Hanni Abukhater Embraces the Non-Stop Pace of a Technology Startup

Hanni Abukhater '14 is helping to build City-Hydroponics, an EDC startup company

There are days when Hanni Abukhater ’14 is up shortly after dawn and on the go until late at night. But the 23-year-old from Clifton, who graduated in December and was hired shortly after by City-Hydroponics, a fast-paced urban farming startup, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Indeed, Abukhater hit his stride as a budding entrepreneur – and workaholic – in an internship for the hydroponics company, based at NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center (EDC), the second semester of his junior year. He quickly proved both his skills and stamina and less than a year later was overseeing fundamental aspects of R&D for the fledgling company – optimizing design by shrinking the amount of space the multi-tiered hydroponic system takes up, maximizing the number of plants it can hold, researching components, and figuring out ways to lower both the costs of the frame and the production time.

The system he helped create is an eight-foot-tall rotating apparatus known as a Vertically Oriented Hydroponic System (patent-pending) that is densely packed with troughs of lettuces, herbs, and other plants. It is self-contained, with built-in infrastructure that controls all aspects of the plants’ growth, including the amount of water, the color and intensity of light, and the concentration of nutrients they receive. The electrically powered troughs rotate vertically from high to low like a rotisserie oven, increasing the plants’ rate of transpiration and encouraging them to grow faster. It is adaptable to virtually any setting – from indoors to outdoors, rooftops to basements.

The days the company installs the system are particularly hectic as he and Matthew Moghaddam, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, must deliver, assemble, and test it on-site.

 “I pictured working life would be like this. I hoped so. I never saw myself at a computer all day,” said Abukhater, who graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. “I love the fast pace, the urgency and the hands-on control of working for a startup. I also like being able to see a product go from conception to working model and to be a part of that – contributing ideas and helping guide it. It’s important to me that my opinion matters.”

As a student, Abukhater was the president of the undergraduate Innovation Accelerator Club in 2011, where he learned about forming business plans and got experience explaining and expressing business concepts.

 “It doesn't matter how amazing and world-changing your idea is if you cannot convey your concept and vision to others,” he notes.

He got hands-on engineering experience as the captain of a frame team for the Formula Society of American Engineers, which involved coordinating with other team members to incorporate the components of the car into the boundaries of the frame, while continually working around the design constraints specified by the competition rulebook.

He heard about the internship opportunity at City-Hydroponics in an e-mail from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and was immediately intrigued.

“I love the start-up culture and being able to be part of all aspects of the design process. I wanted to know more about systems and to use my problem-solving skills. I felt I needed actual work experience,” he recounts. “My internship started as a research job – I was asked to look for ways to improve the watering mechanism – and that turned into optimizing the frame, finding the best components, doing cost analyses and installing the system.”

Abukhater is currently helping to build the commercial frame the company will mass market.

“The system is less expensive because it’s made out of stamped metal, which can be manufactured anywhere in the world and shipped less expensively because it’s more compact and lighter. In terms of installation, the system’s configuration would be standardized and the troughs slide easily into place,” he says.

He says the hydroponics system will mainly be put to use in commercial farms growing food hyper-locally for nearby populations, but it is also adaptable to restaurants, schools, the military, and home use.

“How food is grown is increasingly important,” Abukhater says. “We are seeing an increasingly amount of studies on how the chemicals and pesticides needed in traditional farming are affecting our bodies and the environment. It doesn't make sense to continue with a process that contains inherent flaws.”