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Sustainability

Five New York Sustainability Companies To Watch

36creative
Volition

Next week, we’ll celebrate Earth Day, and as the climate threats facing our city and country grow more urgent, the New York tech sector is reacting by building businesses that put sustainability at the center — and help other organizations of all kinds do the same.

A budding component of our community includes new green tech, biotech, and life sciences startups — and together with the expansion of Alexandria’s biotech campus on the East Side, NYC’s $500 million investment in life sciences startups and incubator programs, and the expected passage of New York’s “own Green New Deal,” NYC is proving itself both a local and  global leader in sustainability.

In honor of Earth Day — and the ways we can all support a healthy planet — here’s five New York companies that are building technology-forward solutions to transform agriculture, waste and recycling, and more.

INDUSTRIAL/ORGANIC

What does your company do?
Industrial/Organic co-founder and CEO Amanda Weeks: Industrial/Organic is reimagining what is possible with food waste. Our solution cycles nutrients back into products, allowing for full utilization of the components of wasted food. Our products — which range from personal care ingredients to livestock and poultry nutraceuticals — prove that food waste is a useful resource.

Why did you found your company in NYC?
AW: I grew up on Staten Island, not far from the Fresh Kills landfill. I wanted to create a better solution to how New York handles its waste.

Humans have been collecting and disposing of waste for thousands of years, and yet there have been relatively few advancements in waste management systems. Why do you think that is?
AW: I think there are a number of reasons. Waste has traditionally been viewed as a costly problem (both economically and environmentally) rather than an opportunity. It’s a relatively capital intensive industry so has not been a prime target for venture capital. In addition, waste streams are regulated to ensure that they don’t harm the environment or human health, which has meant strict oversight and controls on the owners, transporters and processors of waste.

Your product roadmap ranges from household cleaners to fuel cells, and from personal care to animal feed. With so many potential opportunities for growth, how do you make sure you scale with purpose?
AW: Our product development research is focused on cycling the nutrients from food waste back into beneficial products for humans, whether it be for personal use or cycled back into the food system. While we believe that a certain degree of flexibility is important to enable us to respond to market demand, we maintain as a core value the ability to produce safer and cleaner products for our customers.

You famously secured your first round of funding by sending Charlie O’Donnell a cold email. It worked for you – would you recommend that strategy to other founders?
AW: Charlie in particular is someone who tries to make himself available, and cares about opening up the insular nature of warm intros. So that strategy unfortunately wouldn’t be as effective for the average VC. What I will say, though, is that I did a bunch of research on him and my email was highly personalized.

The end of 2018 saw you close a round that brought your total rasied to $4 million – congratulations! What role do you see venture playing as issues of sustainability continue to demand importance and recognition?
AW: Venture plays a hugely important role in supporting startups that are building sustainable businesses. Private equity provides access to capital where traditional financing channels may not be available, as well as technical knowledge, management skills, industry relationships… the list goes on. Of course, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship and sustainable startups create more value — whether it be financial, social, environmental — and there are more funds that are looking at the big picture.

You’re a woman in tech, a woman in agriculture, and a woman in waste. You’ve spoken about experiencing unconscious bias before — do you think it’s getting any better?
AW: It’s something I am highly attuned to and probably notice even more than I used to, so it’s hard to say. Definitely less overt, but no less present.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
AW: I don’t have a favorite pizza slice, but the patio at Roberta’s is pretty nice.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
AW: I also don’t have a favorite bagel. Obviously, I could never run for mayor.

What is the best New York waterfront?
AW: Brooklyn Bridge Park.

What’s your favorite New York building?
AW: Red Hook Grain Terminal.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
AW: Two Hands in Tribeca, Brooklyn Roasting Company in DUMBO, Joseph Leonard in the West Village, and ABCV at Union Square.

What’s one thing to help the planet every New Yorker should do on Earth Day?
AW: Avoid single-use plastic.

Straws: paper, plastic, or metal?
AW: Metal.

What does sustainability mean to you?
AW: I think that sustainability is circular — it’s about creating systems that regenerate rather than deplete, where what is previously wasted instead becomes a valuable resource.

BOWERY FARMING

What does your company do?
Bowery co-founder and CEO Irving Fain: Bowery is the modern farming company growing food for a better future by revolutionizing agriculture. Bowery combines the benefits of the best local farms with advances made possible by technology to grow produce consumers can feel good about eating. BoweryOS, our proprietary software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7. Because we control the entire process from seed to store, Bowery farms use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100+ times more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture.

