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Startup Profile: PodPonics Gives Rise to Sustainable Lettuce Enterprise In Used Shipping Containers

September 27, 2011 |

For Atlanta, GA-based startup, PodPonics, lettuce is everything. More than 12 chefs in the area have gone on record to say PodPonics’ greens are the best they’ve ever tasted, said Dan Backhaus, the company’s sales and marketing strategist.

“For them to get excited, you have to have pretty darn good lettuce,” he said.

PodPonics’ lettuce, by the way, is grown inside of used shipping containers that are converted into modular controlled-environment growth pods. The pods contain a proprietary growing system that combines hydroponics, advanced LED lighting, irrigation and nutrient technology with process control.

Founder and CEO Matt Liotta began working on the company’s first hydroponic “pod” in May 2010 to show that it was possible to grow lettuce in a recycled shipping container.

Currently the company has six pods in operation, each of which can hold the equivalent of one and a half to two acres of lettuce. Together they produce around 200 – 250 pounds of lettuce and other leafy greens per week.

PodPonics utilizes a modified version of NFT (nutrient film technique) within the pods to grow its lettuce. NFT is a hydroponic technique in which a film of water containing nutrients necessary for plant growth is recirculated around the bare roots of the plants. The company uses a custom nutrient solution made from water soluble and non-synthetic fertilizers. Additionally, as the pod is a controlled environment, no pesticides are required.

According to PodPonics’ website, growing lettuce and other leafy greens in pods also provides the following sustainable advantages:

  1. Containers are readily available, inexpensive and durable.
  2. Recycling existing containers into Grow Pods further reduces our carbon footprint and protects the environment while saving us money.
  3. They are uniform in dimension, easy to insulate, and stackable.
  4. They are easy to transport and set up and, thanks to their standardized design and construction, each build-out is a common, repeatable process, which leads to efficiencies and economies of scale.

Once a shipping container, now a PodPonics growth pod

Why Lettuce?

The decision to grow lettuce and leafy greens rather than other types of produce emerged from the realization that a market opportunity existed for local and organic produce of this type in the Atlanta area.

“The fact is, lettuce is the second most popular agricultural crop with American consumers (potatoes are first) and 90-plus percent of it comes from Salinas Valley, California, which is mighty far from Atlanta, New York City, or other large markets in the east,” Backhaus said. “It is also a crop that uses a huge amount of water, gets doused in pesticides and requires a lot of fertilizer, much of which runs off into our streams and rivers.”

The ease with which lettuce can be grown in a controlled environment was another reason. For example, lettuce requires no pollination and it along with many micro-greens can be harvested and made available to local restaurants and retailers in a very short amount of time.

A wide variety of lettuce is grown in the pods, ranging from classic romaine and butterhead to micro-greens like arugula, watercress and Cressida.

“We don’t want to grow run-of-the-mill romaine or iceberg lettuce,” Backhaus said. “What we’re looking to do is find those people who are looking for local and pesticide-free produce with freshness, taste, and quality.”

In addition to selling to restaurants, PodPonics also offers it produce at the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market twice a week where it consistently sells out. The company also contributes to The Turnip Truck, an Atlanta foodservice distributor, and has set its sights on wholesale distribution.

Backhaus said a recent single store retail trial with Whole Foods yielded great results. In less than two hours, more than 60 bags of their lettuce were sold. On a typical day in that same time period, less than half of that amount would have gone out the door at that particular store location.

Funding and the future

Podponics closed a seed funding round in July in which the company raised $725,000 from a group led by international private investors according to a press release.  Podponics will use the funds to expand current operations and also lay the groundwork for entry and expansion into new markets and geographies.

The company is currently in the process of building 16 additional pods. The hope is to eventually have between 30 and 40 operational pod facilities located near a large distribution center of a company like Target. Backhaus also said that PodPonics hopes to eventually become a recognized consumer brand with local operations in most major east coast markets.

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