“A weed is just a plant that grows where you don’t want it to grow.”
When my fiance and business partner Ben first brought the idea of NatureZap to me – a device that ‘kills’ weeds with light, not synthetic chemical sprays – I was intrigued.
In my very limited organic gardening experience (but solid experience weeding my father’s ornamental garden as a child), the only way I knew to deal with weeds is to physically pull them out at the roots consistently and frequently before they have the chance to ‘go to seed’ and infect other areas of the garden.
The problem with this method is that it is back-breaking. Literally. Weeding is such a chore for many gardeners and farmers that when glyphosate-based weed killers like Roundup were invented, it became an instant success because it was effective in controlling the weed population.
Now of course, we know that glyphosate is toxic and dangerous to our health and the environment, with many countries moving to ban the product. So green technology like ‘NatureZap’ which offers an environmentally-friendly way to control weeds piqued my curiosity.
A light killing weeds? Sounds like a super power belonging to a Marvel comic book superhero than an actual gardening product on the consumer market.
I had to learn more. So Ben scheduled a Skype call with Jon Jackson, the inventor and founder of Global Neighbor the company behind this patented invention.
How a Time magazine article set the NatureZap wheels in motion.
“I read a Time magazine about the inventions in the lawn and garden market, it’s called the green market here, even though it’s not green like eco, it’s green like grass – and one of the things they had for innovations was a leaf blower,” recalls Jon Jackson, founder and CEO of Global Neighbor. “I couldn’t believe it – That’s innovation?”
As the engineer sat with his colleagues, also engineers, around the lunch table during a work break, he shared the Times article with them. “Some of these ‘technologies’ have been around since we were kids,” one engineer mused. They all agreed the gardening industry was starved for innovation.
“So we we set about on a vision to create a mower that would cut the grass, kill the weeds and fertilise the lawn on demand and run from a smart phone,” explains the engineer turned entrepreneur and inventor. “That is our guiding vision. And when you set a big audacious goal like that, you know 50 years from now we’ll still be talking about it.” It’s clear that Jon is determined to rewrite gardening history.
And his town’s history too it seems.
NatureZap was invented in Dayton Ohio, a sleepy town that formed its manufacturing reputation on the back of airconditioner, automotive belts and radiators. Don’t be fooled by the town’s ‘rustbelt’ legacy though. Jon Jackson tells me the town has a thriving engineering population and its “little high school” often beats out Massachusett and Silicon Valley schools in a science competition called Science Olympia.
I do a quick Google search and read a BBC article that reveals that in the early 20th century, “Dayton had the most patents per capita of any American city” and was home to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of scientists and technicians, “a sixth of all corporate executives had spent a portion of their careers in the city.”
Another Forbes article I read ranks Dayton as fourth in terms of concentration of engineering talent behind Silicon Valley which takes the number one spot. I’m amazed by this and my level of respect for Global Neighbors and Jon Jackson goes up a notch.
An idea is just the beginning; it’s all about execution.
What you quickly learn when you watch TV shows such as ‘Shark Tank’ and ‘Dragons’ Den’ is that inventing a product or coming up with a revolutionary business idea is only the beginning. To turn an innovative concept into a minimally viable product takes effort, work, patience and determination. Coming up with an idea is relatively easy. Turning it into a successful business is difficult.
“We came up with a mower that uses one tenth the energy of a rotary mower and we built 20 prototypes of it. We got it going and then it fell flat commercially,” admits Jon. “We lacked the resources to commercialise it.”
The business didn’t fold, but the team had already begun developing another product to kill plants without using chemicals, the directed energy product would later be come to known as NatureZap. “It was my son Patrick who came up with an alternative approach [to kill weeds]. We were using heat at the root for this hand held weed killer and Patrick realised that if we could get some light into the root system, it would make plants die.”
It was 2012 and the business was fortunate to receive funding to be able to get its directed energy device on to the market through a small business innovation research grant. With research and development being conducted in the National Environmental Technologies incubator at Central State University, Global Neighbor started having some success.
“We used lasers and different frequencies of lasers and different light sources. We probably had 5 years of just testing different things and plant reactions to them,” explains Jon. “And then we finally settled on this broad spectrum exposure and that is what the NatureZap DE is, you’re essentially force feeding the light into its chloroplast.” Chloroplast is the part of the plant structure that allows it to capture energy from the sun which enables it to grow. By feeding light into it, it throws the plant off balance which essentially ‘kills’ it.
“We tried to feed it a lot of blue light and a lot of red light to break down the chloroplast the area of the leaf on the plant where photosynthesis happens. When you do that, it’s like picking all the leaves off of the plant. And the plant’s reaction is to use some of it’s stored energy to replace the leaf. But we simultaneously feed it a lot of infrared light which is essentially thermal trauma, like surviving a hot summer day with no water. So we feed it this [directed energy light] and what a plant would normally like to do when faced with a lot of thermal stress is that it goes dormant.”
