Imagination Garden is preparing to enter the bio-material development field. We are currently participating in the medical hemp cultivation of the medical hemp regulation-free zone in Gyeongsangbuk0do, and doing a research on producing the raw materials of natural medicine using the smart farm technology. In addition, we are actively developing materials that can be used during dry seasons and in makeup.

Can you give a word to KAIST students about starting a business?

If anyone wants to innovate the oldest industry, join us! KAIST is a great environment to start a business. The school gives a lot of support and there are a lot of networking opportunities. The best thing about it is that everyone around you are KAIST students. It’s a great opportunity to be able to start with talented team members.

I want to say this to students who are preparing to start a business. Many people share the know-hows of success, but there aren’t a lot of opportunities to learn about failure. You need to know how to fail to succeed. In addition, the startup item is important, but remember that the ability to commercialize the item is more important.

It’s also wonderful to join a startup that overcame early risks and is gaining ground! Imagination Garden is just the right company, so if you want to change the world with us, join us!

Last question! What is Imagination Garden’s ultimate goal?

Our biggest goal is Exit. Business is about money, but in the process we want to create meaningful change in the world. Imagination Garden will also challenge areas that have great social impact, like medical marijuana. It would be an icing on the cake if we become rich and make the world a better place to live!

Byunghyun Ban, CTO of Imagination Garden, gave honest and realistic answers today. Imagination Garden successfully realized what they have been imagining, and was also selected in TIPS this year. We hope Imagination Garden contributes to the society beyond specializing and modernizing agriculture!

This was CTO of Imagination Garden, Byunghyun Ban.