Source – forbes.com
– “…We decided to target a very specific part of the food system to start off. There are 4,400 institutional distributors of fresh fruit and produce to restaurants, hospitals, and universities. We are selling to small and medium sized distributors with revenues between $3 million and $75 million – representing an $860 million opportunity”:
If you like eating locally-sourced produce in the middle of the winter, you’re out of luck. But a pair of Massachusetts entrepreneurs makes a modified shipping container that lets distributors grow, say, local basil in the middle of January. Is their start-up a good investment?
Thanks to customer profits, Freight Farms – it lets customers “grow leafy greens, vine crops and mushrooms hydroponically in insulated, climate-controlled containers” — is not hungry for outside capital.
But should it seek to expand globally, Freight Farms will need outside capital. And those investors will face an intriguing mix of positives — it targets a big market and its founders have done well getting a great idea off the ground — and negatives — they may not be able to block better-capitalized competitors and they lack previous start-up exit success.
Freight Farms’ founders, Brad McNamara and Jonathan Friedman, were fed up with how inefficient it was to grow produce in a rooftop greenhouse. Friedman decided it would be better to use a shipping container.
As they explained in a June 26 interview, McNamara graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in business and earned a masters’ degree in environmental science and an MBA from Clark University. Friedman earned a BFA in Industrial Design from Massachusetts College of Art & Design. Together they started an environmental engineering consulting firm
In 2009, they were working on the design of an urban rooftop greenhouse. According to Friedman, “I was frustrated with the technology for rooftop farming. Despite using double-walled polyvinyl chloride, it was inefficient since so much energy went for heating, cooling, and venting – you can’t maintain constant internal temperature. The operating costs were too high. The numbers did not add up and it could not be done at scale.”
Friedman came up with the solution. As McNamara explained, “The problem was to come up with a large space but more efficient and with a smaller footprint. Jon came up with the idea – use a shipping container — it was a smack in the face. He decided that it would need to fit into a 40 foot by 8 foot space and would be efficient and profitable. Any by using Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs), annual lighting power costs are only $2,600.”
It took time to turn that idea into a working prototype. “In early 2010, we started working on the design – looking at components and technology. We needed money so we did a Kickstarter campaign – raising $30,000. The people who contributed money got the joy of helping us achieve our mission of taking local food global. They also got t-shirts, reusable grocery bags and their names on the outside of our first prototype so the world would know that they were among the first to see the future of the food system.” explained McNamara.
After raising the money and building the prototype, they entered a local business accelerator, MassChallenge. And their business targets a specific market. “We decided to target a very specific part of the food system to start off. There are 4,400 institutional distributors of fresh fruit and produce to restaurants, hospitals, and universities. We are selling to small and medium sized distributors with revenues between $3 million and $75 million – representing an $860 million opportunity.”
And Freight Farms is helping these distributors – that ship to customers throughout the year — to reduce their costs. That’s because they buy their fresh fruit and produce from local farms during the harvest seasons. But during the rest of the year, they have to source from further away. By using Freight Farms, the customer’s costs have dropped.
As McNamara explained, “One of our Boston customers imports basil from Mexico that is flown to California and trucked to Boston. He bought one of our containers for $60,000 and uses it to grow a third of his basil – 300 pounds per week – that he sells for $120,000. He used to pay between $3.75 and $4.00 a pound for that basil and with our product it costs him much less.”
Freight Farms has financed its growth through customer payments. “When customers place an order, they give us a down payment that we use to pay our contract manufacturer – we have one in Mansfield and another north of Boston. We will probably seek outside investment as we expand throughout the U.S. and in selected markets in Europe and Asia,” explained McNamara.
And Freight Farms is on a growth trajectory. As McNamara said, “We have three containers being used now, we will ship five in the next couple of months, and 10 will going out in the fall.”
Meanwhile, McNamara believes that its mission of making an impact on the broken food system is attracting top talent. He said, “We now have added five full-time people – with great skills in technology and marketing. They are attracted to our passionate mission of taking local food global.”
But their success has attracted competitors. According to McNamara, “This is a really, really huge opportunity. And in the last few months, it has become widely known. Competition is going to pop up. But we have been working on this over the last four years and we have advantages in design and efficiency. People are our biggest advantage. Our employees and customers are giving us great ideas for how to move forward.”
I think Freight Farms is on to something. I’d guess that if it can get big enough on its own, it would make a tempting morsel for a large truck maker.
BIG PRODUCTION IN A SMALL FOOT PRINT
Built entirely inside a 40’ x 8’ x 9.5’ shipping container, freight farms are outfitted with all the tools needed for high-volume, consistent harvests. With innovative climate technology and growing equipment, the perfect environment is achievable 365 days a year, regardless of geographic location.
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