Morrisville plant geneticist Hsi-Chuan Chen is proving that science sells on the Internet.
Using a clear gel he created in a lab to simulate the perfect environment for a plant to grow and live, his startup Orchid Gene sells miniature floral terrariums on Amazon, Etsy, eBay and its own e-commerce site. This December, Chen is selling over $1,000 of product—or 50-60 plants—each day.
The growth has been exciting for Chen, a native of Taiwan who moved to Raleigh in 2008 to get a PhD from NC State University in plant biotechnology. After graduation in 2013, he worked in bioengineering at Tyton BioEnergy Systems in Danville, Va. for two years until he quit to start his company.
Chen was motivated to translate work that typically happened in labs into the consumer world. So he began R&D on a way to quickly propagate miniature plants (call them desk plants) and then keep them alive for at least one year without water, soil or the sun. Using his proprietary gel, an orchid now lives for at least 2.5 years, he says.
Chen has filed a patent for the technology he uses to produce the plants, but he won’t be protecting the gel’s formulation—he’s keeping that a trade secret. What he will share is that the gel is natural—even eatable—and that it offers plants the nutrients and support they’d typically get from soil, water and fresh air.
“It’s a material that allows us to control the plant,” Chen says. “We save all the trouble of taking care of them.”
Sales have been steady since Orchid Gene’s April 2015 launch online. They helped him snag a test with Home Depot in October, and shelf space in more stores in 2017. Growth has happened with no marketing budget and just a few Amazon ads. Chen also has a deal pending with an investor in Taiwan who wants to license the technology, buy the gel and sell terrariums there.
But Chen has a problem of supply and demand—there are only so many terrariums he can produce each day from his garage in Morrisville. To meet demands of this potential partner, continue R&D on additional plant varieties (roses and sunflowers coming soon), grow in Home Depot and other U.S. retailers and explore licensing opportunities, Orchid Gene needs warehouse and production space.
That’s where NC IDEA comes in. Chen learned about the grant program for startup companies in North Carolina from a friend. Besides funds, he hoped to learn from NC IDEA’s mentor and investor network about how to run and grow his business.
“It’s not hard to have a good idea, but it’s really hard to make your company grow,” says Chen, who admits he knows little about business besides his last 18 months on the job.
Though Orchid Gene is unique from most grant applicants, NC IDEA was impressed with the company. And not just because CEO and president Thom Ruhe has a fascination with orchids, a plant typically difficult to keep alive.
Growing sales, solid product reviews (77 percent of Amazon reviewers give it 5 stars) and the interesting science behind it sold the reviewers, Ruhe says.
“It’s a high tech, low tech kind of company—low tech in that it’s a plant but there is very cool technology around it, and again, traction, they define it,” he adds.
Chen expects to open a factory in the RTP area early in 2017 and to get his products into Home Depot soon after. Perhaps some business assistance from NC IDEA is on the horizon as well.