When startups collide: Greentown Labs hopes working elbow to elbow can create innovation

GreentownWhen clean technology incubator Greentown Labs moved from South Boston, Massachusetts, to the neighboring city of Somerville in 2013, the sprawling new facility was a little daunting, said chief executive Emily Reichert. With 18 member companies – all small startups – the organization filled less than half the 33,000 square feet in the building.

“At that time, it seemed like an incredibly big space,” she said.

Less than two years later, Greentown Labs has expanded into every corner of the former envelope factory. With 44 member companies employing 285 people, Greentown Labs has become the largest clean tech incubator in the US, Reichert said. Member startups are working on everything from data-collecting sailboats tofloating wind turbines.

“It’s become a cultural center of forward thinking entrepreneurial activity,” said Gabe Blanchet, co-founder of Grove Labs, a Greentown tenant that is developing residential-scale aquaponic systems that allow tenants to grow vegetables indoors.

The Boston area has long been known as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurial activity, from the computer technology corridor that boomed along Route 128 in the 1980s to today’s flourishing biosciences sector. Greentown Labs aims to join this tradition, giving innovative sustainability-focused startups the traction they need to turn their bold ideas into game-changing realities. But until one of its growing startups makes it big – something that has not happened yet – its model of collaboration and resource sharing remains unproven.

Greentown Labs began in late 2010, when four clean energy startups, all with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came together to split the rent on a rundown warehouse space in East Cambridge. There, they could tinker, tweak, and try out their intended products. When the warehouse was demolished in 2011, the four companies moved to a space in South Boston, expanding and bringing in more young enterprises. After just two years, the incubator had outgrown its new space and decided to move again.

When Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone heard Greentown was looking for a new home, he decided to woo the group to his city, offering $300,000 in tax incentives.

“They bring us everything we hope for in the type of companies we need to build our locally-sustainable economy,” said Curtatone, who also ordered one of Grove Labs’ first home aquaponics system.

Framed by lime green and teal blue walls, Greentown’s Somerville office is a tightly-packed collection of desks where employees study product designs, cluster together around laptops, and share ideas and advice over cups of coffee. Workshop space runs along the back and side of the building, where 3D printers whirr, plants grow under LED lights, and prototypes are assembled and honed.

Neither traditional incubators nor shared work spaces are new ideas. Greentown Labs, however, is carving out a distinctive space for itself somewhere between the two models.

Unlike most incubators, Greentown does not take equity in member companies, nor seats on their boards. Accepted companies pay $425 per month for each desk they need and $3.20 per month for each square foot of lab space.

Greentown does, however, shape the workplace environment with a careful member selection process. Successful applicants intend to produce manufactured products rather than software or services, and generally have existing investments from outside sources, Reichert said. To nurture collaboration, Greentown Labs will not accept any companies that are direct competitors with existing members.

Perhaps most importantly, all members must have an interest in cleantech and in building businesses that solve global problems, Reichert said. The result of these policies is a group of companies that easily and eagerly trade expertise and advice, according to those involved.

“Whenever we have a question or a problem, the first thing we do is throw it out to the Greentown email list,” said Ben Glass, CEO of high altitude wind turbine producer Altaeros Energies, another Greentown founder. Someone is almost always able to help immediately, he said.

Greentown also forms partnerships with corporate sponsors, including Shell, Chevron, American Airlines and Microsoft. These sponsorships, which provide about 20% of Greentown’s revenue, according to Reichert, also connect member startups with major companies that in search of new technology. In addition, the incubator hosts networking events and job fairs to help member companies make business connections and find new employees and interns.

Greentown is also hiring a manager who will help the young businesses contact and communicate with manufacturing partners. Often, Reichert said, new entrepreneurs have big ideas, but little practical knowledge about how to make the leap from prototype to production. She hopes the new manager will help bridge that gap.

With the current facility at 100% occupancy, Greentown’s directors are considering what comes next. They are looking at ways to expand within Somerville and exploring partnerships elsewhere in Massachusetts, Reichert said. The group has already started consulting with organizations looking to build their own technology incubators.

Jeff Anthony, director of the Energy Innovation Center at the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said Greentown’s advice has been crucial in developing plans for an innovation center. He point specifically to the idea of “maximizing collisions”: creating a space that generates encounters between occupants and their ideas.

“They’ve been a proven success and we’re hoping to learn even more from them,” Anthony said.

Meanwhile, many will continue watching Greentown to see if a physical space that increases collisions will ultimately end up sparking big wins – or not.

This story originally appeared at TheGuardian.com on April 14, 2015.

Advertisements

Learning the business of food

Veronica Janssens, co-owner of Batch Ice Cream in the South End, has been in the frozen confection business for about five years. But in between formulating flavors and churning out pints, it can be hard to find time to scrutinize financial statements or plot a course for growth.

So, Janssens said, she decided she needed a plan for “running a business in a grown-up sort of way.”

CheeseThe solution she found was a food-focused business course offered by Interise, a Boston nonprofit that promotes small business and economic development. The 15-week class, part of Interise’s StreetWise MBA program, aims to support the growing number of food startups that have popped up in city neighborhoods and rural towns, spurring investment and creating jobs.

With the local food trend showing no sign of slowing, Interise teamed up with the Jamaica Plain food incubator CropCircle Kitchen and Boston Public Market, the year-round local food market that is expected to open near the Haymarket MBTA station this summer.

Liz Morningstar, chief executive of Boston Public Market, said the course is part of her organization’s mission to boost homegrown foodie businesses. But, she added, “It’s also smart business. We necessarily want a stronger pipeline of companies.”

