Fellows Friday with Viraj Puri

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New York restaurants and grocers scramble to get their hands on fresh, local produce. So what could be better than veggies grown right in the city? On a rooftop in Brooklyn, Viraj Puri runs Gotham Greens, a hydroponic greenhouse that cultivates delicious, fresh produce — using a fraction of the water and space needed for conventional agriculture.

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Interactive Fellows Friday Feature:

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Viraj asks:

What is most important to you when making your food choices at the grocery store? (Local, organic, free trade, price, pesticide use, etc.)

Starting Saturday, click here to respond!

Tell us about your newest entrepreneurial endeavor, Gotham Greens.

Gotham Greens was created in 2008 with a mission of providing New Yorkers with local, sustainable, premium quality produce year round. We grow everything, from seed to harvest, here in our 15,000 square foot hydroponic rooftop greenhouse.

There are a number of ways to farm responsibly and sustainably. Our methods have been selected based on our unique geographic location. We’re in an urban area with a dearth of arable land. But a largely underused resource that does exist is rooftop space. There are plenty of large, unshaded, unused rooftops in this city that may be well suited to some form of urban agriculture

We’ve selected Controlled Environment Agriculture — a combination of horticultural and engineering techniques — that lends itself well to the built environment.  We grow our crops hydroponically without using soil. Plants don’t require soil, per se.  They require sunlight, oxygen, CO2, water and nutrients. We provide all those things to the plants in the greenhouse, as well as add nutrients to the water, and everything the plant needs comes from that water.

Hydroponics is well suited for a rooftop: you don’t have to haul a lot of dirt up there, or compost, or constantly have to change your soil. And it uses about one-tenth the water of conventional agriculture. Hydroponics is very lightweight and modular.

Hydroponic farming is also very space efficient: our greenhouse can produce about 20 times what you could produce on land in the same amount of space.

Gotham Greens greenhouse facility in Brooklyn, NY.
Is it merely space efficiency that accounts for such drastically higher yields?

The space efficiency is a large part of it. But also, Controlled Environment Agriculture, as the name implies, allows us to control the environment in here as much as possible to create the optimal growing conditions for the plants. This allows for very high productivity and efficiency.

We have sensors all over the greenhouse, measuring temperature, light, humidity, CO2, oxygen … different things like that. A central computer control system adjusts the greenhouse based on the readings from the sensors. If it’s too hot, for example, vents and fans are deployed. If it’s too sunny, a shade curtain opens. When it rains the roof vents are instructed to close automatically.

With all this high-tech equipment, and all the energy it requires, is this really an economically viable project?

We believe so. The demand for our produce has been off the charts. Currently our products are available at retail stores in New York City: Whole Foods, D’Agostino, Eataly, and Fresh Direct, and soon at a number of restaurants across the city. We can’t even meet the demand, which is a nice problem to have.

Gotham Greens on store shelves in NYC.

We are dedicated to providing customers with the best quality, freshest produce possible. Our customers are very excited because not only is it fresh, local produce available year round, but it’s also a consistent and reliable yield. We’re largely insulated from extreme weather events, like unseasonably warm or cold temperatures, drought, hail, and frost, as well as pest outbreaks and disease outbreaks.

So we believe there’s a really compelling business opportunity to do this. Even in an unfavorable economic climate, we were able to raise the required capital.

As for energy use, we’ve made considerable effort to be as energy efficient as possible. We’ve sourced the most energy efficient equipment, such as pumps and fans, and we actually rely mostly on natural ventilation for cooling. We installed a solar energy system on the roof –- a 59-kilowatt array –- which feeds a part of the facilities’ electrical needs.

Solar panels share rooftop space with the Gotham Greens greenhouse.

We’ve also selected the most insulating materials one can in a greenhouse application. We have a cover here above our heads, a few feet below the ceiling, which acts as a thermal blanket when it is opened. We’re also going to be installing a radiant water heating system, because it’s a lot more efficient to heat through water than through air. The upfront costs are high, but we believe it’s going to save us energy in the long run.

