A young, entrepreneurial mind is hard at work just south of Nevada.
Stan Asjes, now 14, but just 13 when he came up with the idea to create a device to measure the moisture in plant soil, may see the product he invented on local store shelves by early next year.
He calls his invention "Umoris," which is the Latin word for "moisture." And Stan, who is homeschooled by his mother, Katherine, said it all started with an Arduino (an Italian word meaning "strong friend") that he was given by his grandfather as a birthday present a couple years ago.
"You connect it (the Arduino, a single-board microcontroller) to your computer with a USB … and you can write code that you upload," Stan explained. The device includes analog input pins, as well as digital I/O pins, which allows users to attach various extension boards. It’s a great little tool for a kid who loves electronics and programming.
"My grandpa is into that sort of stuff, so he kind of taught me" about those things, Stan said.
The Arduino came with a book of projects, and Stan started working on one that used nails and little light bulbs with different scenarios for figuring out voltage.
While doing the project, and working with water and soil, Stan, who said his mom has lots of plants throughout their big farmhouse, came up with the idea of measuring the moisture in the plant soil and helping alert people when it is time to water them again.
"Soil is all air and organic matter … It doesn’t conduct electricity. But if the soil is wet, it will conduct electricity more. So you can measure the electricity by the amount of water that is present," Stan said.
He enjoyed the research that was involved with the project, like doing tests and "math sort of stuff" to figure out "that if I have this battery and this type of voltage and this light bulb, what am I going to need to make them work together?"
Using a lot of potted plants, as well as plastic pots with soil in them, Stan did a lot of his research work in the family’s garage.
But he needed a partner to develop a prototype.
"I searched for people (businesses) who do small batches (of products) and came across RBB," Stan said.
RBB Systems of Wooster, Ohio — which Stan pointed out is, like Nevada, located along the historic Lincoln Highway — is a premier electronic manufacturer, specializing in low volume circuit board and control panel assemblies.
"The first time I called them, I got the person who answers the phone. They said they couldn’t do this because it’s not really what they would do normally," Stan said.
But the call — which came through the company’s website toll-free number and was therefore recorded — got the CEO’s attention, and late one Friday afternoon, he called Stan. "I was pretty excited," Stan said.
In a blog, posted by RBB CEO Bruce Hendrick, the company leader said he apologized for his company’s initial lack of interest and encouraged Stan to tell him about his idea.
Stan told Hendrick about his simple, pen-sized gadget that could be inserted into houseplants’ soil, and how a small LED would alert the person that a plant’s soil had dried out enough to require watering. "I immediately saw the utility of the concept," Hendrick wrote.
Hendrick said in his blog that something in Stan "cheered" him. "Maybe it was his idea, his fresh entrepreneurial spirit (how many eighth graders make such a call?) or his polite Midwestern manner," Hendrick wrote. He decided to remotely mentor Stan, being able to either see him succeed or, through failure, grow. "Greatness is fostered in such ways," the CEO concluded.
Stan, who is very well-spoken for a 14-year-old, said the CEO told him, "he saw it as sort of a philanthropic thing; they’d do it as an investment in the next generation."
After receiving the raw prototype in the mail, Stan has been busy figuring out how the case around the product will look, and what battery pack will work. Using a graphic program, he has come up with an image of what the finished gadget will look like.
"We don’t have it all pinned down yet, but they’re going to manufacture a number of them," Stan said.
Like a true entrepreneur, Stan has also been pitching the Umoris to potential retailers, focusing on floral and gardening businesses in the local Ames/Nevada area. One large retailer is already on board and plans to carry the product, which Stan intends to have completed by Christmas and hopefully ready to provide to stores by early next year.
So far, the development of his product has been an eight-month process, and there’ve been a few slow spots, Stan said, like times he’s been busy with school work and studying "other things" that aren’t science/math related – "a big pain in the neck," he said, sounding a little more like a teenager.
When this project is finished, Stan said he will probably start experimenting again to see what else he can dream up.
And Hendrick hopes by mentoring the young Iowa boy, that he’s helping to foster Stan’s creative genius. "The industry can always use another highly motivated project developer."
About Stan Asjes
Parents: Katherine and Dave Asjes
Brothers: Nick, in college at Iowa State University; Pete, 11
Sisters: Julia, in college at Case Western in Cleveland, Ohio; Cornelia, 16; and Margaret, 7
Invention name: Umoris — a device to measure the moisture level in a plant’s soil and alert people when a plant needs to be watered
Timeline: Fully finished with product by December; hopefully on store shelves early next year
Future plans: "I’m probably going to be a computer engineer or programmer. It’s hard because I do program a lot, but I do like the hardware side of things with electronics."