EcoQube: How This Startup Can Seriously End World Hunger

EcoQube: How This Startup Can Seriously End World Hunger
Benny Luo
December 6, 2013
Imagine being able to grow food 50% faster with 90% less water. Meet EcoQube, the aquaponics startup that can potentially show us how to grow the food of the future.
When I first came across EcoQube on Kickstarter, I just thought that this was something cool I could put on my desk. The fact that I don’t have to consistently take time to maintain it was also something that drew me in (because who likes cleaning right?).
But, as I researched a bit more on this product, I saw that this wasn’t just about creating a great miniature aquarium you could display in your house, but potentially creating the system to end famine and world hunger.
The Kickstarter campaign has raised $34,580 out of their goal of $39,000, the fact that they still have 36 days to go shows how much traction EcoQube has been getting.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Liang, the founder of Aqua Design Innovations, which is the company that produces the EcoQube. Here, we discuss how he conceived the idea, his experience on Kickstarter, and how aquaponics will help save humanity in the future.Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business background.
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Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business background.

I’m currently a UC San Diego undergraduate majoring in Biology. I’m a curious person with a very addictive and obsessive personality.
I don’t have much of a typical “business” background but I’ve always been involved in more things than I could handle and as a result, I would learn a lot about a wide array of things. A few experiences I think that shaped my aspirations today was getting involved with a lot of sports at a young age where I really got to witness and experience team work, practice, persistence, and how hard work pays off.

Did you always want to become an entrepreneur?

No, I always thought starting a business was beyond myself and it was something I couldn’t do, but I always had a lot of respect for those that ran a successful business. It wasn’t until after I ran a successful business out of my garage in San Francisco that I realized I’m sort of an entrepreneur. Since then, I’ve realized there are a lot of psychological limits that were put on all of us by society while we were growing up. I’ve learned that for most people, if they applied themselves towards what they love, they can do what they want. The only thing limiting us is ourselves.

You have been an ‘aquarium geek’ for quite a long time now. Walk us through how you conceptualized the idea of EcoQube.

So I’ve always been really into planted aquariums and building ecosystems within aquariums. It’s like creating a world of your own and after we did a couple aquarium installations in high school, there was a glow on our client’s faces when they saw the plants growing and respiring. I thought everyone should experience that. This concept of planted aquariums is very similar to aquaponics. The plants in the aquarium act as filters for the water as well as decorations and we never did water changes.
I learned about the concept of aquaponics in high school and immediately thought it would be the future of humanity but that someone else down the line would make it happen. I have always wanted to do something pertaining to aquaponics and I have always told everyone that my company Aqua Design Innovations (ADI) will be doing it in the future in one way or another, but I did not want to divert myself too much from ADI’s core aquarium business. About a year ago, working on ADI’s aquarium business 80+ hours/week really took a toll on me and honestly, it wasn’t as fun anymore. I wanted to do something more fun. One day I was having lunch with two friends, Tom (founder of The Label Creative) and Travis (founder of The Secret Cookie Service). They would always talk to me about aquaponics and encourage me to do something with it. Since I was looking to do something different as a side project anyway, I told Tom I’d do a “how to build an aquaponics system” thing for him. We didn’t know what it was going to be but we decided we were going to do it. I sat on the idea for a bit and came up with the first aquaponics filter prototype. I looked at it and told myself no one is going to want that so I looked into getting some help from engineers to build one that looks a little bit better. My obsession took over and it turned into a full time project I’ve been working on ever since.


You are very close to reaching your Kickstarter goal and you even have 36 more days to go. Did you expect that there would be so much positive feedback?

I’ve never done a kickstarter campaign before so I honestly had no idea what to expect. I just worked as hard as I could to make it the best campaign it can be. We worked tirelessly on the campaign for a full month and a half before the launch and just hoped for the best. When we launched, the pledge notification emails started coming in every 5 minutes and I had no idea that was going to happen. We were ready to sell each one ourselves with the email list we compiled the month before from our test landing page AquaponicsFilter, but they just kept coming in. It was pretty awesome but I think we just got really lucky with how many people pledged the first day.

You mentioned the concept of aquaponics a lot in your Kickstarter campaign. Explain what aquaponics is and why it’s important for people to know about it.

