Startup Profile: Indoor Farming Company Seeks to Harness Light and Revitalize Impoverished Urban Areas
October 3, 2011 | Deanna Krinn
As the sustainable agriculture movement grows it continues to attract innovators and entrepreneurs from non-farming backgrounds. Steve Domyan, an electrical engineer by trade, is no exception. Domyan is the founder of Norwalk, Connecticut-based MetroCrops, LLC, a company committed to creating a network of urban, indoor, hydroponic farms located in impoverished high-density areas.
“I believe personally that innovation occurs when you bring different disciplines together,” said Domyan.
And MetroCrops plans to use its recently received Phase 1 Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) grant from the USDA to prove it. The company will use the grant funds to build its urban farm prototype inside of an old building in Bridgeport, CT in which it will grow salad greens using proprietary LED lighting technology and hydroponics. Funds from the grant will also be used to determine the local market potential for such an urban farm concept. MetroCrops hopes the research and results that it produces from its proof of concept will lead to an SBIR Phase II grant from the USDA that will allow the company to further explore the concept’s commercial applications.
A problem with lighting
From his research into urban farming and conversations with various plant biologists at the USDA, Domyan came to the conclusion that 70 – 80% of problems associated with indoor growing stem from issues related to the lighting setup, which result in suboptimal and inefficient crop output.
So he began experimenting with off-the-shelf grow lights to find a solution. After what he calls “spectacular failures,” he realized the solution would be to design his own custom grow lights to the exact specifications that he required and in February 2010 MetroCrops LLC was officially born.
The SBIR Phase 1 grant will allow Domyan and MetroCrops to further explore the use of artificial light to grow high nutrient leafy greens. Specifically, according to a project summary written by the USDA/NIFA SBIR review committee, MetroCrops will seek to not only identify the optimum light spectrum needed for production of high nutrient leafy greens, but also to quantify the associated energy costs.
In experimenting with artificial grow lights Domyan will seek to ascertain answers to such questions as: Will a 30% increase in the time the grow lights are on result in an increase in the speed of lettuce growth by exactly 30 percent, or by a much smaller percentage?
Recycling old buildings and creating jobs
In addition to developing innovative and economically viable indoor urban farms that produce lettuce, spinach, arugula, MetroCrops also hopes to play an outsize role in refurbishing and reusing old abandoned industrial buildings in the Northeast that have fallen into disrepair as a result of the decline of manufacturing in the United States.
Domyan points out that there are buildings like this everywhere at risk of being torn down and available at extremely low prices. “It’s not a renewable thing, to tear them all down and make piles of bricks,” he said. “It’s also not good to build new buildings until we use all the old ones.”
The current building that MetroCrops leases from the University of Connecticut is a small-scale version of the abandoned industrial buildings of which Domyan eventually hopes to populate with indoor urban farms. Domyan describes it as a 500-square-foot “crumby old building” with no heat or air conditioning, but nevertheless a great proving ground for MetroCrops to put their theory into practice.
MetroCrops also hopes that the placement of indoor farms in vacant buildings in downtrodden areas will lead to job creation and economic revitalization. Domyan notes that jobs at MetroCrops would offer training to employees, pay far above minimum wage, and last 12 months out of the year, a stark contrast to traditionally short-term, seasonal job opportunities in the conventional agriculture industry that often provide no training, and pay little.
“We want to be growing really high quality produce close to the consumer, making use of these buildings and creating jobs,” Domyan said.
The future and its energy challenges
Five years down the road, MetroCrops hopes to have multiple indoor farms established in urban areas throughout the Northeast where growing fresh local produce year-round is near impossible due to the cold climate.
The company also hopes to develop enough unique technology and IP to be able to market their concept to other companies and entrepreneurs interested in setting up sustainable urban indoor farming systems.
To get to that point, though, the company will need to overcome a number hurdles related to energy efficiency. Growing indoors requires that the lights remain on 24 hours, which can get pricey, especially in Connecticut, the state with the third highest electricity rates in the nation after Hawaii and New York.
“The biggest tiger we’ll have to tame is taking control of energy costs,” Domyan said.