growing green

Houston entrepreneur crowdfunding for sustainable farming solution

Bart Womack founded Eden Grow Systems in 2017. Photo courtesy

Whether it’s on Mars or at the kitchen table, entrepreneur Bart Womack wants to change what and how you eat.

But the CEO and founder of next-generation farming startup Eden Grow Systems is seeking crowdfunders to help feed the venture.

The company evokes images of a garden paradise on earth. But the idea behind the Houston-based NASA spinoff came from a more pragmatic view of the world. Womack’s company sells indoor food towers, self-contained, modular plant growth systems built on years of research by NASA scientists looking for the best way to feed astronauts in space.

The company has launched a $1.24 million regulated crowdfunding campaign to raise the money it needs to scale and expand manufacturing outside the current location in Washington state.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force recently chose Eden as a food source for the U.S. Space Force base on remote Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, Womack tells InnovationMap. Another project with Space Center Houston is also in the works.

“We want to be the government and DOD contractor for these kind of next-generation farming systems,” he says.

The Houston-based company includes former NASA scientists, like recent hire Dr. L. Marshall Porterfield, of Purdue University, as an innovation advisor.

Womack, a former digital marketer, Houston public channel show host, night club owner and entertainment entrepreneur, left those ventures in 2012, after the birth of his first child. While taking a year to study trends research, in 2014, what he read intrigued and alarmed him.

“I’ll never forget, I came across a report from Chase Manhattan Bank….of the top 10 disruptive investment sectors, over the next decade,” he says. “At the very top of the list was food.”

His conclusions on the fragility of the world’s food supply system, due to overpopulation, and scarcer land, led him to launch Eden in 2017, funded by venture capital firm SpaceFund, Womack, his family, friends and angel investors.

Womack believes “black swan” events will only increase, disrupting the food supply system and further jeopardizing food supplies.

“We’re going to enter a period of hyper novelty in history,” Womack says.. "The system we’ve built for the last 100 years, the super optimized system, is going to begin to break apart."

To avert a centralized food production outcome, operated by corporate giants like Amazon or Walmart, Womack’s vision offers a decentralized alternative, leaving it in local hands.

With $2 million put into the company so far and a half million-dollars in sales last year, Womack argues that Eden has achieved much and can make food independence within reach for everyday families.

The company commercialized NASA technology to fill what it viewed as “a huge gap within the controlled…agricultural space.”

The tower is the building block of a modular, automated and vertical indoor plant growth system, with calibrated misting, fans, and LED lighting, controlled by an app.

The company website touts the towers as an easy way to grow plants like lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes, with little water, no soil, and lots of air, without the expense and work of cultivating an earth-based garden.

For those who want to eat more than greens, the towers provide a way to breed fish and shrimp in an aquaponic version, recycling fish waste as plant fertilizer.

However, big plans come with big costs. The towers range in price from $5,000 to $7,000, although payment plans for those who qualify make it affordable.

Eden has sold around 100 of their towers so far, to a variety of customers. But rising costs and shipping delays have led to a a three-month backlog.

The manufacturing and shipping associated with larger installations means that even if the company made a million-dollar sale, delivery of the product would take a year.

“One of the hardest things…as a start-up, the last couple of years, is trying to narrow down exactly where the biggest payback is,” Womack says. “There is the lower hanging fruit, of small sales to individual buyers, but there’s the larger fruit of institutional buyers. But they can take months and years to convert into an actual buyer.”

Customers include several universities, including Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University, and talks are underway with other large academic institutions.

For now, attracting investors so the company can reach its funding goal poses the biggest challenge.

“Texas investors are very, very hard-nosed, and they’re not like West Coast investors. They want to understand exactly how they’re going to get their money back, and exactly how quickly,” he says.

Womack says the crowdfunding round would allow the company to expand manufacturing operations into Houston, deliver product faster, and invest in advertising.

“When we complete this round, and become completely self sufficient, we’re planning on moving to a $25 million valuation,” Womack says. “We can show, given money, we can scale the company.”

The city of Nassau Bay, next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, has purchased towers and plans to purchase more, not for the production of food, but to grow ornamental flowers.

Womack says that city officials there found that it’s cheaper to grow the decorative plants themselves, rather than buying them.

The towers are adaptable, and can grow not only food but cannabis and other plants, and if buyers want to use them other purposes, that adds to the product’s appeal, Womack says.

Eden has also sold some towers to Harris County Precinct 2 and the city of Houston, as part of a project he says will turn food deserts throughout the area into “food prosperity zones.”

“Our goal is to be the farming equivalent of Boeing,” Womack says.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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