Startup Profile: Entrepreneur Looks to Profit by Spreading the Word about Worms
November 1, 2011 | Jessica Vernabe
Ralph Crevoshay, president of VermiVision, is trying to get the word out about worms. That’s because the entrepreneur views his company’s method of vermicomposting—or worm composting—as a sure thing when it comes to successful growing. He also sees it as a major business opportunity.
The San Diego-based company, which is still in launch mode, is focused on creating community-based vermicomposting facilities, particularly through partnerships with universities and research centers. Vermicomposting is a process in which worms consume organic matter and break it down into high-value compost through their excretions, or “castings,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
VermiVision’s idea is to use a unique method of vermicomposting to create a “living” soil amendment for growers in their own communities while also increasing educational and research opportunities about the process, which Crevoshay said has slipped under the radar.
“There’s been a technological innovation that we embrace that enables the production of vermicompost in much higher volumes, at a higher potency on a very consistent basis,” Crevoshay said. “It’s really the basis for a lot of research yet to be done. … The challenge now is just to make it available enough with a good enough and reliable quality so that it can be used by farmers of all kinds all over the country.”
VermiVision, which became a legal California commercial entity in August, already has a pilot vermicomposting project site set to launch by mid-November at the Highfields Center for Composting in Vermont where there is the potential to start producing commercial product within the next year, Crevoshay said. He added that the company is also working on establishing partnerships for three other sites along coastal California—one in Northern California, one in Central California and one in in San Diego County in Southern California. Crevoshay expects the company to be producing about 1 million pounds of vermicompost a year from its California operations.
One of the potential sites includes California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo—also known as Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo—where a pilot project has already gained approval by university officials, according to Mark Shelton, the associate dean of the university’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The university currently produces and sells others kinds of compost, Shelton said.
“If we can figure out how to make this work on a small scale and make sure that’s it’s manageable and sustainable—either cost-neutral to us to perhaps even saving us or generating some money—then we might get pretty serious about this,” he said, noting that he expects the project to be up in running in the 2011-2012 school year.
Crevoshay said that besides eventually churning out vermicompost product, he hopes to achieve several other goals by partnering with universities such as Cal Poly. Those include training future vermicomposting farmers, particularly students who will work as interns at the new facilities; getting faculty interested in conducting research on vermicomposting, which will provide scientific validation of the process; and sparking universities’ interest in adding the vermicomposting discipline to their course offerings.
“Anything that is in modern technology that our students can learn from is a good thing,” Shelton said.
A Unique Process
While VermiVision is not yet ready to sell product, it already has its technology and methods in place, which Crevoshay said are shared only by a couple other companies in the United States. Unlike many others in the vermicompost business, VermiVision has a process that includes composting manure from cows and other animals, as opposed to just feeding the worms green waste and kitchen scraps, he said.
VermiVision’s process occurs in two steps. First, the animal manure is loaded into an aerated composting system, or a bin where high-pressured jets create “forced aeration” of the manure every half hour. This creates thermogenesis, or high-temperature aerobic composting, Crevoshay said. During the process, which lasts for about two weeks, temperatures reach more than 140 degrees, killing off harmful weed seeds and pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella. The heating assures the company’s process complies with, and even exceeds, the United States Department of Agriculture’s organic program regulations, Crevoshay said.
Next, the company uses a “continuous flow” bed—which is usually either 40 feet or 80 feet long—where the worms feed on the composted manure, moving from the bottom up. Underneath the bed, a cutting bar powered by a motor loosens the bottom inch of finished vermicompost. Crevoshay says this system allows for the collection of the finished product without interrupting the worms’ feeding process.
Both the aerated composting and the continuous flow bed systems are provided by Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, which is owned by Jack Chambers, one of VermiVision’s four business partners. The differentiated process of vermicomposting allows product to be finished in about two and a half months, compared to about six to 12 months, Crevoshay said.
Crevoshay, who comes from a professional background in sustainable agriculture and horticulture, said he became a believer in the technology after visiting another worm farm in New York in 2007.
“I came to understand that this is the way forward to produce material with enough volume and reliability and the horsepower to empower organic and organic and sustainable growers … in ways that have not been available to them in the past,” he said.
Crevoshay said vermicompost product has many advantages over other types of compost. One example is that available nitrogen in a plant increases by about 100 to 200 times when using vermicompost, he said. Vermicompost also produces a high amount of plant growth hormones, a large community of diverse microorganisms that help with suppressing soil-borne diseases, and a high amount of humic acids, an important component in organic agriculture.
After seeing the potential of the composting process, Crevoshay decided to make a business out of it and recruited three business partners along the way. Over the past few years, the business team has secured a funding commitment from an angel investor. VermiVision was also selected to participate in an annual gathering held by the Slow Money Alliance in October, an event designed to help connect sustainable agriculture entrepreneurs with investors.
Crevoshay said he sees VermiVision having dozens of sites all over the country within the next 10 years. He also sees the company branching out into new kinds of vermicompost products.
“The applications are very broad,” he said. “They can go to a lot of places, not just agriculture. It’s the entire golf course industry and landscaping industry as well.”
Chambers says the product is headed toward dynamic growth. In fact, Chambers said he believes in Crevoshay’s vision so much, he retired early as an airline pilot to join the business venture.
“It’s going to be huge,” he said. “There are just so many things that are going to happen over the next 20 or 30 years and I want to be a part of that.”