Guest post by Lorena Galvan, Thought For Food ambassador.
Millennial food innovators are pioneering a better food future from farm to fork. Today, we’re excited to launch a new guest series on FTC that profiles the bright, creative and driven university students from around the world that make up Thought For Food (TFF), a next generation food innovation platform. A global community as well as a summit and business competition, TFF empowers breakthrough solutions to feed nine billion people by 2050. During this month-long series, we will highlight the work of select TFFers who are working to transform our food system.
Dustin Betz is President and Founder of Green Towers, an urban agriculture design company specializing in unconventional and soilless growing techniques. In his second year at Penn State University, Betz and Green Towers participated in the 2013 Thought For Food Challenge. While they were not selected as a TFF finalist, the experience spurred their active involvement in TFF, and they have since launched three urban agriculture product lines: living furniture, BEEcosystem and GardenBox. I caught up with Betz to learn more about the products, his advice for other young food innovators and what’s next for Green Towers. Our interview has been edited for brevity.
DB: GreenTowers is on a mission to help people reconnect with the nature of food, and to help democratize food production. We want people to see our work, and be inspired to take agriculture into their own hands and homes–if we can change the way people see their relationship with food, we can catalyze a reverberating impact on sustainability and food security.
We accomplish all of this through two distinct lines of business: Living Interiors and eCommerce “GIY” (Grow It Yourself) Solutions. Our Living Interior design-build services bring beautiful agro-ecological systems indoors, using biomimicry to help individuals reconnect with the natural processes that produce our food – ranging from our BEEcosystem, observation honeybee hives, to living furniture.
DB: The idea for Living Interiors was an early product pivot that took place in Spring 2014, when our team realized aquaponics was only being used as a commercial growing technique, and not as an aesthetic demonstration of working agro-ecological systems. We founded our company with the mission of changing the way consumers thought about their relationship with food, and we realized that we could show aquaponics to a broader demographic by bringing it indoors.
Our first product is called the Living Table, this unique accent table integrates an aquaponics system, where fish waste byproducts are naturally converted to organic nutrients to grow plants, and the plants in turn help act as a bio-filter to clean the water that returns to the aquarium.
At the core of our GIY products is GardenBox, a monthly box subscription service that delivers pre-seeded garden trays containing our specially dehydrated soilless growing mix. Each month GardenBoxes are curated with new varieties of micro greens and herbs, and come with delicious expert recipes for culinary inspiration.
DB: The cofounding team is everything the business has; teams need to balance both focus and flexibility to make the most of opportunities; and do not do free work. We are lucky to have a team with very diversified skill sets and areas of expertise (we are engineers, architects, biologists and entrepreneurs), but understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses are key to getting things done as efficiently as possible.
DB: It’s important to do your research and due diligence first–in the past, we’ve been guilty of early excitement and jumping straight into prototyping–it’s a lot wiser to carve out a market niche you KNOW is not already being addressed.
DB: While Green Towers is currently focused on building up our GardenBox subscription sales, we’re also involved with an exciting new local nonprofit organization called the ACRES project to establish Benjamin Plum Farm, a commercial scale aquaponics farm that will provide meaningful work and social integration for adults with autism in Centre County, Pennsylvania.
If you are a university student passionate about disrupting our food systems, form a team and submit an idea to the 2015/16 Thought For Food Challenge by December 1. Ten finalist teams will win a trip to the TFF Summit in Zurich, Switzerland, where they will compete for a chance to win up to $15,000 to launch their ideas. Learn more about Thought For Food.