Published on 04/27/17

Horticulture student wins UGA's Next Top Entrepreneur competition for irrigation monitor

By Merritt Melancon

The key to maximizing water conservation and a lush landscape is an informed use of water. University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) horticulture student Jesse Lafian developed a web-connected soil moisture sensor to help landscape management companies monitor irrigation and enable them to use water wisely.

His patent-pending design, which is the centerpiece of his startup, Reservoir LLC, is the winner of UGA’s Next Top Entrepreneur prize of $10,000 to put toward his company.  

UGA's Next Top Entrepreneur is a student entrepreneurship contest open to student startup teams from all over the country. During this live event, teams pitch their existing business plans or business ideas in front of a live audience and a panel of judges. This year, 36 teams from 22 colleges and universities participated.

“Our student entrepreneurs are among the most creative and diverse group we have here at UGA,” said Matt Miller, coordinator of the UGA Terry College of Business’ Entrepreneurship Program. “Their ambition and willingness to collaborate allows them to take on major problems in this world and come up with unique solutions."

Lafian plans to market his system to landscape management companies for use around tree installations, typically the most valuable parts of a landscape. 

His work in horticulture helped him identify a very expensive problem: the overwatering that kills a large portion of the trees that landscapers install and warranty. Landscaping companies pay millions of dollars each year to remove and replace these trees. Lafian’s goal is to help landscapers save time, trees and water.

The lynchpin of this automated system is Lafian’s sensor.

Lafian has applied for a patent on the sensor, which measures soil moisture in a novel way.

“Jesse’s system works fundamentally differently from the sensors I have used in the past,” said Marc van Iersel, a professor of horticulture at UGA, smart irrigation pioneer and Lafian’s adviser. “The soil moisture sensors I have been using measure how much water is in the soil, but not how tightly that water is held in the soil. Some — or much, depending on soil type — of the water in the soil cannot be extracted by plants because the soil holds it too tightly. Jesse’s sensor measures exactly that: how tightly the water is bound to the soil. That tells us whether the plants can actually use that water.”

Lafian plans to sell his technology to managers of high-end landscaping companies, then to other types of customers, such as farmers, golf course superintendents and homeowners.

Since starting work on his design in 2016, Lafian’s company continues to gain momentum. He’s secured funding from the UGA Kickstart Fund, a $5,000 UGA Campus Sustainability Grant and $2,500 from CAES’s FABricate entrepreneurship program.

Lafian moved to Athens, Georgia, to work as a research assistant in the UGA College of Engineering in 2014 after receiving his associate’s degree from Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York, and completing a National Science Foundation-funded oceanography internship. He began completing his bachelor’s degree in fall 2015.

To find out more at the UGA Department of Horticulture, visit

To find out more about Terry College of Business’s Entrepreneurship Program visit .

(Matt Miller of the Terry College of Business’ Entrepreneurship Program contributed to this release.)

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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