The class, which is free, includes 15 owners from 10 companies that sell everything from herbal infusion drinks to decadent doughnuts. (The group also includes a flower grower who sells at farmers markets.) Some, like Union Square Donuts and Q’s Nuts, both based in Somerville, have already gained buzz for products such as maple bacon donuts and Mexican chocolate almonds.

Others are still planning their official launches.

All want to find ways for their businesses to grow.

On a recent Monday night, the group met at Interise’s offices to polish their elevator pitches to potential buyers, talk about targeting their ideal customers, and trade tips about promoting themselves on social media. For the first seven weeks, the curriculum focused on keeping, reading, and analyzing financial statements; the remaining eight weeks will cover marketing, sales, human resources, and strategic planning.

At the end of the course, the students will have created a three-year business plan. Already, the work they have done has changed the direction of one business.

Barbara Rietscha, owner of the flower-growing operation Stow Greenhouses in Stow, has decided that positioning her company as a farm and florist, moving away from its identity as a wholesaler, is the best plan for expanding her business. She had been considering the change for some time; assessing her financials for class convinced her to accelerate her plans.

As class proceeded this week, product samples — pouches of flavored almonds, plastic tubes of wrapped caramels, boxes of frozen ravioli — littered the tables in the classroom. Business lingo like “end user” (aka customer) and “margin” (the difference between cost and price for each item sold) shared conversational space with talk of flavor combinations and cheesemaking techniques.

These conversations are one of the key benefits of the class, said Christina Barbieri, co-owner of the Amesbury cheesemaker Wolf Meadow Farms. Though she has a business degree, Barbieri has discovered that the food industry offers very specific and unexpected challenges, such as working out the logistics of obtaining ingredients from local sources.

“It’s so different from anything you learn in a textbook,” she said. “We’ve been learning so much from other people.”

Interise is watching the dynamic among the food entrepreneurs closely, said Johnny Charles, the organization’s Boston program manager. StreetWise MBA is a national program; more than 2,000 entrepreneurs in 36 communities have participated. In the past, classes have generally included a mix of businesses specifically chosen so that the students don’t find themselves trading tips with their competition, Charles said.

The food class, therefore, is something of an experiment by focusing on a single industry, he said. It will help Interise find new approaches to serving a range of small companies.

“Are there different ways we can think of supporting different businesses in different industries?” he asked. “There’s still some learning to be done.”

The goal for many of the students is to secure a slot at Boston Public Market when it opens in a few months. The final line-up of vendors — there will be about 42 to start — has not been announced, but is likely to include some of the class participants, Morningstar said.

Regardless, she said, the public market is eager to support even those businesses that don’t end up as vendors, because they will help to expand the food scene in Boston. That ultimately benefits the public market, the companies, and their customers, she said.

For entrepreneurs like Janssens, the importance of the class is more straightforward: It encourages her to focus on the business aspects of her ice cream company.

“The class makes you step back,” Janssens said. “You have to answer the hard questions you sometimes try to ignore.”

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on March 12, 2015. Click here to read the full story and see photos of the students. 

Is the era of Big Food coming to an end?

Big FoodFood giant Kellogg is removing the genetically modified ingredients from its Kashi Golean cereals. Competitor ConAgra is launching a line of minimally processed frozen meals under the brand name Healthy Choice Simply. And General Mills last fall snapped up Annie’s, a popular brand of organic pastas, snacks and condiments.

As consumer demand for local, organic and fresh foods continues to grow, the enormous multinational firms that are collectively being called Big Food are in the position of having to rework, reshape and reimagine themselves. Although this changing consumer landscape has contributed to lackluster growth among some of the industry’s major players, the consensus among producers, analysts and healthy food advocates is that the major food companies – and their influence – are still going strong. For now.

“These companies make billions of dollars every year. The issue isn’t profits – these are massive – it’s growth,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, and an advocate for healthy food policy.

Indeed, growth has been a challenge for many in the industry over the past year.

Net sales at Kellogg – maker of Cheez-Its, Pringles and Keebler cookies in addition to its well-known cereals – decreased by 1.4% to $14.6b in 2014, a performance CEO John Bryant called “disappointing” in the company’s fourth quarter earnings call. Declining sales of breakfast foods and snacks contributed to the downward trend. At Kraft – home of brands including Oscar Mayer, Jell-O and Velveeta – net revenues edged down 0.1% in 2014.

Consumers’ growing appetite for foods that feel healthier, fresher and less processed is one of the significant obstacles to growth. In remarks at the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference in February, Campbell’s CEO Denise Morrison said: “we are also confronting profound shifts in consumers’ preferences and priorities with respect to food”, pointing to an “explosion of interest in fresh foods” and “a mounting distrust of so-called Big Food”.

Sales on the perimeter of the supermarket, where fresh produce, meat and dairy are generally sold, have risen about 5% over the last year, while sales of the more processed and packaged items sold in the aisles have increased only 1%, says Erin Lash, food industry analyst for investment research firm Morningstar.

“Consumers just want to overall feel like they are eating healthier,” Lash says. “That’s one of the biggest trends, especially in the US.”

Big food companies have seen some of these changes coming and attempted to prepare for them. Kellogg acquired whole-grains-focused Kashi in 2000, the same year General Mills bought organic food company Small Planet Foods, which produces Cascadian Farms vegetables and Muir Glen tomatoes.

“We have a strong portfolio of natural and organic brands, which has been growing double digits since [the Small Planet acquisition],” says General Mills spokeswoman Bridget Christenson, valuing the company’s natural and organic portfolio at $600m.

The trend shows no signs of slowing, with plenty of examples of big companies redoubling their investments in healthy food initiatives.

Nestlé USA announced last month that it will stop using artificial colors in its chocolates by the end of 2015. ConAgra has been expanding its “all-natural, gourmet-inspired” Alexia brand, adding frozen vegetables, side dishes and breads to the line. Campbell’s launched an organic soup line last month, and Morrison, in her remarks at the analyst conference, promised an investment in “packaged fresh” foods.

