"When I was a technologist for an international company, I had to read a lot about laser technology and LEDs (light-emitting diodes)," Hayes recalled. "I read a lot about what NASA was doing to be able to provide fresh food to their astronauts."
Thirteen months ago Hayes gave the concept his full focus, working with a partner in Taiwan to finalize product design and basic financials for Sonnylight, LLC, which is aims to release the LED Kitchen Garden, a countertop unit, and the LED Grow Garden, a hanging unit, by the end of November.
As director of product engineering at Mitsubishi Motors, Hayes gained a solid technical background and made close contacts in the international industrial-design world, which proved useful as he was fine-tuning the Sonnylight product.
"Plant action is very specific in how much chlorophyll or keratins they produce and how they react to light," Hayes explained.
By working with a master gardener and reading a lot of research from university agriculture departments on the effect of light, Hayes formulated what he called "pulse-point modulation."
"We manage how much power we put into each one of these (colors)," he said.
Every Sonnylight product has a CPU in it, with "Grow Logic" software. "This helps drive the germination process, because it's more concentrated light," Hayes said. "In the right conditions, you can get up to three times the growth rate, but a lot of that depends on the person what nutrients you give it, what's the soil base, temperature. We provide the light."
Standard grow-light systems with compact fluorescents can use up to 40 watts, according to Hayes. "We're using 15 watts, and we use specific light wavelengths; LEDs have exact wavelengths based on the chemical composition of the diode. In our case we're using two blues, two reds, and for lettuce, cabbage and kale large-leaf plants we add a bit of green."
Plants do their best growth in four narrow light spectrums and only use about 8 percent of the white light, Hayes said. Sonnylight colors correspond with plants' three growth stages: germination, growth and budding.
"If you don't have sufficient blue light, the plant won't germinate properly, so we modulate the amount of light from each different colored diode," he said. "Then, once it starts to vegetate or grow, it switches over to the grow phase; it's all computer controlled."
The grower sets the lights according to five phases: daytime, sunrise and sunset, and 15-minute powering-up and dimming-down periods. "Plants are interesting because they have to have time to shut down and start up in the photosynthesis process," Hayes said. "People grow all the time without that, but this gives options for a more natural process with the plants."
Consumers stay involved in the process by monitoring the amount of nutrients in the water and the amount of water. "The whole product is self-contained you just turn it on, set it and take care of plants. Fifteen years is the lifetime of the lights the life of the product. This is not intended to be a service item."
Staying true to its tag line "Modern Technology Organic Sensibility," all packaging is biodegradable and the hood will be wrapped in a natural cotton shopping bag. Optional accessories for the product will include a heat pad, an off-grid cable for hooking up a Sonnylight to a car battery, two different soil types, and heirloom seeds that reproduce the same kind, so growers can save seeds.
"Consumers can save seeds, or replant them right away; time is not an issue here, as long as you keep them warm," said Hayes.
"If we can help people have a bit more personal control in their lives and control what they eat there're all these scares in the media about food that is what we want."
The business process
Getting Sonnylight products, which have design, technology and global patents pending, to market was a learning process for Hayes. "I can do the technical side, but the whole business structure is a little out of my comfort zone," he admitted. With help from the Next Level Leading Edge class, Hayes started building the business plan in the fall of 2008.
"The class really helped a lot it kept me disciplined," he said. "I found that (designing) the product was easy compared to everything else."
The discipline paid off as Hayes' business plan won first-place in the class. "The good thing that came out of this was that I started surrounding myself by people with business experience," said Hayes, who gave a presentation to the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center's Business Advisory Group and received counseling from Bart Mitchell, former director of the Archuleta County Economic Development Association, Fort Lewis College marketing professor Simon Walls and SBDC director Joe Keck.
"Launching a product is kind of anti-climactic you work so hard on each step," Hayes said. "It is kind of fun to think about (the response), but the focus has to be on the steps. It's going to go where it's going to go; all I can do is facilitate it."
Although reticent about it, Hayes has reason to be optimistic: Sonnylight's first magazine advertisement garnered more than 600 inquiries.
For more information: www.sonnylightled.com