Santa Cruz Modular Hydroponics Entrepreneur Moves From Bathtub to Business
January 13, 2015 | AJ Hughes
For Nick Halmos, CEO and farmer-in-chief of Santa Cruz-based Cityblooms, urban agriculture has meant a passionate pursuit of innovation.
The native Floridian started his journey in Providence, Rhode Island in 2001 when he was an undergraduate at Brown University. Halmos can thank climate change for spurring his interest in urban agriculture well over a decade ago, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on global climate.
“Issues of climate change were permeating through all academic discussions,” Halmos says.
After deciding he wanted to do something to help the world be more sustainable, he went to Home Depot and purchased tomato plants and other equipment to set up a hydroponics operation in his campus dorm room. Later, Halmos was impressed with the end result.
“It was a very eye-opening experience to see tomatoes in my bathtub, in New England, in January,” he says.
He was so impressed that he stopped work on his honors history thesis, and transferred to the engineering department. He formed an independent study program, with urban agriculture as a the centerpiece of his curriculum.
After graduating from Brown, Halmos continued his education by becoming involved with an adaptive urban renewal/urban farming program at the Rhode Island School of Design. This project resulted in a shipping container farm.
Even though Halmos was rapidly progressing up the learning curve of urban agriculture, he felt that he needed another formal round of education. So in 2005, he enrolled at Vanderbilt University Law School (he has since graduated with a Juris Doctor degree).
Halmos comes from an entrepreneurial background—in high school, he worked for a business incubation group, and has seen firsthand how operating a successful business requires a solid understanding of the law.
“Lots of times, legal issues destroy companies,” says Halmos, who chose Vanderbilt because it effectively integrates a business and law curriculum.
Specifically, he says an urban farming operation can be brought to its knees from food safety issues.
“Some people bury their heads regarding the food safety issue. As an attorney, I come to this issue from a legal aspect. It can put a farm out of business.”
During and after law school, he kept focusing on how urban agriculture can be part of a solution. In dense cities, where some people only saw rooftops, nooks and crannies, Halmos saw potential space for farms. Yet, he was aware of design challenges, specifically the weight and flexibility issues of modular farming units.
“The key is making a project easy to complete,” he says. “Ease of installation and ability to disassemble is important. We recognized these issues in the early days.”
In 2001 and 2002, urban farming was still a “far out” idea, according to Halmos. But by 2009, the idea had picked up steam, especially as food transportation and energy costs impacted the broader marketplace. It was in 2009 that Halmos saw increased interest and sophistication in urban agriculture developing, along with low-cost computing solutions on the horizon. Halmos moved Cityblooms to Santa Cruz because of its proximity to Silicon Valley.
Cityblooms then centered even more on the mechanics of urban farming, striving to make urban farming systems easy to operate. The company developed many prototypes and many styles of production.
But with an ultimate goal of providing the marketplace (hotels, restaurants, farms, etc.) with turnkey urban agriculture solutions, he realized that equipment was not enough—Cityblooms would have to provide the whole package, including technical support, for its modular farming units.
A short time later, Halmos met the CEO of Plantronics, an electronics/audio communication company based in Santa Cruz. This led to a partnership—working with Plantronics’ foodservice provider, Bon Appétit, Cityblooms built an onsite computer-controlled hydroponic farm at Plantronics headquarters, which runs on an already-existing solar energy system. This prototype farm produces greens and vegetables for Plantronics employees.
“This was a tremendous opportunity for us,” Halmos says.
Halmos’s journey has not been without challenges, hurdles and steep learning curves, and as he progresses, they continue. “We’re in a very interesting time right now,” he says. “We’ve only scratched the surface, both on the agriculture front and technology front.”