JULIA KURNIK, 31, of Bella Vista, is co-founder and CEO of Focus Foods, a for-profit startup dedicated to social enterprise. Focus creates greenhouses that use waste from fish to grow naturally organic vegetables, fruits and herbs, which in turn clean the water and return it to the fish. The greenhouses will be installed on rooftops of supermarkets so produce can be harvested faster than traditional farming and sold in hours. Focus expects to launch its pilot next month.
Q: How'd you come up with the idea?
A: I enrolled in a graduate-school program at the Wharton School and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard in the summer of 2012 with the idea of starting my own social-enterprise business. That's when I got interested in aquaponics, a sustainable way of growing fruits, vegetables and fish.
Q: The business plan and startup money?
A: The business plan came together in 2014. The first step was to find my business partner, Geoff Becker, our CFO and a longtime friend.
We went through several iterations and settled on a B2B concept. Then I met Jeff Brown, who owns Brown's Super Stores in the region, and proposed that he be our first customer. We incorporated in May 2014, and Geoff and I put in about $3,000 to build a prototype. This spring we won more than $130,000 in cash and in-kind prizes from business-plan competitions.
Q: What's the biz do?
A: We have a 300-gallon prototype with 30 tilapia growing, as well as lettuce and basil. That's in Brown's Fox Street grocery in Nicetown. Our pilot will be a 10,000-square-foot commercial system inside a greenhouse on the roof of a ShopRite in Parkside .
We're essentially an urban farm that doesn't use soil and only 5 percent of the water used by a traditional farm.
Q: How's the biz model work?
A: We'll grow vegetables, fruits, herbs and fish and sell to the grocery. If the pilot goes well, our systems will be 60,000 square feet, which, when at full capacity, will produce 1 million pounds of food annually and yield about $2 million in gross revenue.
Q: The value prop?
A: We're also a public-benefit corporation. We eliminate pesticides, soil erosion and carbon emissions. By locating on the roof of the grocery store to whom we sell, we eliminate transportation costs and emissions, resulting in fresher, healthier food for consumers.
Q: Your customers?
A: Brown's stores will be a customer and also a partner. We'd love to grow with Brown and expand to other stores and farm-to-table restaurants.