The greenhouse also should help the host building, energy-wise, because it acts very much like a green roof that helps insulate, so the actual building should theoretically have lower cooling costs in the summer and lower heating costs in the winter.

Part of our investment came from NYSERDA (New York State Energy Research Development Authority) and they gave us money precisely to monitor and collect data to see what is the carbon impact and energy use of our product, compared to conventional methods, with all the embodied energy calculated. That includes the long-distance food transport, and fuel that might have to be used for a tractor, etc., to assess where the energy improvements really are. So part of this project is research and development to see if this is the most energy efficient way to do things.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

Assemble a good team of people, because people have different skill sets. In our case, we wanted to have people with the right technological know-how, people with the right financial know-how, both in terms of raising capital and managing finances and writing a business plan, getting things on paper. Here we’ve tried to assemble a team of people with different skill sets. I think we complement each other and bring different skills to the table.

So if I were to give advice to a social entrepreneur, I would say become a group of social entrepreneurs. Two or three heads are better than one.

You’ve said this form of farming addresses a number of other problems, as well.

A nice thing about farming like this, besides just promoting urban sustainability, is it helps address ecological and public health concerns surrounding conventional agriculture these days, which include everything from food safety — things like E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks — to long-distance food transport and high resource consumption.

Our products are pesticide-free and we eliminate all fertilizer and pesticide runoff, which is the largest cause of global water pollution. As I mentioned, we use about 10 times less water than conventional agriculture. That might seem counter-intuitive, because it’s a water-based form of agriculture, but we recycle that water. We capture the irrigation water, and then reuse it. However, when you’re in a field, the plant takes some of the water up, and then the rest returns to the ground water. Agriculture is responsible for most of the world’s fresh water withdrawal, as well.

We are a triple bottom line approach company. We care deeply about sustainability and the environment, but also about the people in the community. We supply produce each week to City Harvest, which is a large non-profit food rescue group that picks up food and distributes it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We employ people from the local community. We’ve created about 25 full-time jobs, so we’re very proud of that.

Eventually, as we expand our production, we hope to also be supplying produce in areas that have limited access to fresh produce. Increasingly we’re seeing that inner city urban areas that have limited access to fresh produce also have very high instances of diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes and obesity. That’s something that we’d like to start to address.

This is a commercial-scale project. It’s not a prototype, but we are starting modestly. We produce about 100 tons a year, which isn’t really that much in a huge city with 8 million people, so we’d like to eventually get to a point where we’re producing a meaningful quantity of food, getting a meaningful number of trucks off the road, and bringing people high-quality, fresh produce year-round. We want to continue increasing jobs in the community, and keeping money in the local economy.

How did you wind up farming on top of buildings in Brooklyn, New York?

My background is, broadly speaking, in the clean technology, renewable energy, and green building space. What I’m passionate about is “appropriate technologies.” That means coming up with infrastructure, technological, and development solutions that are appropriate for a given geographical, environmental, and cultural context. I don’t necessarily think that hydroponic greenhouses are ideal for every city. I do think it’s very well suited to New York City. We have a huge demand for fresh produce here, and very little of it is actually produced here.

In 2004 I helped develop a company that implemented green building and renewable energy installations in Ladakh, India. Ladakh is a high-altitude, remote, mountainous region in the Northwest of India that is extremely rich in solar energy potential. But the region is economically underdeveloped, and there’s not a lot of electricity produced there. Solar electricity systems are a very appropriate technology for that region as they can provide low-cost rural electrification that reduces air pollution and carbon emissions. The idea is to leapfrog from no technology to environmentally friendly technology by cutting out the ecologically damaging steps in between. That’s where I cut my teeth in project management and entrepreneurship in the green building/renewable energy/clean tech space.

