Living Canopies transforms patios with living umbrellas with help from DC I-Corps

Sometimes nature has the answer.

Dave Tilley, Associate Professor in Environmental Science & Technology (ENST) at the University of Maryland, found it while vacationing with his family in Las Vegas in 2015.

“We were sitting on a pool deck and it was 115 degrees,” said Tilley. “It was like an oven. I looked around the pool deck and noticed there were no umbrellas. Then I looked off in the corner and saw a shrub with people huddled in its shade.”

An idea was born: combine plants and patio umbrellas to provide greater shade, cooling, and the aesthetics of flowering vines, from spring through fall.

“We reimagined the patio umbrella as one that has a living canopy rather than a plastic canopy,” Tilley explained. “Our plants form a natural canopy by growing out onto an umbrella’s trellis. What’s more, our choice of plants, the flowing, viney tropical mandevillas, produce huge trumpet flowers, hundreds of them, in red, pink or white. They bloom from April to October when grown in Maryland and similar temperate climates.”

The company Living Canopies followed, launching umbrellas that come with a smart, solar-powered irrigation system that knows when to water plants. “All a user has to do is fill the water tank once a week, and it’s good to go,” Tilley explained.

More importantly: they cool you better than traditional umbrellas.

“Because the plants use water, you have a phase change,” said Tilley. “They cool the micro-climate. You will feel eight degrees (8oF) cooler sitting under a living umbrella versus a plastic umbrella. Plus, you are helping the environment, because it doesn’t use as much plastic as a regular umbrella.”

After Vegas, Tilley returned to campus and found Dean Chang, Lead Principal Investigator of DC I-Corps, which provides real-world, hands-on training on how to successfully incorporate innovations into successful products. Tilley took the intro to I-Corps short course, then enrolled in an early DC I-Corps cohort.

“We talked to 30 restaurants in that first month,” said Tilley. “We received good feedback on the need for living umbrellas for outdoor dining.”

Chang recommended Tilley’s company, Living Canopies Ltd., for the National Science Foundation’s national I-Corps cohort, which included a $50,000 grant. That sent the company to Houston, Texas, where they hit the pavement, talking with over 100 different potential customers, from hotels to restaurants, traveling from Alexandria to Ocean City to Miami and Houston.

“We found our first customers through this process,” said Tilley. “We built our first ten units and nicknamed the product “Mandy.” There were so many flowers, it was so dense, and it bloomed all summer long.”

But the business lessons Tilley gleaned from I-Corps were what really drove his company.

But the business lessons Tilley gleaned from I-Corps were what really drove his company.

“It was a huge epiphany to me when we did customer discovery,” he explained.

“The empathy map, trying to understand what other people think and feel and why. It was huge. That’s really how you can be effective at getting people to make the decisions you want them to. Put yourself in their shoes to be effective with them. Both professionally and personally, I learned a great deal from I-Corps.”

One example stood out.

“I remember going to this one meeting,” said Tilley. “I have always been strong-headed. I wanted people to understand my ideas, but I realized that it doesn’t work in sales and the business world. You need to understand the words others use, and then use those words to tell them what you are thinking and what you want.

“I tried it out. The first day I was old Dave, shouting out my ideas and trying to get people to see my way. I could tell it wasn’t going anywhere. I decided to try empathy. On the second day I listened to the words people were using. Another world opened up. I realized this is how you get into peoples’ thinking.

“The whole customer discovery process--getting out of the building and interacting with real customers--it really paid off for us. You can come up with all these crazy ideas for a product, but until you go out and talk to people and see their needs, you won’t understand how to develop your product to help them. That’s what I-Corps taught me.”

How easy should the umbrella be to fold down? Would anyone care? How mobile should it be? The irrigation system: what would people expect? How easy should it be to operate? The answers to these questions were gathered by Tilley through I-Corps.

“We got feedback and that drove us to change our design,” he explained.

But that design, he soon learned, could not be shared during customer discovery.

“One day we went out to talk with potential customers. We had rough pictures of what our product would look like. One person said our product was beautiful, and that customers would be lined up at the convention center to buy it.

“We came back, and our I-Corps advisor asked us why people liked our product. We told him because it is pretty. He raked us over the coals. We were not empathizing with our interviewees. We didn’t learn anything about their needs.

Years later, Living Canopies has customers spread around the country from Hawaii to New York to Florida, with local long-term customers in Maryland and Virginia. In late 2019, the company signed a contract with Walmart to test sales in their Sam’s Club stores, but the pandemic has delayed that launch until Spring 2021. The company applied for two patents through the University of Maryland.

After I-Corps, Living Canopies received two TEDCO Maryland Innovation initiative grants worth a total of $265,000. In addition, the company acquired $15,000 from UM Ventures, a $90,000 Maryland Industrial Partnerships (MIPS) project award, and $15,000 from Bethesda Green through its Innovation Lab’s Residency Program. Tilley also secured private support for Living Canopies.

To date, the company has generated more than $100,000 in sales.

Tilley’s team continues to experiment with different umbrella designs, as well as new plants to create flowering canopies. The company hopes to gain traction in store displays.

But one thing’s for sure: their changes will be well-vetted with customers, catered to their needs, thanks to I-Corps.