Gotham Greens: Cleantech and Farm Tech Converge in Brooklyn

2/7/12Follow @jpruth

Hidden amid the technology startups clamoring for attention in New York, which is packed with media, data, and social networking players, is an unlikely company more interested in vegetables than video sharing. Gotham Greens Farms is out to prove its resilience by cultivating crops on rooftops in a landscape dominated by bricks, mortar, and steel.

Gotham Greens is an unusual mix of clean technology and agricultural tech. The startup operates a computer-controlled, solar-powered 15,000-square-foot greenhouse on the roof of The Greenpoint Wood Exchange, an 80,000-square-foot building that houses furniture, cabinetry, and woodworking companies. The greenhouse functions year-round and yielded its first crops of herbs, lettuce, and salad greens last June. Viraj Puri, CEO and co-founder of Gotham Greens, plans to expand the operation this year. “We’d like to have at least one more greenhouse built, if not two, to at least double our current production,” he says.

The notion of growing plants along the skyline of New York is not completely unheard of. Some residents plant gardens on their roofs, and sections of the old West Side Line elevated railway were redeveloped into High Line Park. However, Gotham Greens is pursuing an ambitious plan to establish more greenhouse farms across the city.

Puri, who previously worked in project management for environmental engineering firms, says he is looking at potential sites in Brooklyn, Bronx, and Queens for future greenhouses. Manhattan is too dense with little viable space, and Staten Island is hard to reach from a logistical perspective, he says.

Gotham Greens, co-founded in 2008 by Puri and Eric Haley, raised nearly $3 million in Series A funding in 2010 from angel investors. Puri said at Xconomy New York’s Venture Emergence forum on Feb. 1 that his company is looking to complete a Series B round—between $8 million and $10 million as stated at the event—this year. “That capital will go toward the construction of more greenhouse facilities,” Puri said at the event.

Though Gotham Greens is an agricultural business, it takes a bit of science to grow vegetable crops in a concrete Brooklyn neighborhood that is also home to a wastewater treatment facility. Gotham Greens uses a hydroponics method, rearing its crops in mineral nutrient solutions in water rather than soil. The water is re-circulated to the crops, and the greenhouse does not use chemical pesticides. “Gotham Greens is trying to target a consumer base that’s demanding fresher, cleaner, safer, and more competitively priced food,” Puri said.

The greenhouse is controlled and monitored by an automated computer system and draws some of its power from rooftop solar panels, which produce 70,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. Gotham Greens’s vegetables are available in restaurants and 26 retail stores across New York, such as D’Agostino’s and Whole Foods, as well as homegrown markets.

During the venture event, I spoke with Puri about launching a green startup in a city that is heavy on technology and media ideas. “There were challenges because there was no precedent for it,” he says. “Trying to do commercial-scale agriculture in an urban area, especially a very dense urban area such as New York, no one had ever tried that before.” Puri says he has to contend with the logistics of clearing rooftop space to set up a greenhouse, address structural and zoning regulations, and gain access to adequate utilities.

Though attracting initial financing was a challenge, Puri says, bringing onboard scientists and technical personnel helped make Gotham Greens more compelling to investors and partners. Gotham Greens also raised some low-interest debt financing from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. “Having a prestigious science research organization backing us definitely lent us some credibility,” he says. Gotham Greens has 20 employees and Puri plans to hire additional staff as more greenhouses are built.

Puri says he looks for real estate with large rooftop space for potential greenhouse sites because “agriculture is an economy-of-scale business, so bigger is better.” In spite of his growth plans, he says Gotham Greens will focus on supplying local outlets rather than export its produce to distant regions.

Reflecting more on the early days, Puri says he started Gotham Greens to bring together clean technology, renewable energy, and his personal passion for fresh food. “New York is such a foodie town. To meld that along with clean technology was a compelling business opportunity,” he says. It would seem that “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” after all.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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