At the same time, while fresher, healthier foods may be grabbing more room in the lineup, there is reason to believe that the appetite for convenient packaged foods remains strong. Kraft’s fourth quarter earnings release (pdf) points to increased sales of Lunchables prepackaged lunches and “ongoing growth in bacon” as key factors driving higher revenues in its refrigerated meals category. Sales of Pringles are increasing, Kellogg’s Bryant said at the analysts conference. ConAgra’s pot pies and Chef Boyardee canned pastas are both seeing increased sales.

“People who don’t consume Chef Boyardee might comment on the processed nature of it, but when we talk to people who depend on that product, it’s something that they dramatically love,” says Thatcher Schulte, ConAgra’s director of insights and analytics.

The future, as always, is uncertain. And it’s unlikely all the companies’ efforts will share the same fate. After all, some companies have done a better job of positioning themselves than others. Lash points to Kellogg and Campbell’s as two companies that have struggled. Kraft, on the other hand, has been doing a good job refocusing its marketing efforts, and General Mills is getting some traction with its Greek yogurt offerings, she says.

Lash says that the future looks bright for those that are willing to adapt: “The companies that you see that are focused on innovation, focused on bringing to market new products – they have the opportunity to continue to realize decent growth.”

This story was originally published on TheGuardian.com on March 12, 2015.

Is China’s GMO corn ban protecting consumers or protecting markets?

For 42 years, Don Villwock has grown soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres in southwest Indiana. He has endured low prices, bad weather and trade embargoes. This year, however, he’s facing a new challenge: China.

In March, China’s authorities stopped accepting exports of corn that contained a specific, very common genetic modification intended to make the plant resistant to insects. A few months later China also began rejecting dried distillers grain – a byproduct of ethanol production – that carried the trait.

Corn2Villwock explains that, as a major market evaporated, prices tumbled, and farms across the US took a financial hit. “We’re one of them,” he says. “I got to see this movie from the front row.”

Genetically modified foods have long been controversial. Opponents argue that these crops damage the environment, contribute to corporate control of food systems, and have not been proven safe for human consumption. Supporters counter that genetically engineered crops require less pesticide use and could be a key part of confronting rising food demand worldwide.

China’s recent moves, however, raise questions about the global future of GMO crops.

Ripples from a closed market

The trait China rejected was developed by Syngenta, one of the major producers of genetically engineered seeds. Four years ago, they released it under the name Viptera; since then, it has been approved in most major markets, including the US and the generally GMO-shy European Union. China, however, has lagged on approving the trait. Earlier this year, they began cracking down on imports.

Veronica Nigh, an economist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), says that, in recent years, China has bought about 40% of the dried distillers grain produced in the US. But now, with Viptera unwelcome in China, many middlemen have become unwilling to buy any corn that might contain the trait, and many farmers have been left with surplus corn. In turn, the extra supply of corn in the market has driven down prices for all corn growers.
Advertisement

“When your number one customer starts rejecting [your crop], the price drops quickly,” Nigh says.

In response, the US Grains Council asked Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to pressure China to approve the trait. Some critics, however, place the blame squarely on Syngenta for pushing a new trait before it was approved by a major trading partner. The North American Export Grain Association and the National Grain and Feed Association have asked Syngenta to cease marketing Viptera and another unapproved trait. International trading company Cargill and livestock feed exporter Trans Coastal have both sued the biotech giant, claiming expected losses of $90 million and $41 million, respectively.

Syngenta did not respond to requests for comment, but has rejected responsibility on its website. David Morgan, president of Syngenta Seeds, has asserted that halting marketing of certain seeds at this point would be tantamount to giving a foreign nation control over US agricultural practices.

At the moment, biotech companies are standing by the power of GMOs. Villwock says, however, that some farmers are considering a return to conventional seed next year rather than risk growing crops that prove unsellable.

An economic power play?

AFBF’s Nigh suggests that China has economic reasons for rejecting Viptera: Chinese corn farmers are experiencing significant surpluses right now, and slowing imports could help buoy prices for these growers. However, once the fear of GMOs is incited, she says, it is not easy to reverse.

“Long-term, our concern is that it slows down the abilities of US farmers to adopt the newest and best technology available to them,” she says.

Monsanto, a major seed producer that is not currently having trouble with China, is still developing GMO traits. But Rob Fraley, the company’s chief technology officer, points out that it has also been dedicating a growing portion of its budget – currently over 50% – to “advanced breeding” programs. Whereas GMO seeds generally contain altered DNA or genetic code from other species, this new program is more like an accelerated, science-aided version of old fashioned breeding: scientists use gene mapping techniques to identify desired traits in plants, making it easier for breeders to select for these characteristics.

“They can breed faster, they can breed more precisely, they can map and tag breeding traits – but it’s not a GMO,” Fraley says.

These techniques have already produced an antioxidant-boosting broccoli that is just coming to market, Fraley says, noting that other varieties that offer enhanced nutrition, better flavor, and other desirable traits are also in development.

There are also promising alternatives to genetically modified crops, says Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety. Farming practices known as ecological agriculture – including crop rotation and the planting of cover crops – can help keep weeds at bay, making it unnecessary to plant herbicide-resistant GMO seeds. Moreover, he explains, conventional breeding programs have produced the kinds of drought-tolerant and enhanced-nutrition strains promised by genetic engineering. However, none of these new varieties have yet been able to gain traction in the market because the breeders, many of whom are publicly funded, don’t have the money or clout to compete with GMO producers, he says.