Why did you found your company in NYC?
IF: By 2050, 70 to 80 percent of the approximately 10 billion people on earth will be living in and around cities. At Bowery, we fundamentally believe in reinventing the fresh food supply chain by locating our farms in and around cities so that produce can be grown closer to the point of consumption. We felt New York City, the largest city in the country and one of the most urbanized areas of the world, would be the perfect place to put our thesis to work. As we continue to expand to more cities around the world, we’ll be able to serve even more people in urban areas, where there is currently little being done to improve access to healthy food.

What brought you to New York?
IF: I graduated college and joined an investment bank where I helped advise later stage companies on raising private capital. As many people do who find themselves working in finance post-college, I moved to NYC for the job. After my two years in investment banking, I spent a year traveling the world and surfing.  Although I had a strong pull towards a few places where I spent time along the way, I ultimately returned to NY. There is an incredible energy and diversity of experience in NYC that’s hard to find anywhere else. This richness of industries and people creates an incredible community and place to be an entrepreneur. It’s been amazing to watch the tech community specifically grow and develop in the last 10+ years. And it feels like it’s only getting started.

You helped opened the floodgates for agtech becoming part of the mainstream technology conversation. In the last two years, vertical farming alone has secured more than $1 billion in funding. How did you get players to pivot from betting on technology to betting on agriculture? What advice would you give to innovators looking to disrupt spaces that sorely need it?
IF: I wouldn’t say that we got players to “pivot” away from tech and toward agriculture, but rather that technology and agriculture have always been deeply intertwined in one manner or another.

We started Bowery with the belief that technology is central to finding solutions to many of the world’s global issues. Technology is fundamental to our business, and core to our thesis around rethinking the fresh food supply chain in a scalable, safe, and sustainable way. From the beginning, we have focused on developing the BoweryOS, a proprietary system that functions as the brains of our network of farms. Today, the BoweryOS has the ability to precisely and autonomously control and analyze every factor that influences the growth of our crops, making Bowery’s farms the most highly controllable, automated farms in the world. This precision and efficiency allows us to grow large quantities of the highest quality, local, sustainable produce, without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. We’re thrilled that food industry leaders, investors and consumers now better understand that using technology in this way will help feed our growing population on a global scale.

My advice for innovators looking to solve global issues is twofold. The first is something we always say at Bowery: believe a better future is possible. It’s crucial to leverage the naivete and optimism that you’re able to enjoy as an entrepreneur. While it sounds simple, the conviction required to tackle problems at this scale and in entrenched industries is critical. Finding that balance is key. It’s a mistake to ignore decades of hard-fought lessons and experience in the name of disruption. That said, it’s equally easy to become bogged down in legacy reasons of why something isn’t possible so don’t lose that sense that a better future is possible!

My second piece of advice is to do the research and constantly refine your thesis. When I started Bowery, no vertical farming company had previously succeeded at scale and so we knew we had to tackle this challenge from a first principles basis. We took over a year and a half constantly testing, researching, and iterating on our thesis to find the right model and technological approach to the problem of how to supply cities with fresh food in a more efficient and sustainable way.

In December, GV led a $95 million investment round in Bowery. You plan to use the capital to open warehouse farms in cities across the country. What’s next?
IF: Our goal is to open more farms in new cities to give people access to fresher, safer, more sustainable produce. We plan on using the funds to continue tackling complex agricultural and environmental issues through investing in technology and innovation across the company, maintaining the highest level of food safety and hiring top talent.

2018 was a big year for agricultural legislation. The Agriculture Improvement Act calls for the establishment of a USDA Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production. Where do you see policy going in the future? How do you see agtech helping to shape it?
IF: By including indoor agriculture production in public agricultural research, education and extension activities, the Agriculture Improvement Act (or Farm Bill) can create new opportunities for us to test ideas and techniques that will lead to more productive and sustainable agriculture. This builds on how Bowery and other indoor farming companies are investing our own resources in research and development to scale and become American leaders in indoor agriculture. We see tremendous potential for our industry to work with public and private researchers to deliver new insights and innovations that benefit all types of agriculture.

Part of Bowery’s mission is to democratize access to high-quality, fresh food. Where would you like to see the industry move in the next few years to help make that happen? How do you see Bowery playing a part?
IF: There’s a clear need to improve upon the traditional agriculture industry, and I’d like to see locally grown, indoor-grown produce become more mainstream among retailers and consumers.

