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Energy & Sustainability

The Fishy Business of Urban Aquaponics

Grace Phillips Ogilby

Research Manager, 1776

There’s a new shark tank in town. It’s filled with tilapia instead of nervous contestants, but it’s far more friendly to entrepreneurs.

These tanks are part of new urban aquaponics systems that are taking the food tech scene by storm. Like fish out of water, urban aquaponics startups have been leaping to life in the most unexpected places, including warehouses in Brooklyn, New York and downtown Washington, D.C., where startups are combining aquaponics and vertical farming technologies to produce large amounts of fresh produce (think basil, lettuce, kale and other greens) in small, enclosed urban spaces.

Aquaponics technology allows farmers to create closed growing systems in urban environments. Here’s how they work: farmed fish create waste that farmers use as nutrients for hydroponically grown plants (plants grown in nutrient rich water rather than soil). Plants then purify the water which can be recycled back for the fish. When combined with vertical farming, a practice where food is grown indoors in vertically stacked layers fueled by LED lighting, these systems require far fewer resources than traditional farms.

If done right, aquaponics and vertical farming technologies could have massive implications for the price of food in terms of both dollars and resource depletion.

The combination of aquaponics and vertical farming is especially promising in dense urban centers where supply chains for fresh produce are long and expensive. By growing fresh produce blocks away from restaurants and grocery stores for a fraction of the cost of produce trucked in from California or midwestern fields, aquaponics startups are betting that they can undercut current prices and disrupt the food supply chains of big cities.

These are big dreams, but most new aquaponics companies are mere tadpoles in the startup world: only a few have actual systems up and running, and fewer have raised Series A rounds.

However, the nascency of the industry isn’t surprising because aquaponics startups are swimming in relatively uncharted waters for venture capital investing. Vertical farming became a viable business only a few years ago when the price of LED lighting dropped and expertise began emerging around the world from academic institutions, NASA and Antarctic research stations (cilantro garnish with your seal meat, anyone?).

In fact, from the 1776 perspective, the greatest challenge for aspiring aquaponics entrepreneurs is not finding funding: it’s finding a good technical cofounder. Think about the job description: startup seeks farmer with strong background in aquaculture and hydroponics. Candidates must be willing to work in concrete jungle and under LED lights. Little pay. Huge opportunity.

Not many farmers fit these qualifications and want to live the lifestyle of a startup founder in an urban environment. Watch closely the aquaponics companies that have found people to fill these roles — if those startups can bring together the right amount of funding, they have the opportunity to upend the current urban food supply chain so that our produce isn’t shipped an average of 1,500 miles before it ends up on our plates.

Grace Phillips Ogilby

Research Manager, 1776

As 1776's research analyst, Grace digs deep into 1776's proprietary data sets and pairs them with insights from the 1776 community of startups, investors, mentors, experts, policymakers and institutions. Grace…