Even with the challenges they’re facing, GMOs are likely to stick around. Genetically modified crops make up nearly 90% of the corn grown in the US. And, according to a recent study by the Georg-August-University of Goettingen, GMO seed has increased yields by 22% and farmers’ profits by 68%.

Many farmers are planning to stick with their GMO seeds. When prices are low, Villwock says, it just makes sense to use the seeds with the highest yields. And, in his experience, those are genetically modified crops. “There’s no doubt the economics lean towards planting a GMO crop,” Villwock says. “We will stay planting GMOs on our farm.”

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on November 20, 2014.

Me eat vegetable

Cookie Monster wants your children to cut down on his namesake treats and start snacking on baby carrots and clementines instead.

GroverBerries

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the children’s TV show, and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have partnered to create Eat Brighter, an initiative aimed at curbing childhood obesity. Sunkist, one of the country’s largest citrus brands, joins the effort in late October, launching a line of navel oranges and mandarins in Sesame Street-themed packaging.

“We are particularly excited to be a part of this initiative with PMA and Sesame Workshop because it offers our industry the opportunity to join together to, hopefully, spur greater change than any one of our companies could effect on their own,” said Kevin Fiori, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunkist.

The goal of the initiative is to compete with producers of cookies and chips by deploying the same marketing strategies these foods use. Sesame Workshop will license characters such as Big Bird, Elmo and Cookie Monster to fruit and vegetable suppliers free of charge for two years. Such deals would usually be worth millions of dollars to Sesame Workshop, according to Putnam, who is on the task force that designed the program.

“We know that telling people to eat healthier doesn’t work, but inspiring them emotively and using some of the tactics of the junk food industry … is a much more successful strategy,” said Todd Putnam, chief commercial officer of Bolthouse Farms, another produce supplier signed up to use the Sesame Street brand on its packaging.

The initiative was announced in October 2013 and the first products hit the shelves earlier this year. In the late spring, East Coast Fresh, a produce packager and distributor in Maryland, introduced pre-cut fruits and vegetables labeled with Sesame Street characters. Bolthouse Farms will be launching Eat Brighter-branded baby carrots in January 2015.

So far, about 25 companies have signed the licensing agreement to use Sesame Street branding on their products.

“We have applications coming in every day now,” said Meg Miller, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association. “The program is really picking up speed.”

Converting kids from cookies to carrots

There is strong evidence that the marketing of food to children is effective, though questions remain as to whether these strategies will work as well for fruits and vegetables as they do for chips and cookies.

“The best evidence we have that it’s working is that companies spend $1.6bn every year on food marketing to children,” said Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The science seems to back up these marketing practices. A 2009 study at Yale found that exposure to food advertising during television viewing makes children eat up to 45% more snack food compared to children who did not watch ads. Harris also points to other research that has shown that branding food makes children believe it tastes better. The use of characters in marketing has been shown to increase the appeal of fruits and vegetables and junk food alike.

However, using character-based marketing to encourage fruit and vegetable consumption may be more challenging than using similar tactics to promote sugary and salty snacks. Although studies have indicated the character branding works on both produce and less healthy snacks, that effect wasn’t as strong for the healthier foods, she said.

“Kids aren’t born liking the taste of vegetables,” she said. “I believe it would be much more difficult to market healthier food to kids.”

Putnam is confident that obstacle can be overcome, he said, pointing to research that suggests children can adapt to new foods in as few as five exposures.

Is all advertising to children bad?

For some critics, however, the question of whether the initiative will be effective is secondary to whether these tactics should be used at all.

Children already live in an advertising-saturated world, argues Josh Golin, associate director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. They don’t need another campaign urging them to respond positively to characters and emotional pleas, especially when these techniques are more often used to sell unhealthy foods, he said.

“If we tell kids to eat based on what characters tell you to eat, it’s not a winning battle in the long run,” he said. “From the perspective of overall wellbeing, we really need to try and reverse the sway that characters have over kids.”

Brian Wilcox, a professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, draws a distinction between the sort of marketing the Eat Brighter campaign employs and advertising in which characters deliver a direct pitch. Such advertising depends on young children’s inability to distinguish promotional media from entertainment or information, he noted. Including a character’s image on fruit or vegetable packaging, however, creates a positive emotional association in pursuit of a healthy behavior.

“That is a very different process and that’s much more acceptable from my standpoint,” Wilcox said. “I am willing to use the tools of marketing when they can benefit the wellbeing of kids.”

Putnam recognizes the concerns people might have about targeting children with commercial messages. But he argues that the health problems caused by childhood obesity are worrisome enough that all available tools should be used to combat them. Using marketing to promote healthy foods is not the only answer, he said, but is an important part of tackling the issue.

“I have a solution that I know works,” Putnam said. “It’s hard for me to say no to that.”

This story originally appeared on TheGuardian.com on October 4, 2014. Click here to see story and a poll about marketing to children.

Big plans for Ocean Alliance

Paintfactory

GLOUCESTER – Just outside the faded red buildings of the former Tarr and Wonson paint factory on Rocky Neck, new oceanographic technology is taking flight.

On a foggy summer morning, a small robotic drone designed for whale research buzzes and swoops overhead. It is a high-flying sign that the once-neglected site is springing back to life under the oversight of conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance.

“It’s very exciting, where we’re going with the robotics,” said Iain Kerr, the group’s chief executive. “This is really a new generation in oceanography.”

Slightly more than a year after moving in, Ocean Alliance is realizing its plans to restore the historic waterfront property, long considered an icon of Gloucester’s maritime industry; develop advanced robotic research tools; and become an educational resource for the community.

A robotics lab, which arrived in July, provides the alliance and its partner, Needham’s Olin College of Engineering, the space and tools to develop drones for whale research.

