Living Eco-Tech

Living Eco-Tech: To Beat The Heat

In the summer of 2015, Dave Tilley, associate professor in Environmental Science & Technology (ENST), was on vacation with his family in Las Vegas when he decided that it was a little too sunny. Not because Vegas averages 310 sunny days per year and regularly tops out near 115 degrees Farenheit in the summer, but because his hotel patio was completely devoid of umbrellas. He looked over at a group of people hovered around a tiny shrub, and was suddenly hit with a revelation.

Tilley’s research area in the college focuses on quantifying the benefits of eco-technological systems like green walls, green roofs, and constructed wetlands. He aims to understand how these nature-based technologies can improve the quality of air and water, and reduce the temperature of hardscaped urban spaces so people can live in a healthier and more sustainable environment.

He achieves these outcomes by studying existing eco technologies in the field and thinking creatively about how to innovate new technologies for people to enjoy. On that hot sunny day in Vegas, his years of experience and interest in the field gave rise to a complete reimagination of the old fashioned patio umbrella as The Living Umbrella®, an idea that would become the basis for his successful venture, branded “Living Canopies, Ltd.”

Living Canopy

It is an impressive concept, one that any homeowner could easily establish as a permanent fixture on their deck, terrace, or patio. Tilley and former student and co-founder Nick Cloyd (AGNR ENST BS ‘11, MS ‘17) seem to have bet big on their design and engineering. The real genius and innovation lies with the shade component, featuring a flexible metal trellis on top of an umbrella canopy interlaced with living plants and a solar-powered, automated irrigation system. Their preferred plant is the Sun Parasol giant mandevilla, a flowering vine native to the tropics of Brazil, that has been bred into multiple varieties and flower colors. The canopy is attached to lightweight fiberglass arms and a heavy-duty aluminum pole that is anchored to the patio with a sand-filled base. Everything can be shipped in one box and does not require any tools to assemble. If you operate a commercial business, you can get your hands on a Living Umbrella that features solar powered irrigation.

Just add water to the tank on a weekly basis, and the automated system sends water to the canopy. The residential system offers a more traditional form of automation, with a timer that connects to your garden hose.

“This is just a really cool piece of eco-tech which keeps you in touch with your biophilia (a human tendency to want to be close to forms of nature),” said Cloyd. “Aside from its great aesthetics and practicality as an alternative to traditional umbrellas, there are several ecological benefits including a reduction in stormwater flow, a pollinator habitat for bees and hummingbirds, and removal of carbon from the atmosphere.”

The cherry on top of the engineering, which seems likely to be inspired by Tilley’s experience under the blistering hot Vegas skies, is that your comfort is amplified by the plant leaves expelling water vapor to make you feel up to 8 degrees cooler under a Living Umbrella versus a traditional umbrella. Tilley and Cloyd owe a lot of their start-up success to UMD and its Office of Technology Commercialization, as well as DC I-Corps, a “regional program designed to foster, grow, and nurture an innovation ecosystem in the nation’s capital, the nearby states of Maryland and Virginia, and the mid-Atlantic region.” DC I-Corps is co-sponsored by UMD. Through their tenacity in customer discovery, early trial sales, and grant proposal submissions, Tilley and Cloyd were able to secure money from the state and patent protection through UMD. The product has been through a few different iterations along the way, starting with an initial model that Tilley described as “very heavy duty, built to last 30-40 years with aluminum framing.”

“We called it the triton model, which had an initial price tag of $1,000 to $1,500. This was too expensive for our target customer. Plus, they were costing us around $400 to ship,” said Tilley. “We decided to work with a marketing company based up in Baltimore, who determined that homeowners and restaurants would only be willing to spend in the $300 to $500 range.”

Aside from its great aesthetics...there are several ecological benefits including a reduction in stormwater flow, a pollinator habitat for bees and hummingbirds, and removal of carbon from the atmosphere.

Living Canopies

By 2018, Tilley and Cloyd had settled on their more streamlined and lightweight model, and started going to trade shows and meeting with landscape architects and garden center owners, who began making purchases. They have now eclipsed 100 units sold, and this year made a game-changing breakthrough when they brokered a deal with Sam’s Club, a national retailer owned by Walmart. COVID-19 has put a temporary hold on plans, but once normal activity resumes, customers should start seeing Living Umbrellas available in select stores across the country.

Next time you’re in the College Park area, keep your eyes peeled for the prominent Living Umbrellas displayed in front of Vigilante Coffee on Rt. 1, one of the many local customers they’ve acquired.

“It’s incredibly exciting that we’ve gotten to this point with our customer base and our Sam’s Club connection,” exuded Tilley. “We are now in the Walmart system!”

Tilley and Cloyd want budding entrepreneurs to understand that starting a business is a marathon, not a sprint. “It’s a long haul, and you’re going have peaks and valleys,” said Tilley. “Start small, and stay independent as long as you can.”

Cloyd explained that it’s great to have an idea, but who you know is just as important as what you know. Also, money should not be the lynchpin. “Identify your partners, and only do it if you love it. If you have passion, you’ll find ways to make everything work.”