How I got the idea for Spira
Normally I tell people the condensed version. Here’s the real story.
I remember the exact moment when I couldn’t take it anymore.
I had just gotten home to my cramped apartment after a day of writing in a coffee shop down the block. I could smell the stench before I opened the door.
Post-grad I was a bit lost on what to do next so I decided to room with three of my friends from school, sharing a place a couple of blocks from campus to save money. What I didn’t know was their hygiene habits were horrendous.
Two of them were still in school and were mostly okay at keeping clean. School kept them out of the house and so we didn’t see much of each other. Then the cat moved in.
She was incredibly cute, so it was hard to fault her, but the smell was terrible. The litter box was right by the front door and she stole any food that was in reach. We called her a raccoon cat.
I opened the door.
The first part of the olfactory assault that hit me in the face was a literal pile of cat poop in the middle of the floor. The stack of unwashed dishes didn’t help. But that wasn’t even the worst.
I was running out of money so I had shifted to a diet of Soylent, a beige powdery sludge that provided most of my calories. Sometimes I would steal peanut butter from one of my roommates and mix it in the lumpy concoction to give it some extra flavor. I had lost 5 pounds in as many weeks. I was starving and needed some food.
Holding my breath and wading through the smell, I went to the fridge to grab my pitcher of Soylent. I pulled the handle and the most putrid stench hit me.
One of my roommates had just gotten a job at a tech firm in town and decided to go out and buy healthy food to celebrate. He came back laden with bags from Whole Foods and the aim to “eat right.” That was a month ago.
Have you ever seen food so rancid that it changes state? The huddled shapes in the fridge had turned black and liquefied, dripping down the edges of the shelves and pooling at the bottom. It looked like something had evolved and was going to leap out and eat my brain. I couldn’t breathe, I nearly passed out from the smell.
I left. I grabbed my keys and drove down the street to Kroger. Standing in the grocery aisle, searching for cleaning supplies, I kept thinking about the sheer unfairness of it all.
There I was with so little money that at the end of the month I was going to have to decide between rent or food. At the same time, there were people in my life that unknowingly let food rot in the same household.
I shouldn’t have to worry about where I got my nutrition from or whether or not it would go bad. Walking through the grocery store, trailing my hands over all the different packages, I was astounded at the sheer complexity of it all and the astounding unfairness. While we were wasting food, others were starving to death.
I pulled some pasta off the shelf to check where it was made. Milwaukee. I yanked a can of tomatoes from the opposite side. Grown in Spain, canned in North Carolina. Avocados, grown in Mexico.
I was surrounded on all sides by a massive slumbering cumbersome beast. An octopus that extended its tendrils all over the world. The incredible inefficiency of it all.
It was amazing that this perfectly choreographed dance worked at all. The slightest imbalance in the system could lead to catastrophic failures and the lack of a certain piece of produce on the shelf. If there was a missed truck, there wouldn’t be any guacamole in Richmond. If there was an earthquake, there wouldn’t be any food. The supply chain stretched from Richmond all the way out across the world and led straight toward the decay in my kitchen.
I remembered a news story about Venezuela. It only took two days before food riots started.
Shaking my head with frustration, I picked up cleaning supplies. It bothered me that Richmond had some of the most grocery stores per capita but also some of the largest food deserts. It bothered me that my roommate could splurge and waste food while I was nearly starving, surviving on scraps and Soylent.
I checked my bank account before and after I bought counter-top spray and sponges. Two hundred seventeen dollars and twenty-three cents left.
I drove home and started to clean the place top-to-bottom. Beginning with the fridge, I pulled out all of the old expired food and tossed it. More than half of everything went into the trash.
Then I scrubbed. Dishes, floor, counters. I even reorganized the pantry.
When going through the pantry I noticed something odd. There was a bag of onions but something green was poking out of the top. The onions had been left for so long in the humid stank of the apartment that they sprouted. Tiny green leaflets were poking out of the top of a brown plastic bag.
I picked them up, marveling at the sheer impossibility of a piece of greenery growing in a pile of trash.
Just then it struck me. Why do we pick food? Why not keep it growing in-transit? Better yet, why couldn’t I grow it myself? Why couldn’t I grow the Soylent that I was drinking daily? Screw paying for stuff at the grocery store. I was spending most of my money just staying afloat. Would it be possible to grow my own food?
I grabbed the bag of onions and ran upstairs, placing them on the desk next to my computer. I furiously Googled “grow your own food for self-sufficiency” and spent the next hour falling down the rabbit hole of vertical gardens and greenhouses.
I paused and stretched as the sun was setting, tabs simultaneously opened to aquaponics suppliers and Soylent’s nutrient facts page. I had built a spreadsheet and was comparing different kinds of organisms.
The sun fell across my keyboard. I stood up suddenly. I was using the wrong approach. I should be focused on the simplest organisms, the ones that grow the quickest. Phytoplankton, microalgae, cyanobacteria, all of them are the very bottom of the food chain and therefore the most-efficient at energy conversion.
I had seen a project a few months back that used spirulina, a simple microalgae to grow nutrition. Digging around, I found a paper that outlined a few NASA and ESA experiments that used spirulina as a potential food source for astronauts. What if I tinkered with spirulina to make it a complete meal replacement?
I bookmarked the article, planning to come back to it later that evening. I grabbed the bag of onions and walked to my girlfriend’s place. I couldn’t stop talking to her about my idea over dinner, showing her the onions and complaining about my roommates.
I stayed up all night building a spreadsheet comparing spirulina to Soylent and spending the last of my money ordering my initial starter culture.
We planted the onions in the front garden at the same time that my idea started taking root. I haven’t looked back since.