Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the summer edition of Business Leader, a quarterly magazine produced by the Leader-Telegram. To view special publications made by the Leader-Telegram, go to LeaderTelegram.com/magazines.
Many business owners would like to think their companies have the potential to make positive change in the world while also providing a livelihood for employees.
Eau Claire-based Realityworks this spring received formal recognition that it is achieving that lofty goal.
The educational products company earned an honorable mention in the education category of Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards for its new hydroponics systems. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a nutrient solution without soil.
The self-contained systems, unveiled in October 2019, enable students to grow greens, vegetables, fruits and herbs right in their classrooms, which in turn allows teachers to introduce such important concepts as sustainability, local food, the farm-to-school movement, modern agricultural techniques and the importance of good nutrition.
“It is an awesome thing to be recognized for having a world-changing idea,” said Timm Boettcher, president and CEO of Realityworks.
Boettcher said the company, perhaps best known for its infant simulators, strives to be socially responsible with all of its nearly 400 products, which range from welding simulators to cow artificial insemination trainers.
“We are very mindful of how we are helping to improve the lives of the people that we serve,” he said.
The company’s products can be found in about 70% of U.S. school districts and more than 90 countries, he added.
The hydroponics systems grew out of Realityworks’ approach of having product managers spend time talking to educators about their classroom needs and how new products might meet them.
One of those product managers, Jamey McIntosh, said he focuses a lot of his time on the agricultural education world and heard from a number of teachers that they are always looking for ways to teach students how to grow things in sustainable ways.
After gaining plenty of input from teachers about what they’d like to see in a hydroponics product, the company settled on producing two sizes — a large Plant Producer Educational Hydroponics System designed to grow production-level quantities of greens ideal for farm-to-school programs and a small Plant Lab Educational Hydroponics System intended to enable experimentation with varying quantities of plants on a smaller scale. Both systems include lesson plans and teaching materials.
The hands-on systems, which each have their own water, light and nutrient sources, engage students by getting them involved with growing plants during the school day, McIntosh said.
Helping students grow their own food also encourages them to change the way they think about produce by sampling the fresh fruits and veggies of their labor, he said.
Such home-grown exposure holds potential for solving an age-old problem: how to get kids to eat their vegetables.
“The fun part for me is hearing stories from teachers about kids who come into the classroom at all times of the day to show their friends and check on how things are growing,” he said.
McIntosh also has heard reports about schools using the systems to grow lettuce that is sold to their school lunch programs or served for special events.
“We have heard from teachers that some kids have never seen green lettuce, and many know little to nothing about healthy eating habits,” McIntosh said. “Instructors are looking for new and innovative ways to help students develop skills that will help them in life and in careers, and we’re seeing these systems do exactly that.”
Growing their own produce also presents a natural way for teachers to introduce concepts of the other STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — fields that are widely considered important for the country’s future economic growth.
Realityworks, which typically launches 40 to 50 new products a year, began development of the hydroponics systems early last year and then put designs through a thorough testing process at schools across the country as well as right at its own facilities in Eau Claire.
“We had lettuce growing all over the place that people were taking home and and using. We’d harvest it and eat it that day, so it was super fresh,” McIntosh said, adding that the hydroponics systems also have potential applications for business clients.
The systems hit the market in October and were attracting significant interest and selling well — they are now in about 100 elementary, middle and high schools nationwide — before the COVID-19 pandemic struck this spring, casting a shadow over the budding market.
In addition to the pandemic’s economic impact on potential customers, restrictions on gatherings to slow the spread of the new coronavirus also halted the company’s ability to market the new systems at trade shows, Boettcher said.
“COVID-19 slowed a lot of stuff, but we expect the market to come back closer to normal by the end of the year,” Boettcher said.
Virus concerns also prompted Realityworks to shift 80% to 90% of its employees to working remotely, with just a few critical folks in manufacturing and distribution continuing to work on site.
“In the midst of all the turmoil,” Boettcher said, “to be recognized for a world-changing idea is a testament to how well our team continues to be functioning.”