The Startup That Hopes You Will Grow Aquatic Vegetables on Your Kitchen Counter

The GreenOnyx machine will grow khai-nam fresh in your home, bringing a whole new meaning to the word 'natural'.

Benny Shoham

A traditional Asian aquatic vegetable could be grown fresh on the countertops of Western homes, assuming the Israeli startup GreenOnyx successfully launches next year.

Presently cultivated in the waters of Burma, Thailand, and Laos, khai-nam (wolffia globosa, or "Asian watermeal") is a popular local staple, as well as a common fish food. But Benny and Tsipi Shoham, partners in work and marriage, hope to widen its appeal and convince people to grow khai-nam by machine in their own kitchens.

The Shohams chose to work with khai-nam because, they say, it has mineral qualities akin to broccoli, kale and spinach. The name "khai-nam," incidentally, translates to "water eggs" in Thai -- which the vegetable does resemble. 

The GreenOnyx device simulates the optimal weather and environmental conditions for growing khai-nam, which although produced by machine on a Western countertop, should be indistinguishable from the plant consumed in South-East Asian villages, say the Shohams.

“As far as the plant is concerned, it is still floating in its river or stream out there in Thailand or Burma,” Benny Shoham tells Haaretz. “It receives the same water, the same nutrients, the same temperature.”

The machine will produce the vegetable both in its natural form and, with a seven-second delay, as a cold-pressed juice.

Define 'artificial'

Despite the startup’s stated aspiration to bring people back to the "natural source" of their food, Benny is the first to admit that the artificial appearance of a kitchen appliance is a counterintuitive way of achieving this aim. Still, he contends that growing food by machine does not necessarily make the end product artificial.

For him, what matters more is ensuring that foods are grown with natural conditions in mind, and that the time taken to travel from field to fork is minimised -- or, in the case of GreenOnyx, from faucet to fork.

“We’re mimicking to almost 100% the natural environment of this vegetable,” he explains. “Artificial lighting [] is the only thing we’re doing differently, but the plant couldn’t care less if it gets light from the sun or through an LED.”

The Shohams hope to launch in America first. But even if Americans bite, and are willing to home-grow khai-nam by machine, GreenOnyx still faces another hurdle: will people want to eat khai-nam regularly enough to make the business profitable?

“It will be a challenge,” says Benny. “But it’s doable; we’re not very concerned there.”

To justify his optimism, he points to the ubiquity of other exotic foods such as quinoa, which was virtually unknown a decade ago and whose crop prices tripled in just seven years as it grew in popularity. He hopes that khai-nam will appeal similarly.

In fact, such is his belief in khai-nam’s potential to appeal to the American market that he has adapted a somewhat radical model for selling the product. Customers of the machine will be asked to sign a contract based on their predicted khai-nam consumption, in return for monthly capsules posted to their door.

“It will look a lot like your standard cable box agreement,” says Benny, adding that he plans to charge around two dollars per kilo of seeds.

Convincing potential customers to pay monthly for their khai-nam fix and incorporate the vegetable into their diet might sound like a tall order, but health stores are replete with the most unlikely ingredients: from “coconut water” to wheatgrass shots, chia seeds to kombucha.

Given the demand for products of this kind, Benny is confident that khai-nam will thrive in the natural food market -- even if some might question his take on the term “natural”.

The machine won't be adapted to grow anything but khai-nam, which, because of its size, can be cultivated in a compact space. But the Shohams hope their khai-nam revolution will inspire the development of similar devices for other home-grown produce.

“Yes, people are not used to having their food generated from a [machine],” Benny notes at the end of a discussion with Haaretz. “But there is a desire to go back to something authentic in your food. And that’s exactly what we’re doing.”