The lab is housed in a converted shipping container once used as a pop-up retail shop by the athletic-wear company Puma. Situated in the alliance parking lot, the container is lined with wood floors and walls; a large parallelogram-shaped window breaks up the front wall.

The space will make it easier for the alliance and Olin to continue work on the drone they affectionately call the SnotBot. This small, automated copter is intended to fly close enough to whales that it can collect samples of the creatures’ blowhole spray to be analyzed for bacteria, DNA, and hormones.

The lab will be outfitted with tools such as soldering irons, 3-D printers, and drone flight simulators to help engineers and students create more reliable, durable, and effective robots. The goal is to create an affordable, easy-to-use drone that can collect data and transmit the information to a computer on land or on a ship. And it must be easy to fly.

“Our ultimate goal is to build an autonomous air vehicle that a sleep-deprived, seasick person can operate,” said Andrew Bennett, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin. “Having a trained roboticist on site with you shouldn’t be necessary.”

Once the technology is developed, Bennett said, it will have plenty of marine science applications beyond whale research. He has already started talking with other groups interested in using the drones to track tuna populations and survey oyster reefs, he said.

Eventually, Kerr intends to start a robotics club that would provide instruction and encouragement to adults and students interested in learning more about the field.

“The idea is to support STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education,” Kerr said.

Even as it gets the new lab up and running, Ocean Alliance is also working on the restoration of the paint factory. The seven buildings – built in the 1870s – were once home to the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory, which produced barnacle-resistant copper paint for use on boats.

The company closed in the 1980s and the buildings – some clad in brick, others in decaying clapboards – stood vacant for 30 years. Bricks cracked, clapboards began to chip and rot, on the side of the building the white words “Copper Paint” faded.

In 2008, Ocean Alliance bought the property for $2 million, helped by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Initial renovations had to be completed before the group was able to move in.

Over the years, the paint production process caused significant contamination to the property. Kerr, however, sees the situation as a chance for Ocean Alliance to contribute even more to its environmental mission by cleaning up the land.

“It’s exciting that this is a polluted site,” he said.

Thus far, the alliance has refurbished one of the buildings, a sturdy brick structure that now houses its administrative offices. Inside, the space is light, open and modern, with decorations of a decidedly cetacean bent: orca paintings, whale carvings, antique whaling maps.

The restoration of the factory’s 60-foot chimney has just been completed as well, and work has begun on a second building.

Another $4 million will be needed to achieve the remaining renovations at the site, Kerr said. Two of the structures were too dilapidated to be restored and have been razed. The group plans to build new structures of the same dimensions in their place.

Kerr promises to keep the buildings as true to their history as possible. “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep the outside as iconic as we can,” he said.

He hopes to have renovations complete and a dock built by next spring.

The city has embraced Ocean Alliance. With the ongoing decline of the fishing industry, city leaders have been looking for ways to keep the Gloucester waterfront active and thriving. They are encouraging traditional uses, such as seafood processing and tourism, as well as newer industries such as marine science and technology.

Ocean Alliance’s plans to both restore a historic property and encourage scientific innovation on the waterfront are a perfect match for these goals, said Gloucester community development director Tom Daniel.

“The fact that they’re taking an iconic property and putting it back into productive use and restoring it is kind of icing on the cake,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 3, 2014. Click here for the story and a photo gallery.

Next-gen urban farms: 10 innovative projects from around the world

Lufa2

Photo: Lufa Farms

Many shoppers like the idea of buying local. After all, it can mean fresher and healthier foods, stronger local economies, direct contact with food producers and in some cases — but not always — lower carbon emissions.

But most of us have only a few options for participating in the local food movement: visiting the farmers market or signing up for a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription. As the movement continues to grow and evolve, however, social entrepreneurs are experimenting with novel ways to make local agriculture an integral part of urban life.

Here are 10 of the most intriguing projects currently underway:

GrowUp Box, London, UK

GrowUp1

Photo: GrowUp Urban Farms

Kate Hofman and Tom Webster are giving new meaning to the phrase “box lunch” with their reinvented shipping container, the GrowUp Box.

Inside the 20-foot container, tilapia are farmed in tanks specially designed to ensure the fish enough room to grow, while on top, greens are cultivated in vertical columns. The water from the tilapia tanks circulates through the columns, where the fish waste provides nourishment to about 400 plants. The fish and greens are sold to area restaurants.

The project’s parent company, GrowUp Urban Farms, consults with people looking to build their own boxes and is set to start building the first commercial-scale aquaponics farm in London soon, Hofman said.

Beacon Food Forest, Seattle, Washington, US

Opening to the public this spring, the Beacon Food Forest in Seattle is turning a piece of public land into an edible forest garden.

Residents will be welcome to forage in the forest, a 7-acre plot — adjacent to a city park — featuring fruit and nut trees, a pumpkin patch and dozens of berry bushes. The goal is to mimic a natural ecosystem, creating a space that requires less maintenance and offers higher yields, co-founder Glenn Herlihy says.

Pasona Group, Tokyo, Japan

At the Tokyo headquarters of the Pasona Group, a staffing company, tomatoes dangle from the ceiling, herbs grow fragrantly in meeting rooms and a rice paddy is the lobby centerpiece. The plants are intended to relax employees, encourage innovative thinking about agriculture and create a sense of community as workers tend to the crops. The foods grown in the office are prepared and served in the company cafeteria.

Farmery, North Carolina and TBA, US

Benjamin Greene, founder of the Farmery, plans to make the journey from farm to store more efficient by eliminating it almost entirely. The Farmery will be an 8,000-square-foot market with food shopping on the lower level and mushrooms, greens and fruits growing on the upper level. Whatever is not grown on site will be sourced locally.

