Rooftop Farming Startup UrbanHarvest Wins UW Student Competition

5/25/12Follow @curtwoodward

Why pay for produce to be trucked up from California when you’ve got rooftops that could be converted to greenhouses? That’s the question posed by UrbanHarvest, a startup company founded by two University of Washington students. And as of today, they’ve got a few thousand more bucks in their pockets to help make the dream a reality.

UrbanHarvest won the $25,000 first prize at last night’s UW Foster Business Plan Competition, an annual showcase for the best new ideas from business students in Washington state. UrbanHarvest also padded their winnings by picking up the $2,500 award for the best clean technology idea.

It takes a little more than that to get the concept off the ground—UrbanHarvest says a one-acre rooftop greenhouse can cost $3 million to build, including money to pay for the first year of operations. But it expects to revenues of more than $1.5 million annually from such an installation. The startup has been in talks with other local companies, including Microsoft, for greenhouses that could grow lettuces and other fresh produce.

UrbanHarvest’s blueprint is to install hydroponic growing systems, which use water and nutrient baths rather than soil, on the tops of flat-roofed buildings. The company says those hydroponic greenhouses cut the need for pesticides and herbicides, and use 25 percent of the fertilizer, 10 percent of the water, and 5 percent of the land needed to produce the same amount of produce.

Among the benefits to business customers are the ability to grow food for their employees nearby, cutting the expense and pollution inherent in ordering food to be shipped from longer distances.

The other finalists at last night’s competition were:

Xylemed, a software startup that aims to replace the whiteboards used to track hospital patients. Yes, what you’ve seen on TV dramas is still sometimes true: Nursing supervisors use a hand-written markerboard to keep track of the current roster of patient names, doctors treating them, procedures they’re undergoing, and even critical contact information. Xylemed hopes to bring this into the 21st century with a software application that can replace all that scribbling and erasing. It’s already being used at several locations, including Harborview Medical Center and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

JoeyBra, a stylish undergarment that has a thin pocket sewn into its side to stash cash, ID, or even a cell phone. This one definitely gets the crowd’s attention, but there’s apparently substance behind that fun pitch—JoeyBra has already made some pretty impressive sales just based on initial press coverage of its idea. The target was initially deemed to be college women, who need a place to stash a few small items while out dancing but don’t want to lug around a bag. The startup is also working on a sports-bra version.

Biking Billboards, a marketing startup that does just what it sounds like: attaches billboards to little trailers that can be pulled behind bicycles. The pitch is that this gives advertisers a way to reach potential customers in places where regular billboards either can’t reach or would be ignored. Biking Billboards says its success depends just as much on its riders as it does the message they’re towing—the bicyclists are trained to be “friendly brand ambassadors” while they ride. The startup has already won some business from T-Mobile, which paid the group to ride its message around Bellevue and the UW.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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