Until recently, Chris Moorman worked in commodity trading pits in Chicago and New York, profiting from volatility caused by global crisis.
Today, the CEO of Greenfield-based Rubicon Agriculture trudges along a muddy path between a barn-turned-workshop and a couple of 40-foot shipping container. This time his goal is to save the world, through hydroponics.
“We really think this is the wave of the future for agriculture,” said Moorman, whose startup converts shipping containers into portable, high-tech farms.
Startups, meet farmers
Rubicon is one of a growing number of Indiana startups in "agbioscience," a sector that encompasses companies involved in some aspect of food, agriculture and the life sciences. They may simultaneously apply various scientific disciplines such as chemistry, plant science and biochemistry, for example.
Though this work is often at the cutting edge of science, it can be overshadowed in a region better known for information technology companies dishing out marketing software and mobile phone apps.
Even within the state’s agbiosciences industry estimated at $16 billion by industry group AgriNovus Indiana, upstarts like Rubicon are eclipsed by big companies like Greenfield-based Elanco, the world’s second-largest animal health company, just down the street.
Or by Westfield-based AgReliant Genetics, the nation’s third largest seed company, according to AgriNovus—and of course there’s Dow AgroSciences, in Indianapolis, with $6.4 billion annual sales of agricultural chemicals.
But that same tidal wave of entrepreneurial activity in the region's IT sector may also be about to sprout in the agbiosciences industry here that until now had been better known for large companies such as Elanco and Dow Agro.
“We’ve seen a real, significant growth in early stage companies that we’ve been following,” said Beth Bechdol, president and CEO of AgriNovus Indiana, the agbiosciences initiative.
Bechdol has a list of about 30 such companies. Eight of these have received more than $9.2 million in venture capital in just the last couple years, according to AgriNovus.
“Two years ago, I bet we could have counted those companies on one hand,” she said.
Among the rising stars is West Lafayette-based Spensa Technologies, which created high-tech insect traps and sophisticated analytical tools. Farmers get real time insect data and can apply insecticides in a more targeted manner, reducing costs and minimizing environmental harm.
Like many rising stars in the agbiosceiences sector, Spensa wasn’t launched by someone with an agricultural background. It was founded in 2009 by Johnny Park, a Purdue University assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Last year Spensa landed $2.8 million in venture investment, according to AgriNovus.
Another star in the sector is Indianapolis-based Algaeon Inc., formed in 2011, which uses algae to develop a compound that's used in food, drinks, cosmetics, supplements and animal feed. Its management hails from life sciences companies like Dow AgroSciences. This year, Algaeon secured $300,000 in additional venture funding, according to AgriNovus.
But Rubicon is perhaps one of the newest and scrappiest of them all.
It’s exactly the kind of upstart Bechdol wants to see: young entrepreneurs coming out of one of the state’s research institutions—in this case, Purdue University.
Rubicon crosses the food desert
CEO Moorman studied economics at Purdue, which is perhaps why he’s more fixated on the bigger business picture. His brother, Erik, a former nuclear specialist in the Navy, is the one installing conduit and racks in the latest Rubicon “AgroBox,” the name of the converted shipping containers, while Chris muses aloud about market potential.
Look at the vulnerability of produce production, Chris Moorman says, noting that about half of the U.S. crop comes from California, which like many western states is suffering from a systemic water deficit.
Closer to home, farmers are retiring while high school students receive little in the way of agricultural education.
“There’s no guarantee of that next generation” entering agriculture, he says. “I’m afraid we’re stuck in a 100-year paradigm.”
Leaning against the wall of the latest AgroBox under conversion—one with R32 insulation so stout “you could heat this place with a candle"—Moorman asks a visitor to imagine placing such a container in a downtown neighborhood, perhaps with a mural painted on the side.
Residents could grow food in the container year-round, even in the winter, piggy-backing on the farm-to-table craze sweeping the country.
“You could make these local food hubs. We think there need to be these hubs where people have a sense of community,” he said.
Such hydroponic production could be particularly valuable in neighborhoods known as food deserts, which lack supermarkets or other sources of fresh food. The trend is being driven in part by environmental, health and economic concerns. Some produce shipped across the country has a 40 percent spoilage rate, according to Rubicon.
Another potential market is breweries. In a dark corner of a basement that serves as Rubicon’s office, Moorman pulls back the foil curtains of a special room where several types of plants are growing under artificial light, including hops.
He rattles off practical applications for other plants growing under LED lights, including those used to help treat diseases. An AgroBox could serve as an inexpensive, modular alternative to greenhouses for life sciences firms, particular early-stage companies that don’t have the money for big laboratories.
But, oddly enough, Rubicon’s first customer was Bryan High School, in Omaha, Neb. It’s using the AgroBox as part of its educational curriculum.
“We think that’s going to be the first beachhead for us,” Moorman said of sales to schools. The AgroBox starts at around $75,000.
One of Rubicon’s biggest target customers is community colleges—and there's a reason why schools are important, he explains.
“This is automated technology that we’ve applied to something different …. We need to get kids exposed to this early. We need to develop a workforce today to fill the jobs of tomorrow.”