A smaller, Kickstarter-funded prototype — what Greene calls “a souped-up produce stand” — is currently in operation in Durham, North Carolina, and the first full-scale store is coming this fall, Greene says. The location, however, is being kept under wraps for now.

Sky Greens, Lim Chu Kang area, Singapore

Singapore, one of the most densely populated nations in the world, has little room available for farming. So inventor and entrepreneur Jack Ng created the Sky Greens system to grow more food in less space. Think of it as a plant skyscraper.

The equipment holds up to 32 trays of greens — including lettuce, spinach and a variety of Asian greens — on a tall, narrow A-frame structure. The plants slowly rotate, as if on a Ferris wheel, so each tray gets sufficient exposure to sunlight.

Sky Greens, which launched commercial operations in October 2012, harvests and delivers vegetables to Singaporean markets every day.

Brooklyn Grange, Brooklyn, New York, US

The Brooklyn Grange comprises two and a half acres of growing space high atop a pair of office buildings. “We’re looking at ways to increase food production without increasing agricultural footprint,” spokeswoman Anastasia Plakias says.

The operation grows more than 50,000lbs of food each year, which it sells through farmers markets, CSA subscriptions and wholesale accounts. In addition to boosting New York City’s local food supply, the farm also absorbs more than 1m gallons of stormwater every year, reducing the load the city’s systems must manage.

Deu Horta Na Telha, São Paulo, Brazil

After 30 years of building urban gardens in São Paulo, agricultural technician Marcos Victorino started running out of cultivable land. As part of his research work at local college Faculdade Cantareira, he designed a way to turn roofs, balconies and paved areas across the city into miniature farms. Victorino turns large roof tiles upside down, creating a long, V-shaped trough that can be filled with soil.

These tile beds are elevated, making them easily accessible to children and the handicapped. Because the tiles are watertight, they hold in moisture, allowing growers to make the most of an increasingly limited water supply.

Prinzessinnengarten, Berlin, Germany

The Prinzessinnengarten is an urban farm nestled in the shadow of the former Berlin Wall, between unused subway stops, graffiti-ed concrete walls and aging apartment blocks. Inside vine-covered fences grows a wide range of vegetables, all planted in easy-to-move containers — recycled Tetra Paks, rice sacks, and plastic crates — that allow the entire operation to be moved if needed. Visitors can pick vegetables, learn about seed harvesting and vegetable pickling, or visit the café to enjoy snacks made from the garden’s produce.

UrbanOrganics

Photo: Urban Organics

Urban Organics, St. Paul, Minnesota, US

Located in a building formerly occupied by a commercial brewery, Urban Organics is an aquaponics operation that provides salad greens and fish to grocery stores and restaurants using just 2% of the water of conventional agriculture. Founder Fred Haberman, CEO of Minneapolis marketing agency Haberman, hopes the for-profit farm will prove the commercial viability of aquaponics and help spur economic development in the area. “If we can do that, I believe you’ll see more of these types of facilities popping up,” he said.

Lufa Farms, Montreal, Canada

The goal of Lufa Farms in Montreal is to create a “local food engine”, says the company’s greenhouse director Lauren Rathmell.

At the heart of the operation are two sprawling rooftop greenhouses — currently totaling 1.75 acres — that produce a range of vegetables: greens and herbs, peppers and eggplants. The produce is packaged with locally sourced goods like handmade pastas, fresh bread and dark baking chocolate, and delivered to approximately 4,000 customers each week.

And the business isn’t stopping there: It has two more greenhouses in the works.

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on July 2, 2014. Click here to see the original and a lot more awesome urban farm photos. Do it. It’s worth it.

How many women authors do you read?

By many measures, the publishing world has a gender problem.

Major magazines, newspapers and literary journals overwhelmingly review more books by men than by women, and more men are writing those reviews, according to the VIDA Count, an annual tally of women’s representation in major publications. For example, just 20 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Review of Books last year — 80 out of 387 — were by women.

ReadWomen

And women in the industry report being treated differently than their male counterparts. Lionel Shriver, for example, reports being pressured to use “shy” titles and “gauzy” cover art in an attempt to heighten her often-dark books’ appeal to women.

“An aggregate of women’s voices — and these are the voices of well established, prize-winning writers — is saying that there is something wrong with the way their writing can be perceived, for no reason other than that they are women,” says London-based writer and illustrator Joanna Walsh.

And so Walsh launched the ReadWomen2014 campaign, a growing online effort aimed at rallying readers to explore books by women throughout this year. The project includes a Twitter account, @ReadWomen2014, where Walsh retweets news, links and ideas about female authors, as well as a hashtag, #readwomen2014, that interested readers can use to find recommendations and opinions.

The goal, Walsh says, is not to put a quota on people’s reading lists, but to encourage readers to consciously choose books with diverse perspectives, to think about who they are reading and why.

“I’m not so sure it’s possible, or desirable, to read ‘gender-blind’,” says Walsh, whose short story collection, “Fractals,” was released last fall. “One of the pleasures of writing (and reading) has long been the exploration of culture and identity.”

Thus, in the spirit of the campaign, we have gathered the thoughts and recommendations of a handful of local folks whose work immerses them in the literary world.

Cotuit Library director Jennie Wiley has embraced ReadWomen2014. The library has a display dedicated to the campaign, where a rotating lineup of books by female authors is highlighted. Throughout the library, signs featuring images of women writers explain the campaign, Wiley says.

She doesn’t want the library’s patrons to forsake male authors entirely, she says; she just wants to encourage them to read something they might have overlooked before.

“I would never tell people to only read one thing,” Wiley says. “Any reason to read something new, I am 100 percent behind.”