I also spent some time in Malawi in East Africa working for a conservation group — again working on appropriate technology -– marketing and promoting fuel-efficient stoves. Malawi has one of the world’s highest deforestation rates, and the largest cause of that deforestation is people foraging in the woods for firewood for cooking. We promoted various fuel-efficient cook stove designs, which use a small fraction of the wood compared to a conventional stove or traditional three-stone fire use. Traditional stoves also created poor indoor air quality. We gathered together some unpatented designs from engineers and development groups around the world, and we trained local masons and metal workers to build these cook stoves. These masons and metal workers in turn sold the stoves in their shops to the community as a commercial product, with the goal of became more sustainable in the community.

Back in New York after a few years abroad, I joined an environmental engineering firm where I had my first exposure to hydroponic greenhouses. I’m not an engineer by academic background — I studied economics, international development and environmental studies. I began to develop a business plan to take hydroponic greenhouses –- a technologically robust and commercially-proven existing technology — and bring it into the urban environment on a commercial scale.

My professional goal is to, one step at a time, deploy creative technological solutions that are appropriate and viable for the geographical location and cultural context of a given region.

There are lots of sustainable, appropriate tech projects you could have undertaken here in New York. Why a hydroponic rooftop garden?

I suppose my interest in food combined with an interest in farming and clean technology. I also recognized that it’s a compelling business opportunity: these are high-value perishable products, there’s an increase in demand for local, sustainably produced food, and people caring about where their food comes from and how it’s produced.

It was recognizing this need, and also wanting to do something that’s never been done before. Our project is fairly innovative, and it seemed like a fun, challenging undertaking. It seemed kind of cool to be the first commercial-scale hydroponic rooftop greenhouse facility in the United States.

Also, I love to eat at nice restaurants. Hopefully if I can become a supplier to the top chefs in the city, they’ll be friendly and invite me to eat at their places. [Laughs]

What’s your favorite vegetable?

Tomatoes, although I guess that’s technically a fruit. I also love butterhead lettuce.

Butterhead lettuce growing in Gotham Greens greenhouse.

Does your produce have any taste, texture, or nutritional difference than conventionally grown produce?

I can’t speak for all hydroponic greenhouse growers but I believe ours may be better. It does tend to be a bit more tender, more delicate — mostly because it’s grown in a controlled environment and not outdoors. It’s not beaten up by the weather, so it’s not as hardy or as tough.

In our system, a lot of the control is on the growers to ensure plant health, flavor and nutrition. Arguably, if the grower’s doing a good job, the plants can actually be more nutritious and tastier than a conventional product, because you’re really coddling these plants providing them with their every need. You’re ensuring they receive the proper nutrition — the right levels of potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc., as well as the right amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, light levels, temperature, and so on.

What’s your grand vision for the project?

Assuming the facility does well, the idea is to definitely build more of them, here in New York City I hesitate to proclaim that this will be the future of farming, or that this will be the way we’re all going to produce food for the rest of our lives. That being said, I believe that this type of farming has a role to play, particularly in dense urban areas. This is the first of its kind facility in the United States.. We’ll see how it does. If it does well, we’ll build more of them. But with a city of eight million people, I don’t think that this is going to be the only form of farming for us.

But the goal is to produce a meaningful amount of food here. I’m not sure what that figure is. Maybe 1,000 tons, 10,000 tons …. Maybe it’s taking 200 trucks off the road each week. That’s 200 less trucks idling in the wholesale market in the Bronx, less congestion, less fossil fuel being used. It also means more job creation, keeping our dollars in the local economy. We already provide 25 jobs. If we could employ 250 people, I think that’s meaningful. Its ambitious, but we’ll take it take it one step at a time.

How has the TED Fellowship helped you along with your goals?

The TED Fellowship was amazing. It exposed me to an amazing group of people at the cutting edge of their fields. It was so inspiring and humbling going to the conference and hanging out with other Fellows from around the world doing really, really interesting work. That was a really impactful thing: being inspired and motivated.