For Bowery, this means continuing to provide produce more sustainably for urban populations, and we’re excited to have expanded our footprint in the tristate area significantly following the opening of our second farm this past fall. We recently teamed up with Peapod and soon AmazonFresh to expand access to our pesticide-free produce across all New York City boroughs, and our goal is to build Bowery farms in or near every major city in the world to address major global challenges around food supply, environmental degradation and food waste.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
IF: Brickoven Pizza 33, but admittedly I don’t each much pizza these days.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
IF: Murray’s Bagels.

What’s your favorite New York building?
IF: Grand Central — the main hall is amazing.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
IF: In the early days, I did a lot of meetings at Fika as I was starting Bowery.

What’s one thing to help the planet every New Yorker should do on Earth Day?
IF: Pick up some trash that you see on the street and don’t take any plastic bags. And do this every day; not just on Earth Day!

Straws: paper, plastic, or metal?
IF: Paper.

What does sustainability mean to you?
IF: To me, sustainability means understanding our planet’s resources are incredibly precious, and that we all must work together to find innovative solutions to provide for a better future.

HOWGOOD

What does your company do?
HowGood co-founder and CEO Alexander Gillett: HowGood is a mission-based research company that powers sustainability solutions for brands, retailers, and consumers. We make it easier for consumers to get the real story behind their food and personal care, and for brands and retailers to make smart, sustainability-minded sourcing, processing, and business decisions

Why did you found your company in NYC?
AG: NYC is the pillar of diversity and opportunity, so it was an obvious decision. Also, half of our team is based in the Hudson Valley, which keeps us close to the farming community. They like to say they keep us honest.

You’ve been leading HowGood for almost thirteen years. You’ve come a long way since then, and so has how society views their environmental and social impact. How have you seen consumers change, and what are you still waiting for?
AG: Consumers — especially millennials — are so much more plugged in. They are far more willing to put in the time and effort to find products that align with their personal values. We saw it with the HowGood sustainability app we launched in 2014, and are seeing it again with our Chrome plug-in for non-toxic cosmetics.

But, with that shift has also come both more complexity and a lack of transparency around labeling, making it harder for responsible shoppers to get the real story behind their food and bath products. 13 years ago, there were two options in the egg aisle: organic or conventional. Now, there can be a dozen different claims, some of which mean something and others which don’t. There’s more optionality, but also a lot less clarity. I’m waiting for the day that companies who don’t offer 100% transparency simply won’t be able to hold on to their market share. The good news is, we’re already significantly trending in that direction.

Often, we think about sustainability as being informed only by how food is grown. You underscore there is so much more to the equation. What are a few other practices that are important, but overlooked, when considering sustainability?
AG: It’s important to keep the real meaning of “sustainable” in mind. I’ve always liked the UN’s definition, which is something that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ In that context, sustainability can apply to social issues, like labor risks involved with farm or factory work, just as easily as environmental. The health of our food system depends upon the individuals at the heart of it, so the way they’re treated is just as critical as the way our land is treated.

Conscientious consumers are aware of a few labels: USDA Organic, Certified Humane, and Rainforest Alliance, among others. Your data sources include more than 350 of these types of certifications. What are some favorites we may not be familiar with? What should we look out for next time we’re shopping?
AG: To continue with the theme of social impact, one of the more established certifications we like to rely on for evaluating food products is Fair for Life. We look to them, along with Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International, to help identify brands that promote healthy working conditions, respect the land, and value local impact.

An up and coming certification that we’re super excited about is the Savory Institute’s “Land to Market.” It will be the first initiative to reward brands going beyond the goal of net-zero and actually bringing added benefit (through supporting farmers practicing carbon sequestration processes, for example) through the production of their products.

Your investors range from big VC names – such as FirstMark Capital – to advocacy foundations – such as Humanity United. You’ve even fundraised from individual angels. Thinking about engagement and inclusion as a form of sustainability, how important do you think it is to diversify your investors? To engage with nonprofit entities?
AG: We rely on our investors to do two things, above all else: to ensure that we are pursuing our founding mission through responsible actions, and to help us fine tune our business model to drive growth. If we can accomplish those, we will have succeeded at what we set out to do, which is to have a positive impact on the environment and our communities. Different groups will offer unique insights into those two arenas, so diversity in our investor base helps us maintain a holistic view of our own company in the same way that we use a holistic lens to look at our food system.