Wiley is an avid fan of science fiction and horror, genres in which women can have an even harder time getting recognized, she says. Among her top picks is N.K. Jemisin’s debut novel, “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms,” a fantasy in which a young woman unexpectedly finds herself in a brutal power struggle for the throne. Wiley also recommends author Elizabeth Kostova’s books “The Historian” — about a young woman searching for the true story of Dracula — and “The Swan Thieves” – about a psychiatrist obsessed with solving an historical art mystery.

Matthew Neill Null, the writing coordinator at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and a fiction author himself, believes that much of the gender bias in the literary world comes from publishers rather than readers.

“Readers are willing to read all sorts of different things,” he says. “I think it’s kind of an artificial thing from the publishing industry.”

The Fine Arts Work Center, he notes, has long supported the work of female authors; such notable writers as Jhumpa Lahiri (“Interpreter of Maladies”), Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”), and poet Louise Glück have been fellows at the center. Null’s recommendations for must-read books by women are drawn from the works of center alumni. They are all, he says, “powerful, hypnotic works.”

“Quiet Dell,” a fictional account of a real-life serial killer, is a “great new novel” by Jayne Ann Phillips, who was a fellow in 1979 and 1980, Null says. He also suggests poet Lucie Brock-Broido’s newest collection “Stay, Illusion,” a finalist for the National Book Award. Another top pick: “The Orchardist,” by 2008-2009 fellow Amanda Coplin, a novel that follows a makeshift family formed by two orphans and the fruit-grower who takes them in.

Cape Cod’s local literary scene may have fewer problems with the gender divide, says Elizabeth Moisan, organizer of a writing group at the Brooks Public Library in Harwich and founder of A Book in the Hand, a series of monthly readings by area authors. In fact, Moisan says she has far more women than men reading at her events.

“The Cape literary scene is very open,” says Moisan, author of “Master of the Sweet Trade,” a novel, centered on an 18th-century pirate and his love for the woman he left behind.

Moisan recommends “Defiant Brides,” a dual biography of prominent Revolutionary-era woman written by Nancy Rubin Stuart, executive director of the Cape Cod Writers Center. Also on Moisan’s list are the “Baby Boomer Mystery” books by Susan Santangelo, a series of murder mysteries including the latest installment “Class Reunions Can Be Murder.”

Even if readers decide to go back to male-centric book selections after 2014, Walsh says, spending some time consciously choosing to explore women’s works is worth the effort.

“Read with awareness,” she says. “Explore what’s on offer, then decide.”

More recommendations

  • Joanna Walsh, ReadWomen2014 founder: “I’d read anything by Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, Lydia Davis, Elfriede Jelinek, Deborah Levy, Anne Carson, Christine Brooke-Rose, Denise Riley, Chris Kraus, Mary Gaitskill and many others.”
  • Sarah Shemkus: “Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,” by Megan Marshall, is a thorough and fascinating biography of an unconventional woman who was Emerson’s friend, Thoreau’s editor, a pioneering feminist, and the country’s first female war correspondent. And anything and everything by Margaret Atwood.
  • Melanie Lauwers, Cape Cod Times Books editor: Ditto on Margaret Atwood, plus Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, Geraldine Brooks, Louise Erdrich, Shirley Jackson, Edith Wharton, and hundreds more.

Looking for more names? You can start at Wikipedia for a long list and go from there.

This story first ran in the Cape Cod Times on April 13, 2014.

Why are food activists targeting Honey Nut Cheerios?

The GMO Inside campaign wants to get genetically modified organisms out of the US food system. So it’s starting where we all start: breakfast.

The campaign, a coalition of businesses and nonprofit organizations, is taking aim at the popular breakfast cereal Honey Nut Cheerios, pressing producer General Mills to remove anything that could even potentially be genetically modified. Citing concerns about environmental degradation, corporate control of agriculture and food safety, the group is encouraging consumers to sign an online petition and to contact the company on social media and by email to express their opposition to GMOs.

GMO2

“We’re not going to give up on Honey Nut Cheerios until we succeed,” Nicole McCann, director of food campaigns for Green America, an environmental nonprofit that is part of the campaign, said. “All of our followers are putting pressure on them.”

The GMO Inside campaign also owns two shares of General Mills stock, which has allowed spokespeople to attend shareholders meetings and raise questions about the use of genetically engineered ingredients.

This effort is a follow-up to a previous GMO Inside campaign that targeted the original Cheerios, an initiative the group says generated 25,000 emails and 40,000 calls for action on the brand‘s Facebook page. In January, General Mills announced that it no longer uses GMOs in classic Cheerios. The company did not acknowledge the effect of any of the anti-GMO campaigns, but rather explained on a company blog that it made the change because “we think consumers may embrace it”.

Genetically modified foods are plants whose genetic code has been engineered to select for certain traits: yield, pesticide resistance, color. They are worrisome for several reasons, said McCann. Their widespread use is causing a decline in crop diversity, leaving our food supply more vulnerable to disaster, she and others argue.

Furthermore, strains engineered to withstand pesticides can lead to more liberal use of such chemicals, potentially causing environmental damage, they say. There is also concern that changing a plant’s genetic codes could make them unsafe for consumption in the long-term; opponents say GMOs might increase the risk of allergies, digestive issues and organ damage.

The crops most likely to be genetically modified include alfalfa, canola, corn, soy and sugar beets. But the principal ingredient of both regular and Honey Nut Cheerios is oats, a plant that is not genetically modified. The components that most concern GMO opponents are ingredients used in much smaller amounts: sugar, corn starch and vitamin E, which can be derived from soy. So why is GMO Inside campaign targeting these products?

In part, precisely because these foods have so few GMO ingredients, making a change much more feasible than for products more heavily dependent on genetically engineered ingredients, said campaign director Elizabeth O’Connell. Also, the popularity of Honey Nut Cheerios – the country’s best-selling cereal – means a small change in its ingredients could send an outsized message.

