System for growing, distributing microgreens wins Wisconsin Innovation Award

In the growing movement for urban agriculture, microgreens are becoming a popular, profitable option for producers. Tasty and nutritious, microgreens can be grown inside any time of year, mature from seed to harvest in 10-14 days, and sell at $20-30 per pound.

2014 Wisconsin Innovation Award for the VitaCycle project.

A team of University of Wisconsin–Madison students won the 2014 Wisconsin Innovation Award for VitaCycle, a system for growing and distributing these microgreens. Ten projects from Wisconsin innovators were honored from a pool of about 150 submissions.

“Microgreens aren’t necessarily a new thing,” says Luke VandenLangenberg, a senior nuclear engineering student on the team. “They’ve been around 20-30 years, but are finally starting to gain a lot of momentum in the consumer market. Our idea was about making the system more efficient.”

The current VitaCycle module fits three stacked trays of microgreens in a bin sized for a standard bicycle trailer. Particularly in urban settings, this makes for an easy, low-emission distribution system.

“The purpose of our system is to plant trays of microgreens and transport them directly to consumers, preventing spoilage,” says Jon Seaton, a graduate student in biomedical engineering and VitaCycle team member. “They’re modular, and very mobile.”

Growing microgreens has several benefits—they use less water overall, contain high nutrient density, and have a fast cycle from seed to harvest—but VitaCycle most takes advantage of their ability to germinate without light.

The microgreens can begin the growth cycle in darkness, only needing light the last three to four days to push out of the soil. The VitaCycle tray system allows for growing the plants vertically in stacks; the top stack takes advantage of the sunlight to sprout, while the lower stacks are in the earlier stages of growth in the dark. Producers can harvest and rotate the trays around as necessary.

“Right now we’ve just explored how to grow and harvest the microgreens,” Seaton says. “In the future we’d like to explore making our own food products with them to bring the benefits to the mass consumer market.”

Plants like sunflower and pea shoots can be grown and harvested as microgreens, and they are most commonly used as salad additives or in juice and smoothie form.

“If I say ‘microgreens’ to people on the street, wheatgrass is what many people think of,” says VandenLangenberg. “We’re also looking into growing mustard because it has anticarcinogen capabilities. It’s one of the greens that has more potential for your health and well-being.”

The immediate future for VitaCycle includes establishing a growing center in Madison, Wis., as well as preparing for the 2017 World’s Fair in Kazakhstan. The VitaCycle team was recognized earlier this year with a first-place win in the Expo Village 2017: Innovation in Energy Efficiency and Saving competition. The team proposed a green roof installation of microgreens for the village at the 2017 World’s Fair, and the competition win comes with the chance to implement the proposal.

The full VitaCycle team includes:

Graduate students

  • Jonathan Seaton, UW–Madison, Biomedical engineering

Undergraduate students

  • Wally Graeber, UW–Madison, Landscape, architecture & environmental studies
  • Mamyrkhan Kassymov, UW–Madison, Electrical engineering
  • Luke VandenLangenberg, UW–Madison, Nuclear engineering
  • Tuganai Borina, University of Illinois, Industrial engineering
  • Dias Zhorabek, Purdue University, Actuarial science and applied statistics