Kris Soh & Sven Yeo

The plant lovers at Singapore’s In Vitro Pte Ltd want to be “the doctors of your indoor air”. They’ve taken founder Kris Soh’s hobby of growing plants in bottles without soil or water (hence the company name) and turned it into an award-winning business idea, as runners-up in last week’s Ideas Inc. Business Challenge Grand Final. Their unique ‘Botanicaire’ system can rid a building’s breathing air of harmful chemical compounds and save you a lot of time and effort in plant care in the process. Currently looking at ways to integrate their product into the world’s buildings, In Vitro may have arrived at just the right time to capitalize on growing awareness of indoor air quality and its effects on health.

The air you’re breathing now

If you’re feeling tired at the office or urban life in general gets you down, there’s a good reason. The air you breathe indoors is full of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), chemicals released into the air by everything from furniture to building materials and office machinery. These can have fairly serious chronic effects such as respiratory illnesses, allergy exacerbation and after long-term exposure, even relative leukemia or lymphoma. VOCs are more prevalent in new indoor environments (you know that that ‘new car’ or ‘new building’ smell?) and are a contributor to sick building syndrome.

Good air conditioning and ventilation will reduce the effects of VOCs somewhat. For a more sustainable and more esthetically pleasing solution though, building designers are turning to plants. Indian business owner and environmental activist Kamal Meattle has won acclaim with his decades of research into plants and indoor air quality. His ‘healthiest building in Delhi’ — a 50,000 square foot space with 1,200 living plants — has seen eye irritation levels drop by 52%, headaches by 24% and asthma by 9%. Meanwhile, he claims employee productivity has risen over 20% and the building’s energy requirements are down 15%. He’s currently working on plans for a 60,000 plant, 1.75 million sq.ft building.

Where In Vitro comes in

But even plants aren’t as perfect a solution as you’d think. They’re fairly high maintenance once you consider soil, fertilizers and regular watering. They also require a lot of space, and there is room for improvement with some plants’ efficiency in removing dust and particulate from the air.

In Vitro’s Sven Yeo says their company has found that improvement. Their integrated system, ‘Botanicaire’, uses microbial technology to cultivate without the need for soil or watering and improves airflow around the plants. This cleaner solution also filters more air with fewer plants: In Vitro claims that, with their smallest product or integrated system alone, they could achieve results similar to Meattle’s with less than 10% of the plants. It’s also very pretty to look at.

Yeo says the plants themselves are only part of In Vitro’s complete package. They’ll also offer value-added services like on-site sampling and personalized advice to suit each building’s unique requirements. Botanicaire scales in a modular fashion to suit even large office buildings, and In Vitro wants their technology to be incorporated into future buildings’ designs for maximum efficiency and esthetic effect.

After the prize, where now?

In Vitro is now “deep into product refinement” and plans to roll out Botanicaire in December 2010 or Q1 of 2011. They’re currently in early talks with a real estate developer who provides green solutions for building management.

To find out more about In Vitro, check out their website or Facebook page.

by Jon Southurst