Harvest Power CEO Talks Sustainable Startups & Lessons from Farming

7/26/12Follow @gthuang

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grew it into the largest of its kind (with facilities from North Carolina to Maine), and sold it to Scotts for a reported $47 million in 1998. His main lesson from those 16 years? The key is “matching your motivation with what you actually like to do and believe in,” he says. “And surrounding yourself with great people, and being passionate about delivering passion for your customers.”

In parallel, Sellew worked on other projects such as a company called International Process Systems, which he spun out to build indoor composting systems. Siemens now owns that technology, he says.

From the late ‘90s through the mid-2000s, Sellew was working on other companies that you might call cleantech or green tech, such as Synagro, a biosolids treatment and fertilizer firm, where he was a senior executive, and Environmental Credit Corp., a carbon trading company, where he was chairman. He was also involved with Fingerlakes Aquaculture, a fish-farming company in upstate New York.

All told, Harvest Power is the seventh company he’s founded or helped lead. But before that, he had to learn to grow tomatoes. In 2006, he started Backyard Farms, a year-round grower of greenhouse tomatoes in Maine. “I believe strongly in local food,” Sellew says. “It was a great opportunity to go local and reduce carbon footprint.”

Now in his early 50s, Sellew’s philosophy around building cleantech businesses seems to have solidified. “I believe strongly that we do need a clean environment,” he says. And building good companies boils down to “matching the power of the free market with allowing you to do the right thing on behalf of the environment, allowing for a successful business model,” he says.

So when Kleiner Perkins began working with Harvest Power in 2008, it was time to go back to the corporate startup world. But you can bet that Sellew brought with him some deeper lessons from farming, as well as his expertise from organics and composting.

“Farmers embrace sustainability,” he says. “They don’t talk about it. They are dependent on the environment, on nature, to fulfill their business. Therefore that gave me lot of respect around these natural systems and how powerful they are. That attracted me to cleantech. That is where we need to go.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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