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Incubation Programme

Introducing Class 2: Jungle on Demand

Incubation Programme

Words by Kelsey Lee Jones

Photos by Let it Grow

In this week’s Class 2 interview - part of a series introducing our Incubation Programme teams - we catch up with Lance Legel and Steve Jenkins of Overlap.ai and Jungle on Demand.  

They’ve moved across the pond (all the way from New York City to Amsterdam) to join us. Two tech hackers and entrepreneurs with knowledge in urban planning, economics and artificial intelligence—here to apply their ambitious vision of beautifying cities on a large scale, which all begins with exploring the potentials of technology and optimising plant life at home. They’re currently in their experimental phases and we got to talk to them about Jungle on Demand, their just-launched platform for purchasing plants, made as simple as: push a button, get a jungle.

Where was your interest in plant life born?

Lance: I was living in Colorado for three years and moved to NYC from the pristine mountains and rivers. All of a sudden: concrete, steel, loud noises, cars and pollution – it was really intense. When the New York Highline came about, it became a refuge for me, I liked hopping on and hanging out with all these plants. From early on it became a research thread for us, we were shocked by some of the statistics in terms of it as an urban development model: 100 million dollars capital cost, 4 billion dollars invested in real estate around it and the city itself getting a billion dollars back in taxes. We began asking ourselves questions: Why is this thing so profitable and so successful? Is there a massive economic real estate value to plants? From there we decided that we wanted to get into the business of creating new and biodiverse environments, and we wanted to do it all with the push of a button. We knew we needed to get into the business of supplying plants, and we’re going to do it using the technology that we know all about.

Steve: For me, it was when I started studying the quantitative intricacies of plants. It piqued my interest to the point where I knew that ‘plants as an asset class’ is something really worth spending time on. Judging by what we’ve gathered from our research, it seems that no one has seemed to realise this yet.

How do your backgrounds feed into your new venture?

Steve: Lance knows all about large-scale data systems and artificial intelligence, and my background is in urban planning – that’s what I studied, as well as economics. I’ve also travelled much of the world, worked in finance, and on Wall Street. We’ve always wanted to be in the city, and to improve people’s lives in the city. We were never sure exactly how we would do it, but we knew we’d do it somehow. It’s very hard to have a large-scale impact on a city, so we have a trajectory and know where we’d like to be in the future – it’s important for us to start small and then scale up.

What’s unique about what Jungle on Demand is offering?

Lance: We’re all about the idea of optimising the growth of plants. We want to get to the point where someone can literally just push a button, get a jungle (or eventually a Highline). And also be guaranteed their plants will grow as big as they possibly can. We’ve been talking a lot about data and money, these things don’t usually intermingle with the whole environmental scene, but we’ve seen some really nice signals that plants are a lucrative business. And there’s also room for a huge amount of improvement in technology and the way the industry operates, specifically with what consumers can have access to. We’re not interested too much in the traditions because typically the sector seems slow moving. We’re coming at things from a completely different angle.

Steve: We’re experimenting with ideas that may seem disconnected on the surface, but at a high level, all of these ideas are hacks on top of problems that we are currently experiencing as a consumer of our own product (we bought an experimental jungle for our own apartment in Amsterdam, 100 plants!). We’re now working on a two-step approach: 1. ‘Getting the jungle’ and 2. ‘Keeping the jungle alive’.

Lance: We’re also exploring different routes; direct business to consumer, and business-to-business; we’ve thought about working with robots; creating a secondary marketplace by helping customers sell plants that they’ve been growing; building smart planters; solving plant problems with smartphones. These are just some ideas that we have, but they all have the same foundation from a science and data perspective.

“With augmented reality, we can bring the whole garden centre to the customer, with just a couple of clicks”.

What have you built so far?

Lance: We have a website now (jungleondemand.com)! We’re excited to make our first sale. We’re ambitious and we’d like to make 100 sales before the end of the programme. We’re also busy building our augmented reality tech, we’ve bought this 3D turntable for photographing plants and there’s an algorithm that combines all the photos into a single 3D model. With our augmented reality app you’ll be able to visualise plants you’d like at home, place them where you think they’d look good, and when you’re happy – just click ‘buy’.

Steve: It’s interesting that when we talk so much about eCommerce for plant delivery, we still bought our own plants from the garden centre. Why is that? It’s because of the many unknowns. We didn’t know very much about the purchases we were making. We didn’t know how big these plants were or what they felt like. We believe that with augmented reality, we can bring the whole garden centre to the customer, with just a couple of clicks. 

Do you think that technology has been getting in the way of our connection with nature?

Lance: I think the obvious answer is, yes. We’re drawn inward with technology and we’re also drawn elsewhere. So it’s like a portal when you open up your smartphone, you’re entering a new world, unaware of your current surroundings. That’s why we’re so happy to be working on a product that’s going to naturally improve people’s lives. We can use technology to reverse that, helping people reconnect with nature, all while they’re sitting at home.

Steve: I heard a good quote the other day: “15 years ago, the internet was an escape from the real world. Now, the real world is an escape from the internet”.

What are your goals for the Incubation Programme?

Steve: By the end of the programme, we want to be inside people’s houses, redefining the way people purchase and take care of their plants, whether it be through augmented reality on the purchasing experience or by using smart planters. We’re going to reach it through a mixture of hardcore tech and blissful ignorance.

Lance: We’re gonna find a way to get there, we’ve gone through so many ideas and adorations already, we have a really good shot right now. Doing whatever it takes so that you can push a button, and get nature with you. We want it to be that simple.

Each week we’ll be introducing someone new from our Incubation Programme. Make sure to check back and follow the journey.

Follow the journey of our 2017/18 Incubation Programme