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Not many people can say that they turned a conversation from a furniture trade show and a failed Kickstarter into a beautiful symphony of aquaponics and interior design.
Some are giving it a try. “I want to use the nonverbal, but very communicative, power of design to inspire people to think differently about the food system,” says Dustin Betz, founder of Green Towers LLC.
Dustin was part of my team when we won the vertical farm design competition in New York this past December. He provided great insight both from a business standpoint, having been working in the startup space for some time, as well as how to actually grow food.
But he’s been pushing his vision for much longer. Dustin and his team came out of Pennsylvania State University where they had come together for an engineering competition. For that competition, they designed vertical farms in shipping containers. The concept was along the lines of Freight Farms, except they stripped down the corrugated sheet metal shell and turned the containers on their sides.
“We thought it would be perfect for restaurants,” Dustin says. After testing their markets, Dustin and his team found that no restaurant would be able to use the quantity of greens they were producing. “The market wasn’t there.”
Dustin abandoned the shipping container farm and his team began working on something new. By scaling their experience with radical farming techniques like aquaponics to a consumer level, they came up with a new idea called living furniture.
Their flagship was, and still is, the Living Table.
To me, Green Towers’ entire design aesthetic in incredibly refreshing. When I first started getting into vertical farming, I would show different countertop hydroponic units and aquaponic-integrated cabinets to my girlfriend and she would just sigh and say “Cool.” I was bummed she wasn’t as enthusiastic about these things as I was until one day she said “They just don’t look good. It’s an ugly, plastic tank.”
Green Towers does not make ugly, plastic tanks. Not only are their designs attractive, but they have the engineering and agricultural experience to make them functional.
Dustin and his team knew this, and they decided to pursue the idea further, turning to Kickstarter. Unfortunately, they failed.
“It was a good lesson in hindsight,” says Dustin. “Who is going to buy a high end piece of furniture at a premium price [$1,500] on the internet?”
The lesson is probably applicable to everyone. No matter how much hype a new tool or platform gets, entrepreneurs need to make sure it’s right for their product. Crowdsourcing wasn’t right for Green Towers. They had an amazing product, but not such an amazing market.
After talking to Dustin, it seemed like after that, almost on a whim, they took their table to the International Contemporary Furniture Fair. Despite the seemingly incongruous venue, it worked out. “People came up to us and said ‘We like your ecosystem.’ No one was using the word aquaponics,” says Dustin.
The interior designers there absolutely loved their product. “None of us knew anything in the furniture space,” Dustin says. “But so many people came up to us and said ‘this is really cool.’”
And those admiring designers had good reasons to like the Living Table. A lot of people are first exposed to the idea of aquaponics by small, countertop units that look like they belong on the pages of a Sharper Image catalog. Those units are fine for that first bit of exposure, but they’re just toys. “Anyone who has done even a little bit of aquaponics knows one little beta fish is not going to grow 6 full sized basil plants,” laughed Dustin when he was talking about his competitors. “You can’t just throw your seeds in and expect it to work.”
Green Towers has carefully designed systems, and while the goal isn’t to feed the world, or even eliminate a family’s grocery bill, Dustin says their product will work. “It’s definitely enough for mint juleps and mojitos, but most people like seeing [a functioning] ecosystem.”
After getting feedback from the designers he met at the furniture fair, Dustin and his team evolved their original table idea into a suite of customized furniture and interior space options.
As of now, Green Towers not only offers their table and furniture, but also the option to customize different interior spaces to customer or business satisfaction. When we talked about the future of Green Towers, Dustin mentioned his team has provisional patents for a rotating green wall product for large scale, commercial vertical farming ventures. He was also excited about a design for an urban beehive that they’ve already gotten seed funding for.
Before finishing our last conversation, I asked Dustin what motivated him to follow this path. His answer really impressed me. He thought for a second and said “selling a workspace that’s more inspiring, more rejuvenating.”
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