What brought you to New York?
AG: Depends who you ask: both my brother and girlfriend at the time would claim credit. I would say it was the food.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
AG: Roberta’s. I used to live right across the street.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
AG: Murray’s on 13th.

What is the best New York waterfront?
AG: Brooklyn Bridge Park.

What’s your favorite New York building?
AG: Our office is in a 200+ year old glass factory with a cobblestone sidewalk that leads to the waterfront. It’s got its quirks, but will always hold a place in my heart.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
AG: Bakeri in Greenpoint. They do simple really well.

What’s one thing to help the planet every New Yorker should do on Earth Day?
AG: Commit to taking your A/C units out in the winter. It is absolutely mad how much energy is wasted through tiny gaps in the window, and is also a personal pet peeve as a former house painter.

Straws: paper, plastic, or metal?
AG: Doesn’t matter too much as long as you reuse it.

What does sustainability mean to you?
AG: Making sure my one year old son has a good planet to call home.

THE WALLY SHOP

What does your company do?
The Wally Shop founder and CEO Tamara Lim: The Wally Shop is a Brooklyn-based zero waste grocery delivery service offering local farmers market and organic bulk ingredients in all reusable and returnable packaging.

Why did you found your company in NYC?
TL: NYC is one of the trashiest areas in the world. I figured — if we can build a super sustainable infrastructure here, then we can build it anywhere.t

A handful of the companies we’ve spoken with this month have pioneered new ways to tackle waste management. You are the zero-waste delivery service, focused on solving the issue of waste from the supply side. Why groceries?
TL: Everybody needs groceries, and of the amount of plastic waste generated from single use packaging, around one-third comes from food packaging. We want to be that option that’s as convenient, if not more,  than everything that’s wrapped in plastic at your regular grocery store. As is, getting zero-waste groceries often involves visiting a couple different stores and/or markets, remembering to bring your own bags and containers, and the ability to actually carry it all those bags home. The Wally Shop is doing all the hard work and making it super convenient for you.

Before founding the Wally Shop, you worked on a different concept in the waste management space. Earlier, you spent time at Amazon. How has logistics fueled your approach to sustainability?
TL: I’ve taken a lot of what I’ve learned from Amazon like convenience and customer service, and applying it while building The Wally Shop’s foundation. We are constantly looking at ways we can improve our selection, prices, and convenience so that everyone has the best experience possible.

If providing convenient, high-quality, fresh and local groceries is what we do, logistics are how we do it. Operations play a large role in everything we do and are what I spend most of my time on. People have this stigma that sustainability means more expensive but we are trying to break down those barriers. We see what we are doing logistically as simply being more efficient with resources. For example, many delivery services have an empty return trip, we are saying ‘Hey, let’s use that trip to bring reusable packaging back, which adds no added cost to operations but adds value in that we are able to be more sustainable and resource efficient.

Scaling and spreading your footprint runs both in complement and contradiction to your mission of sustainability. The more individuals you can serve, the better – but you also have to be mindful of impact. How are you approaching growing with purpose, whilst maintaining integrity? What advice do you have for founders who may be wrestling with similar challenges?
TL: We build sustainability into everything we do — from choosing reusable packaging over compostable or recyclable packaging, to opting for bike deliveries over car deliveries. We’re very cognizant of the impact every one of our decisions will make. We’ve gotten a lot of messages recently from young entrepreneurs and business owners asking how we’re able to manage, and my biggest piece of advice is to listen to your customer and go with your gut. At the end of the day, we have to be okay with the choices we’re making and I feel like with The Wally Shop we have yet to encounter a problem we haven’t been able to face with sustainability in mind.

When are you coming to Manhattan? And where are you going next?
TL: We want to be in Manhattan before spring is over! After Manhattan, we haven’t yet decided — but we’ve been working on building a community across the country (and even the world) and so many people have been asking us to come to their hometowns! We encourage anyone who is interested in The Wally Shop to sign up on our website with their zip code. Knowing where most of our supporters are will definitely influence wherever we go!

You were conscientious to make sure sustainability was baked into your interactions with the consumer, and not an additional piece of friction. As a consumer yourself, where do you see this idea being applied next?
TL: I don’t want The Wally Shop to be limited just to produce and bulk ingredients. My ultimate goal is to make every food possible available in reusable and returnable packaging. From condiments, to specialty ingredients, to beauty products, we’re hoping to normalize this “circular economy” and show people that making the sustainable choice doesn’t have to be a compromise.

