Startup Crowdfunds To Launch Aquaponic Prototype for Small Spaces
February 26, 2014 | Katie Venit
Josh Rittenberg, Ben-Yam Barshi, and Jared Kasner needed capital to fund the production of their modular home aquaponics system, the Aqualibrium Garden. They had created a prototype, but the industrial molds were very expensive. So the trio turned to Kickstarter, launching a campaign for 30 days in fall 2013.
“It’s really a marathon, it’s not a sprint,” Rittenberg says of the Kickstarter campaign, calling the experience amazing but also harrowing.
“We were all round the clock answering emails.” Because Kickstarter has an international audience, they would get the emails in the middle of the night from countries like French Polynesia, and they had to be sure to answer every email.
The campaign met and surpassed their funding goals; 660 backers contributed over $150,000. “We’re really excited to launch because we think there’s a ton of interest out there, as shown through the Kickstarter process,” Kasner says.
In designing the modular system, the team was inspired by the futuristic ideas of Jacque Fresco, founder of the sustainable, forward-looking Venus Project in Florida. They not only find aesthetic inspiration in Fresco’s work, but also philosophical inspiration.
“We are very invested in, as broad as it sounds, in the future of humanity,” says Rittenberg. “It’s very important to us.”
The garden appears quite simple. All the pieces, which are constructed of a clear polycarbonate, are identical. The two chambers are stacked, with plants on the top and fish on the bottom. The fish provide fertilized water for the plants. The plants filter the water, which is cycled back to the fish. The garden has a two square foot footprint, which the team designed so it could fit in tight urban living quarters but still produce a substantial amount of produce.
Rittenberg got the idea for the Aqualibrium on a trip to the Dominican Republic. While there, he visited with his childhood friend Barshi, who was working on aquaponics landscaping, creating big backyard systems. Rittenberg decided this could work even in an urban environment. Within a week they had a name and an idea for the design. Kasner soon came on board, bringing a business background and passion for environmental causes.
Although the Kickstarter campaign helped a lot with their funding, Aqualibrium is still working towards profitability. Rittenberg and Kasner point out that because the mold is unique and very large, it was also very expensive to produce. About 90 percent of the money they raised in the Kickstarter campaign went to fund capital expenditures. The remainder is helping to keep the website going.
Down the road, Rittenberg sees possibilities of adding other systems to their line, making Aqualibrium the first of many products focusing on sustainable living.
“We’re passionate about the intersection of sustainability and the way people live, and transforming the economy,” Kasner says. ”Aquaponics is a good place to start in terms of how you can bring fresh food to people in an urban environment. We have our sights set on really creating a company that allows you to live all aspects of your life in a sustainable way.”
They are also partnering with a non-profit called Birds Nest Foundation to develop videos for a K-12 curriculum using the Aqualibrium garden.
“The educational aspect of the garden–the fish and the plants and how they live in symbiosis with one another–is a really cool visual, especially for children,” Rittenberg says. They plan to launch this curriculum in New York City in the fall.
Although they have had their share of challenges in launching their company and product, Rittenberg says they have all ended up being fun challenges.
“It’s part of learning, and exploring, and building upon this idea we have, and turning it into a tangible thing,” he explains. “My parents used to always tell me, if you don’t have three minor crises a day, you’re not running a real business. The biggest challenge has been learning how to deal with your many crises and learning that they’re really not all that big in the end, they’re just day-t- day issues.”