Skyline Farms: A journey of student entrepreneurs
Archive 2015 Apr 8, 2015 Kyung Han Lee
What would you do, if you came across a viable solution that would effectively tackle the negativte environmental impacts that comes with unsustainable farming practices?
Two Humber graduates, Gustavo Macias and Jake Harding, thought of just that and did not hesitate to turn their ideas into reality. After meeting as students in Humber College’s Sustainable Energy and Building (SEBT) program, they took the idea of vertical farming and started to come up with ways in which they can turn the idea into a profitable business.
Having shared similar passions in sustainable technologies, organic food and the food industry, the idea of utilizing unused urban spaces by growing produce using the vertical tower gardens strongly appealed to both Macias and Harding.
“We saw back then there wasn’t much urban farming happening in Toronto. We really saw how much underutilized space there is in the city and how it’s sort of an untapped potential. It tied both our passions together and that’s how it all began,” said Harding.
Here’s how aeroponic vertical towers work. seedlings are ‘planted’ into the cubicles that are scattered on different levels of the 6 – 9 foot vertical tower. Inside the tower that is essentially a plastic cylinder with pods for the seeds, is a pump that pulls the ionic mineral and water solution from the bottom of the tower to the top of the cylinder before letting the micro and macro-nutrient rich water disperse, mix with air, and get distributed to the plant roots evenly.
This method of growing vegetables has a number of benefits. It effectively cuts transportation cost as well as minimize the amount of energy lost in the transportation process, helping to reduce the carbon footprint the process might otherwise produce. The tower gardens can be situated on rooftops, balconies, and patios, all of which are abundant in an urban setting. This is possible due to the smaller amount of space the tower garden takes up in comparison to the amount of space traditional farming methods require.
In addition, vertical farming requires only 10 percent of the water and “a fraction of nutrients required to produce the same results as traditional farming methods. . .the towers also produce more than double the harvests available in the same time period” as it is noted on Skyline Farms website. On top of that, the towers eliminated the need for fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.
“[Harding] decided to go through with his business plan and make it an actual project. At that point he had no one to partner up with and I said ‘you know what, let me partner up with you and we’ll make this happen’,” said Macias.
Harding’s business plan was to bring the vertical farming technology that was not being utilized much in Canada.
“Nothing had been done like this before and it just needed to be brought to fruition,” said Harding.
In trying to make their vision a reality, a crucial connection was made between Skyline Farms and Humber College’s entrepreneurial incubator HumberLaunch. Besides helping Macias and Harding network with experts, HumberLaunch also funded them with seed money. After winning $8,000 in Humber’s New Venture Seed Fund business plan competition in 2011, Harding and Macias went on to compete in the HumberLaunch incubator Friendly Fire Pitch competition (since renamed LaunchPad), and won $5,000 that ultimately helped launch Skyline Farms as a business. With the prize, they were able purchase 11 towers.
Since then, the Skyline Farms had partnered up with Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Toronoto Education Workers Union and launched their pilot project in June, 2013 as part of the ‘My Food My Way’ student nutrition campaign. In the fall of that year, the students at Thistletown Collegiate Institute (TCI) were able to harvest the first crop from their on-site farm that included lettuce, chard, kale, zucchini, baby bok choy, cucumbers, tomatoes and a variety of herbs.
The TCI farm consisted of 10 Tower Gardens, the equivalent of 280 plants, and the students could learn about the facets of urban agriculture, and the produce harvested from the sustainable, organic farm was used in the school cafeteria.
Recently, Harding and Macias went on to design a garden for the Drake Hotel and a rainwater storage system for the the Big crow, all from salvaged materials.
Despite all the successes, setbacks and challenges were no strangers to Macias and Harding. As they moved forward with the business idea, they were faced with financial challenges.
“In terms of income, it’s almost impossible to make an income when you work with schools, because they are not-for-profit. . . You basically have to be a volunteer,” said Macias adding the fact that he is in the process of developing a business model that will allow them to generate profit.
As entrepreneurs, there is a natural need for support and guidance in the beginning. Macias and Harding had the same needs as new entrepreneurs, and were able to find the support from an entrepreneurship advocate and a professor at Humber College, Tony Gifford, along with venture capitalist and Humber entrepreneur-in-residence Bo Pelech.
Gifford said he sees two qualities in entrepreneurs who succeed.
“One of them is passion and the other is focus. The passion that they want to start up their own business rather than to be an employee. And the second thing is focus. They are very fixed on what they want to accomplish, despite setbacks and challenges in raising money. . . They are very clear in what the mission of the business is. They don’t try to specialize in everything. They have much focus on what they can provide to consumers and clients,” said Gifford.
Perhaps it is that passion in sustainable energy, urban space utilization, and a focus in providing Toronto communities with fresh, locally grown produce that drives Macias and Harding forward, despite the setbacks and challenges. Harding, as somebody who has worked as an organic butcher since he was only 14 years old, said he is going to remain an entrepreneur.
“We’re basically in a research and development phase where we’ve been out, we’ve piloted, we’ve utilized different technologies, we’ve done different designs . . . I’ve come to sort of enjoy the roller coaster of being an entrepreneur and I think Skyline is going to continue to evolve,” said Harding.
Skyline Farms is still searching for the best ways to utilize urban spaces.