Eyes underground

The Water Issue - Cover Story: The Water Issue

A recent University of Georgia graduate created a product he hopes will measure the water available in soil more accurately.

June 27, 2017
Katie Tuttle
Jesse Lafian has designed a product that will tell users how much water is available in soil for plants to use.
Photo courtesy of Jesse Lafian

Jesse Lafian is a recent college graduate, but his startup company, Reservoir, could change the game when it comes to efficient water use. The centerpiece of his company is a water availability sensor he invented, which won him the University of Georgia’s Next Top Entrepreneur prize of $10,000 to put toward his company.

Lafian got the idea for the sensor while in a soil and hydrology class at UGA. The professor told the class that if anyone could develop a sensor that would measure the availability of water in the soil, they would be very successful.

“I was inspired by that to think of a solution to how that would work,” he says.

Over the next few months, Lafian did research on his own time, ordering materials out of pocket and tinkering with different ideas.

When he was satisfied with a device, he took it to Dr. Marc van Iersel, a horticultural professor and personal mentor, and laid it all out on the table. Later that same week, the two applied for a small grant to do further development and testing.

Lafian’s design is a tensiometer, which measures soil water tension. It will tell users how much water is available to plants, regardless of the soil being used.

“Most of the sensors that you can leave out in the field and use as remote sensors, they measure a variable called soil water content – simply how much water is in the soil,” he says. “But that information isn’t actually that useful to landscapers or farmers because the texture in the soil actually determines how much water is available to your plants.

“So, if you have a sensor that says you have 20 percent water in the soil, it really depends on what kind of soil you’re dealing with to know, OK, this is the availability of water to my plants, which is actually what you really want to know.”

He expects to finish research and development by early 2018, after which a small run of the sensors will be manufactured. Of the $75,000 in funding he needs to finish up R&D and get from prototype to product, he has raised about $30,000, with more potential funding on the way. He plans to market his system, which is patent-pending, to landscape management companies for use around tree installations.

The big picture.

Along with applying for more grants, Lafian has started focusing on the entrepreneurial side of his idea as well. He joined Four Athens, a business start-up program in Athens, Georgia.

Lafian’s design has won a few competitions, but winning UGA’s Next Top Entrepreneur was what he called his “biggest prize to date.”

Lafian expects to finish research and development by early 2018, after which a small run of the sensors will be manufactured.

However, he says the recognition isn’t what motivates him; it’s the chance to create something new.

“Because nobody’s really done this before, so it’s exciting to every day have these new experiences and find out these new things that may be able to help these sensors work,” he says.

Lafian adds that he is really passionate about air and water quality, and food, which is motivating him.

“Without those three things, there is no life,” he says.“I’m kind of driven by the bigger picture. I always have been, and hopefully I can make a difference someday.”