The Farm Next Door: An EDC Start-up Brings 'Hyperlocal' Produce to Urban Centers with Vertical Hydroponics Technology

Hanni Abukhater '14, City-Hydroponics' principal mechanical engineer, assembles a Vertically Oriented Hydroponic System at NJIT's Enterprise Development Center.

The trim brick building at the corner of Warren and Willow Streets, with its industrial corridors and beehive of offices, seems an unlikely location for a vegetable farm. But duck into Suite 203 on the complex’s second floor and behold: an eight-foot-tall rotating apparatus, densely packed with troughs of lettuces, herbs, and other leafy greens, towers over the room’s sparse furnishings.

This is City-Hydroponics, a start-up venture at NJIT’s Enterprise Development Center that aims to add the prefix ‘hyper’ to the term local produce, delivering freshly grown food through vertical farming to urban centers from the company’s home base in Newark, N.J. to the developing world.

What distinguishes the company’s Vertically Oriented Hydroponic System (VOHS), as the technology is called, from others in the arena, is both its efficient use of space and its adaptability to virtually any setting – from indoors to outdoors, rooftops to basements. The VOHS (patent-pending) is self-contained, with built-in infrastructure that controls all aspects of the plants’ growth, including the amount of water, the color and intensity of light, and the concentration of nutrients they receive. The electrically powered troughs rotate vertically from high to low like a rotisserie oven, increasing the plants’ rate of transpiration and encouraging them to grow faster.

“Hydroponic troughs are usually laid out horizontally, but in the city, it makes sense to go up, to use the volume to grow,” explains Matthew Moghaddam, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “With our system, we can produce nine times more produce than the typical hydroponic farm. For example, what would be cultivated in a 45,000-sq.-ft. climate-controlled warehouse, we can grow in a 5,000-sq.-ft. foot space pretty much anywhere. The idea is to produce food that can be distributed within sight of where it is grown – we retrofit to the existing space.”

Over the past several months, VOHS systems have sprung up in prominent locations in the region, from Chelsea Market, a local craft food emporium in Manhattan, to the former Pfizer building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a center for start-up food businesses, to Page, a farm-to-table restaurant in Sag Harbor, Long Island. The system has also been incorporated into the science curriculums of several public schools in New York City, including New Beginnings Charter School in Bushwick, Brooklyn and Urban Academy and NEST + M (New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math) in Manhattan, through the collaboration of the non-profit group New York Sun Works. The company is planning demonstrations at Liberty Science Center and other New Jersey locations later this year.

“We work with teachers to train and support them, and then the technology becomes theirs to use in a variety of STEM classes. From our standpoint, there is a value in connecting urban kids to their food – from seed to harvest – that they can eat in the dining hall and bring home,” Moghaddam says. “So far, in these and other settings, we’ve grown every kind of lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, bok choy, watercress, basil, oregano, and microgreens such as baby broccoli. We’re starting trials of strawberries, jalapenos and eggplants.”

City-Hydroponic’s principal mechanical engineer is Hanni Abukhater '14, who was hired as an intern the second semester of his junior year and kept on following his graduation in December as the business took off.

“I oversee all aspects of R&D particular to the VOHS, optimizing the system’s design by shrinking the amount of space it takes up while maximizing the number of plants it can hold, researching components and figuring out ways to lower both the costs of the frame and the production time, and improving ease of maintenance,” says Abukhater, who is currently finalizing plans for the commercial system the company plans to mass market.

“I conceived the system and Hanni has made it functional. He brings real technical know-how and mechanical engineering expertise to the enterprise, but he’s also a dreamer and a developer, an innovative guy whose input has led to valuable improvements,” Moghaddam says. (Pictured, left.)

The potential for vertical farming first struck Moghaddam five years ago while he was an undergraduate majoring in business management and environmental studies at Ithaca College in upstate New York and developed an interest in hydroponics. But inspiration and strategy did not coalesce until three years ago when he met Sandra Rodriguez, the company’s CEO, just as he was writing a business plan for a hydroponics farm and she was looking for ways to improve lives in Newark. Her husband Joe Rodriguez, president and CEO of M.E.R.I.T., is a tenant at the incubator.

"I wanted to do something that would help other people in a lasting way. I liked the idea of bringing farms close to homes, where everything could be fresh," she recounts.

The EDC functions as its own ecosystem for City-Hydroponics. Joe Rodriguez is the company’s main investor. Vadim Gordon of Gordon Intellectual Property, also a tenant, is the company’s attorney. The extruded components for the company’s demonstration model were fabricated in NJIT’s machine shop. Moghaddam found Abukhater by advertising on the NJIT campus for an intern.

The start-up’s R&D is evolving with its mission. Earlier this month, the company assembled its first multi-unit system in its new showroom in the old Pfizer building. The system pulls together like library stacks, using every cubic inch to grow, and by sharing resources, operates more economically, Moghaddam says.

The commercial version of City-Hydroponics' apparatus is being made out of sheet metal, which is less expensive and can be stamped anywhere in the world.

“We can produce and assemble our technology within miles of its final installed location,” Abukhater explains.

The company is still interested in developing farms, but its main goal now is to provide the technology, the design-build capability, and the management know-how that will allow others to be farmers, the founders say.

“We are eliminating spillage in the fields and the high costs associated with premium produce, including transportation, and working with clients, large and small, to localize food production whether for their own use or to make available to wholesale and retail markets,”  Moghaddam  says. “We hope in the not-too-distant future that farming is actualized on a block-by-block basis to provide healthy food, local jobs and close-knit communities where they don’t exist today.”