“They’re not the lone bad actors,” O’Connell said. But “if they changed, they could have a big impact.”

In January, Post Foods also announced that it had removed GMOs from one of its signature cereals, Grape-Nuts. The Kellogg’s-owned Kashi brand has been removing GMOs from its cereals since early 2012; today 11 of its 25 Kashi cold cereals are certified GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit group that verifies such claims.

The US cold breakfast cereal industry generates about $10.1bn annually and more than 91% of households buy cold cereal, according to market research firm Mintel. This high market penetration has made cereal a rich target for those looking to effect widespread change in the use of genetically modified ingredients.

GMO Inside is also targeting Chobani, the country’s leading brand of Greek yogurt, which it says uses dairy products that may come from cows raised on genetically modified feed.

So far, General Mills has resisted making other Cheerios varieties GMO-free, contending on its website that it was the “unique and simple nature of original Cheerios” that allowed the company to keep it free of GMOs. Other versions of the cereal have more ingredients that could be genetically modified, and thus it would be “difficult, if not impossible” to make the switch.

The company also argues that health concerns about government-approved GMO ingredients are unwarranted, noting that there is “broad consensus among major global scientific and regulatory bodies” that such foods do not pose a threat. The US Food and Drug Administration and the United Nations World Health Organization have both expressed the belief that approved GMOs are safe for human consumption.

Supporters of genetically engineered crops also argue that these techniques can improve crop production and yields, helping reduce global food shortages.

GMO Inside, however, argues that the potential problems associated with genetic modifications are very real. And if General Mills could remove GMO ingredients from classic Cheerios, it is feasible to remove these ingredients from other cereals as well, O’Connell said.

“It might be slightly more complicated, but not impossible,” she said. “They just need to get the right amount of consumer demand.”

This story originally ran on theguardian.com.

Latest in farm fresh products: We deliver

LEXINGTON — When Amanda Bosh goes grocery shopping, it’s all about super fresh apples, artisan cheese, free-range chicken, and organic Brussels sprouts.

But Bosh doesn’t get these products at an upscale supermarket. Instead, she heads to a local private school, where she will pick up the best quality meat, dairy, fruit, and vegetables.

Bosh’s bounty, packed tight into a reusable grocery bag, comes courtesy of Farmers to You, a company that delivers to Boston area consumers direct from Vermont farms. In addition to drop-off sites such as the Waldorf School of Lexington, the company offers home delivery in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, and a few suburban communities.

Farmers to You is one of several area companies expanding the local food movement beyond farmers markets and trendy restaurants, tapping into the growing demand by consumers to know and understand the source of their food. Some businesses, like Farmers to You, deliver from farm to fridge. Others add another stop and more convenience, by preparing local farm products as ready-to-eat meals. Still others connect New England farms to institutional food services, such as school cafeterias.

Farmers to You, based in Calais, Vt., was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Something GUD, a Somerville startup, works on a similar model, sourcing foods from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island and delivering them to pickup sites and homes from Quincy to Newburyport.

Prices are comparable to what a shopper would pay at Whole Foods for similar items, the company founders said. For example, a gallon of organic skim milk is about $6 both through Something GUD and at Whole Foods.

The difference: Most of the money spent with these local food businesses goes to the farmers and artisans producing the food.

Greg Georgaklis, the founder of Farmers to You, estimates the farms with which the company partners receive about 65 cents for each dollar customers pay. On average, farmers nationally get just 15.5 cents per dollar spent by consumers in supermarkets, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

“My vision of the future would be that 50 percent of food that’s bought is bought somehow directly through farmers,” Georgaklis said.

Farmers to You delivers to about 480 families that spend an average of $65 each week. The company estimates it will turn a profit when it signs up 600 families, which it expects to do by spring.

At Cuisine en Locale in Somerville, owner JJ Gonson turns local foods into frozen meals that are delivered weekly to the company’s 35 customers.

Each delivery includes about 10 pounds of prepared food, about enough to provide four meals for two adults. At $145 per week, the service costs about the same as getting takeout a few times a week, Gonson said.

Farmers to You was founded in 2009 with the dual mission of supporting farms and food producers in Vermont and improving the access of Boston area consumers to fresh farm products. Among the products it delivers to Boston area customers, organic ice cream, maple syrup, eggs, and apple butter.

Gonson uses only fresh foods produced within a 100-mile radius of Boston, never using ingredients, such as lemons, that can’t be grown here. She estimates her sales last year generated about $150,000 in revenues for area farmers, and she expects that to double in the coming year.

“We don’t even own a can opener, nor a lemon reamer,” she said.

The business evolved from Gonson’s work as a personal chef. The company operated out of shared commercial kitchens around the Boston area for the first seven years, but moved into its own space about a month ago after buying Anthony’s function hall in Somerville.

Rather than focusing on individual consumers, FoodEx in Roxbury serves institutional buyers – school districts, universities, hospitals.

JD Kemp, the chief executive and cofounder, wants to reach what he describes as “the other 90 percent of the market” – people who don’t go out of their way to pursue local food.

FoodEx secures commitments from institutions to buy produce, eggs, and dairy from farmers throughout the Northeast. The company’s customers include about 40 universities, school districts, and individual high schools.

FoodEx runs its own trucks and warehouse. This distribution system cuts out several steps — and costs — in the supply chain, which means farmers get above average prices while buyers pay the same as or less than they pay to conventional suppliers, Kemp said.

“We’re unique in this area – and perhaps in the country,” Kemp said, “because we are focused on wholesale and trying to find solutions that go beyond the individual consumer.”

This story originally ran in The Boston Globe on December 6, 2014. Click here to read the story and see photos and graphics.