What brought you to New York?
TL: I moved to New York because it is the trashiest city and also a hotbed for innovation.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
TL: I usually don’t get single slices but my favorite place to get pizza is Peasant.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
TL: Russ & Daughters, the bialy there is 👌👌.

What is the best New York waterfront?
TL: It’s gotta be Domino Park!

What’s your favorite New York building?
TL: Any townhouse, or brick industrial-style building, I love.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
TL: Ludlow Coffee Supply in LES.

What’s one thing to help the planet every New Yorker should do on Earth Day?
TL: Get yourself a super cute reusable mug, or better yet, just grab any ol’ glass jar you have and skip the single use cups!

Straws: paper, plastic, or metal?
TL: Metal! Or none.

What does sustainability mean to you?
TL: Sustainability isn’t an “all or nothing” deal for me. We are all on our own journeys, so rather than judge others for not bringing their reusable bag or eating a certain diet, we should be encouraging one another to make better choices.

RECYCLE TRACK SYSTEMS

What does your company do?
Recycle Track Systems co-founder and COO Adam Pasquale: Recycle Track Systems is a waste and recycling management company that focuses on technology and data to optimize waste operations and decrease the amount of waste going to landfills. We developed on-demand waste removal through our app — which has been referred to as the ‘Uber for Trash’, but we also provide full-service solutions leveraging our technology platform to support clients’ end-to-end waste operations. For example, we can pick-up food waste from a large restaurant and bring it straight to a farm where it is converted to compost, while providing real-time confirmation the material was collected and the amount that was recycled.

How did you come up with the idea of Recycle Track Systems?
AP: I’m a fourth-generation member of a New York waste-hauling family. I’ve personally been involved in the waste and recycling sector for nearly two decades in NYC. During that time, I saw an industry that was ripe for change and a critical need for greater transparency in our waste system. My co-founder, Greg Lettieri, has a background in tech, so together we developed the concept for RTS. Technology enables us to do this and is the center of our business model.

You’ve built an incredible network of partners, ranging from SoulCycle to WeWork, and Whole Foods to the Four Seasons. How did you scale so successfully while still remaining committed to your mission of sustainability? What do you look for and prioritize as you continue to grow?
AP: One of the reasons we built our platform the way that we did is so that we could scale responsibly. We continue to look at ways we can further optimize waste operations so we can provide solutions that will meet the specific needs of our partners. Hiring diverse talent and expanding relationships with local hauler partners is also key.

You’ve also worked with municipalities to improve city operations and infrastructure. How do you see public-private partnerships, especially in tech, working to solve issues of importance?
AP: Technology is definitely a driving factor that can help utilities run more effectively in communities and support sustainability goals. Improving truck routing alone can decrease the amount of time trucks are on the road. In addition, we work with local, independent haulers, who are vested in the communities they serve and want to be a part of advancing their operations.

As a fourth generation veteran in the waste industry around the New York area, how has the city shaped not only your view of running a tech company, but approaching waste management at large?
AP: New York is an incredible place to tackle the challenges of the waste industry given its size and logistics. We knew if we could be successful in this market, we would be able to scale effectively. There are also very few cities in the country that have a concentration of companies across a variety of industries that are all looking to achieve greater sustainability goals and adopt emerging technology.

Two huge institutions, Citifield and Barclay’s Center, have benefited from your waste diversion programs. What role do you see iconic establishments playing in the sustainability conversation?
AP: A lot! Sports facilities like a Citi Field and Barclay’s Center are great examples of instituting forward-thinking sustainability policies, which have paved the way for other industries to take note. As the expectations on corporate responsibility increase, and as transparency becomes more prevalent, more and more companies will be forced to recognize the need to act on sustainability.

Where do you get your favorite pizza slice?
AP: Fiore’s Pizza in the Village.

Where do you get your favorite bagel?
AP: Murray’s Bagels.

What is the best New York waterfront?
AP: Ellis Island & Liberty Island.

What’s your favorite New York building?
AP: Chelsea Market.

What’s the best place in New York for a coffee or lunch meeting?
AP: Grey Dog Cafe in the West Village.

What’s one thing to help the planet every New Yorker should do on Earth Day?
AP: It’s hard to say just one, but think before you throw it out — what could you do differently to create less waste?

Straws: paper, plastic, or metal?
AP: I opt to not use straws altogether.

What does sustainability mean to you?
AP: Renewing our resources and reducing our harm on the environment.

All illustrations by Elly Rodgers

World environment day concept by Jacob_09/Shutterstock.com

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