The concept of aquaponics is dead simple. Fish live in the water and create waste (either aquarium fish or food fish like tilapia), water is pumped to plants and the plants soak up the waste and utilize it as nutrients to grow.
There are so many benefits to aquaponics:
  1. 90%+ less water is used because the only water lost is from evaporation and the plants using it. No water is running off through soil.

  2. No irrigation. The plants always have plenty of water.

  3. No fertilization. The plants have direct access to nutrients dissolved in water.

  4. Plants grow much faster (up to 50%) and does not require as much space (up to half the space) because they have almost unlimited access to both water and nutrients.

  5. No soil means pests are completely eliminated.

  6. Less fungicides and pesticides. We’re not washing these chemicals or fertilizer into our waterways because aquaponics systems are contained.

  7. Fish are much healthier- tilapia grown in aquaponics farms will be the tastiest tilapia you’ll ever have. Plants are nature’s best filters whether it’s turning CO2 into oxygen or using waste as nutrients to grow.

  8. Typical tilapia farms are located in deserts because tilapia grow faster in warmer temperatures but to keep the water clean, these farms have to flush out billions of gallons of dirty water into our waterways every year and fill it back up with precious clean water. Aquaponics solves this by feeding this water to plants for cleaning.

These are just some of the benefits. Imagine if even 10% of the food we eat is grown with this method.  We would save billions of gallons of water, millions of acres of space and eliminate so much pollution.
1 billion people don’t have access to clean water right now and 5000 people die daily because of a lack of clean water. Yet we just flush billions of gallons of it down the drain like nothing happened.
Nowadays, people walk into grocery stores and food is just sitting there. Most of us don’t know how inefficiently they’re grown or all pesticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers that are used. As human beings, if we don’t see it or experience it, we really don’t care.


What’s the sole purpose of EcoQube? Is it to make a thriving business out of it or use it as a stepping stone to promote aquaponics?

The sole purpose of the EcoQube is to deliver the concept of aquaponics in a beautiful mass consumption form. We’re a small aquarium company right now and we understand that to expand aquaponics, it has to come from the ground up, so we used all our resources to build a product that targets mass consumers.

You mention that aquaponics helps with growing food at a much faster pace that is safe. However, it is noted on your website that consumption of the plants grown in the EcoQube is NOT recommended. How do you plan on evolving this technology to something that is safe for human consumption?

The main reason consuming food from any aquarium is unsafe is because aquarium chemicals are not meant for human consumption. The aquarium industry is not setup to be used to grow food. I’ve worked for aquarium stores and manufacturers so I’ve learned to think from the consumer’s perspective. Thinking from their perspective, if let’s say their fish got sick, they would go to the store and ask for fish medication, not food safe fish medication. What happens is they would end up getting a chemical like malachite green (a cancer causing chemical) and put it into their aquariums. The plants do their job, absorb it, but it is very unsafe to eat.
Our next steps will be to develop our own food safe aquarium additives.

Assuming that everything goes to plan, how long do you think it will take for the world to adopt aquaponics in growing their food?

The honest answer is I don’t know, but there are two possibilities:
  1. We have to educate the world about the severity of challenges our world is facing today with food and water shortages and show them the solution with aquaponics, which we are attempting to do with the EcoQube. I estimate this would take 20 years if everyone gets on board now.

  2. We wait long enough until these issues get to the rest of us and force us to care and adopt aquaponics. According to some statistics with current technology, in about 150 years about 5 billion people will lack clean drinking water. We’re at 1 billion today but it’s a challenge to get the rest of the 6 billion people to care.

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Lastly, give us a few tips or words of wisdom for all the young aspiring entrepreneurs out there.

Three things:
  1. Think big. Really really big. Our education system, our parents, and society have trained us all to focus on the immediate future and immediate results like taking tests to get good grades, going to high school, finishing college, then getting a job. But they never taught us to think of the problems humanity as a whole is facing today and how to come up with solutions to improve it. Everything in our world is merely created by people, anyone can be the next person to change it.

  2. Just go out and do something. Do anything and everything. You’ll learn from every new thing you do and get a better clearer perspective of the world instead of what you were told and sooner or later, you will find something you love and use it to change the world.

  3. The people around you determine who you are and who you will become. Tim Ferris says it best, “you’re the average of the five people you’re with the most.”
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