Sustainable nonprofit Urban Harvest has upgraded to use solar energy. Photo courtesy Andrew Hemingway/Urban Harvest

Houston nonprofit Urban Harvest is plugging into the power of solar energy.

The nonprofit’s Mobile Market program has added a custom-designed, solar-equipped trailer to its fleet. The market provides fresh locally sourced food to “food deserts.”

“By harnessing the sun’s energy, the trailer can become a self-sustaining unit, eliminating reliance on conventional power sources for a substantial period of time,” says Urban Harvest.

The trailer consists of a Ford F150 hybrid truck with a custom-designed trailer that’s equipped with solar power capabilities. The unit enables Urban Harvest to store and transport nearly $5,000 worth of fresh produce and goods to support the Mobile Market program, which serves an average of 1,200 customers each month.

Urban Harvest is now using solar energy to bring its produce around Houston. Photo courtesy Andrew Hemingway/Urban Harvest

The trailer’s three refrigerators and one deep freezer are entirely powered by solar energy.

“During Hurricane Harvey, we witnessed the devastating impact of disrupted food supply chains, leaving farmers unable to transport and store their produce. We knew there had to be a better way,” says George Hixson, Mobile Market manager for Urban Harvest. “Our solar-powered trailer and F150 hybrid is a game-changer, addressing not only efficiency but also disaster relief and community engagement.”

Urban Harvest foresees expanding the solar concept.

“There was little to no access to local produce during Hurricane Harvey due to crops being flooded out during the storm. This vehicle will allow us to assist farmers in these types of situations getting crops out of the field and into neighborhoods where there is no fresh produce,” says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest.

Urban Harvest provides farmers markets, community garden programming, gardening classes, and youth education.

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New global report names top cleantech startups to keep an eye on

seeing green

Nine Greentown Labs members were recognized on a global list honoring cleantech companies.

Houston-based Fervo Energy was named to Cleantech Group’s Global Cleantech 100 report. Cleantech Group is a research-driven company that aids the public sector, private sector, investors, and also identifies, assesses, and engages with the innovative solutions around climate challenges.

Fervo, a geothermal energy company that specializes in a renewable energy technology that uses hot water to produce electricity, debuted in 2022 on the list, and was honored in the “Energy & Power” category for the second straight year.

The other Greentown Labs, which is dual located in Houston and Somerville, Massachusetts, companies recognized on the list include:

  • Amogy, a New York-based novel carbon-free energy system using ammonia as a renewable fuel
  • Carbon Upcycling Technologies, a Canadian waste and carbon utilization company
  • Dandelion Energy, New York-based company offering ground source heat pumps for most homes
  • Energy Dome, a Milan-based company addressing the problem of long-duration energy storage
  • e-Zinc, a Canadian company with a breakthrough electrochemical technology for energy storage
  • Nth Cycle, a Massachusetts company with sustainable metal refining
  • Raptor Maps, a Massachusetts company with a software platform for solar assets' performance data management
  • Sublime Systems, a Massachusetts companydeveloping a breakthrough process for low-carbon cement
  • WeaveGrid, a California company working with utilities, automakers, EVSEs, and EV owners to enable and accelerate the electrification of transportation

The number of nominations from the public, a panel, i3, awards and Cleantech Group totaled 25,435 from over 65 countries, which is a 61% increase from the 2023 nomination process. Winners were chosen from a short list of 330 companies by a panel of over 80 industry experts.

While not on the list, Beaumont-based Fortress Energy was mentioned for its electrolyzer supply agreement with Cleantech Group 100 winner Electric Hydrogen.

The Cleantech Group 100 was started 15 years ago.

“In 15 more years, we will be at 2039—by which time, a mere decade out from the ‘net-zero’ target of 2050,” Cleantech Group CEO Richard Youngman says in the report. “I would expect the composition of our annual list to have markedly changed again, and the leading upcoming private companies of that time to reflect such.”

Houston startup taps new corporate partner for AI-backed sustainability consumer tech

out of the 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.