In fact, the plant tries to grow at the same time its trying to go dormant. Jon explains how the plant’s survival mode kicks in and it will use whatever energy it has left to throw out new leaves and even attempt to produce seeds. I’ve witnessed this first hand on the farm. During drought-like conditions, I notice many of our drought-prone plants such as lettuce (a thirsty plant that requires lots of water) try to grow quickly and then try to reproduce by going to seed early. But the heat becomes too unbearable for the plant and dies. Jon confirms my experience and explains that this is essentially how NatureZap DE works. “[We’re] kind of feeding it these mixed signals and then to some degree the plant tries to do both [grow and go dormant] and then it dies.”
Now Jon explains that some plants react directly to thermal stress only, like grasses where as other more complex plants need multiple ways of trying to kill it. As he’s talking I am instantly reminded of own challenge on the farm battling invasive plant species AKA noxious weeds such as wild tobacco, blue billygoat weed and the pink periwinkle.
He continues: “But if you want to do more complex plants then you will need multiple ways of trying to kill it and that’s why this broad source works. On very woody stocked plants we like to dip down all the way down to its roots and feed it a lot of UV and essentially it kills the plant, even though it’s a persistent plant like a woody stock or poison ivy.”
Jon’s passion and enthusiasm is evident in the way he talks about his work. It’s infectious. I’m finding myself getting excited over the potential of this gardening green technology myself.
How the NatureZap device works.
You simply hold the stainless steel device over the unwanted plant, push down and apply “three seconds of heat for smaller weeds and up to eight seconds of heat for larger ones.” In just a few days you’ll see the weed start to die.
How does it do this?
When the NatureZap’s thermogenic (heat) energy into the weed’s root and root crown it stops the plant from functioning but cutting off its water supply from the root. The UV light also penetrates the ground which disrupts the water root functions. This chain of events is essentially what kills the weed.
Jon tells me that the NatureZap handheld device can kill a plant the size of a “No 2 pencil” size out of the ground. Definitely not something I could use on our farm given the size of our property, but ideal for people who have small urban yards.
I like that the gadget is battery powered and can be easily transported across the yard – and that it has a two year warranty.
As I don’t have the product to be able to test it out, I have to take his word for it. Besides he seems like a trustworthy and intelligent guy. He’s smart enough to know that you can’t fool consumers. They’ll tear you apart in the democratic world of social media.
Plus I’m keen on this method of weeding. It requires no harsh synthetic chemicals and allows you to ‘weed’ standing up and there’s no danger of over-application or killing surrounding plants and harming the ecosystem. I’d give it a shot if it were available in Australia.
Eventually the company ‘graduates’ from the university incubator to a separate location. It now has patents for six inventions. At its busiest peak, the business employed nine people.
I ask Jon about the market reaction to the NatureZap DE and he replies honestly: “It’s been mixed. In 2015 we introduced the handheld device and sold 20 units. In 2016 we sold 500 units and this year we’re tracking to sell 1,000 units. We’re going up the curve but it’s been a surprisingly hard push.” His admission doesn’t surprise me at all. It takes clever marketing campaigns and a sales drive to get a business off the ground. The days of ‘build it and they will come’ doesn’t often apply to today’s modern business environment. Inventors need to get the word out about their products if they stand a chance to succeed.
Jon agrees, but he has his own theories about why the product isn’t selling as well as first hoped: “People view it as a chore either from childhood or repetition as an adult.Even if they’re told, “Here’s a great way to do it” they’re not motivated to do it differently because at the end of the day, it’s still chore. That’s been a big learning curve for us.” The company’s answer to this unforeseen problem? Develop automated weed control systems.
The future lies in automation.
The business isn’t just looking to help the urban gardener. It’s looking to help the agricultural industry too. “We are currently working on a project using directed energy in organic grain production,” Jon divulges. The project involves clamping the directed energy device on the front of a plant to kill cover crop simultaneous to the planting cycle so the incremental costs for the farmer are lower and it will help to save time. If the business is successful, it could substantially reduce the amount of toxic herbicides and glyphosate applied in conventional farming. Helping farmers move from a chemical-based system to a chemical-free system? I have my fingers crossed for them.
Currently sells the NatureZap on Amazon and through supplier contracts and I hope by the end of this article, you’ll want to give it a go yourself.
Due to costs of acquiring permits in other countries, for now the product is only available in the U.S.
So if you’re looking for a convenient way to deal with weeds that requires no additional effort, that doesn’t impact the environment or, if you want to kill weeds in your garden bed without disturbing other plants around it, grab yourself a NatureZap here.
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by Global Neighbor. Specific product information is checked with the company. Opinions are that of the writer’s only. Eco Warrior Princess strives to only work with brands that meet our high ethical standards. For more information about our ad policies, click here.