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Alfredo Costlla-Reyes with Bitgrange technology

Alfredo Costilla-Reyes, a graduate student in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, has been named recipient of the Mexico National Youth Award, the highest award presented by the Government of Mexico to the country’s youth.

Costilla-Reyes received the award in the Entrepreneurial Ingenuity category, competing against two other Mexican students. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto presented the award to Costilla-Reyes at a reception in Mexico City.

In addition to his doctoral studies, Costilla-Reyes is actively engaged in the development of an intelligent system in agriculture to grow food indoors through the “internet of things.”

In 2015, he launched BitGrange, a startup company that is engineering a water-based plant system that can be sustained without soil or sunlight. The water-based plant system, also known as hydroponics, is not a new concept, but Costilla-Reyes has designed a path to sustainable hydroponics-based farms using just an LED light.

Costilla-Reyes developed a novel prototype containing electronic components for sensing, power, communications and LED light, and a 3-D printed container to accommodate electronics and seed. The electronic components constantly measure the environmental variables, such as temperature and light, which are necessary to sustain the plants. Meanwhile, the BitGrange software evaluates these variables in real time and notifies the users through BitGrange’s iPhone app to take necessary actions, such as adding more water or plant food.

Costilla-Reyes says he is able to predict how lettuce, for example, will survive based on an extensive bank of past data that he has collected. All the calculations happen behind the scenes on the cloud-based BitGrange website, which accesses the data about the plants through the internet. He is collaborating with researchers from the University of Manchester’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering to incorporate artificial intelligence to create a closed loop control system to set up the plant settings to let it grow safely and automatically.

“Being able to correlate the present and past data makes the system very reliable,” said Costilla-Reyes. “And it makes the whole system inexpensive too.”

BitGrange’s four step process ‘Plant-Connect-Sync-Play’ aims to gamify agriculture for its users. While the prototype is still in its first generation, Costilla-Reyes is testing varieties of flowering plants too.

“While there is an obvious goal of growing your own food, I am looking at growing your own flowers in order to expand the scope of BitGrange,” said Costilla-Reyes.

In July, Costilla-Reyes was named the 2017-18 Kirchner Food Fellow. The Kirchner Food Fellowship is a highly competitive program giving students an opportunity to learn entrepreneurial leadership skills to invest money into agriculture-oriented businesses that offer the promise of a sustainable solution for the future.

He was also selected as the first place recipient of the Grand Challenges Challenge, an inaugural competition by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The year-long process included a series of lectures, white paper development and a town hall meeting, which developed Costilla-Reyes’ confidence as a public speaker and an entrepreneur. He also received a certificate in business for graduate students from Mays Business School and has been collaborating with Startup Aggieland to develop BitGrange.

He developed BitGrange’s customer discovery strategy through the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps Site program that facilitates commercialization of technology on the Texas A&M campus, and he eventually wants to launch a kick-starter campaign to amplify the reach of his startup.

“We live in a disrupting era,” said Costilla-Reyes. “Electrical engineering and agriculture on their own may face a lot of competition necessitating innovative, interdisciplinary ideas to power the future of sustainable living.”

As the world population surpasses 7.4 billion, sustainable agriculture in some countries is not optional anymore. Costilla-Reyes’ vision is to empower the children of the global society to embrace indoor farming using technology to grow their own fruits and vegetables. He wants to educate them about BitGrange to spark their curiosity about agriculture, engineering and science, and inspire them to be urban farmers.

“By inspiring children with science and agriculture we could very well be training the next generation of entrepreneurs and revolutionizing agriculture for all of us to benefit,” said Costilla-Reyes. “BitGrange’s impact on small-scale local farming is vital, not only as a powerful educational tool, but also as a way to solve sustainability issues surrounding modern agricultural practices. My goal is to make indoor agriculture as easy as possible for parents and teachers with zero experience.”