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AquaGrow Named 2016 Cleantech Open Accelerator Semi-Finalist

A company started by two Illinois Tech scientists has been selected as a semi-finalist in the 2016 Cleantech Open Accelerator Program.

The company, AquaGrow Technologies, was founded by Elena Timofeeva, research professor in chemistry, and John Katsoudas (PHYS ’96, MS ’03), senior research associate in physics.

AquaGrow is dedicated to designing and building fully containerized aquaponics farms that will use local food waste as the energy source instead of electricity. This novel approach will enable a more profitable and grid-independent farming model for indoor food production, which is becoming increasingly needed because of global climate change and a growing population.

Aquaponics farms produce fish protein and fresh produce synergistically, with fish waste fertilizing the plants, and the plants cleaning the water for the fish. They offer a number of benefits, including 90 percent less use of water, greater output per square foot than traditional farming, and more. But indoor food production has a major challenge: the high energy requirements and cost of electricity needed to power the artificial lights to grow the plants, which makes it barely profitable.

AquaGrow’s innovative approach will overcome that challenge. Each AquaGrow farm will be housed in a 45-foot-high cube cargo container with a new type of flat aenaerobic biodigester unit, developed in collaboration with Nullam Consulting, that is scaled to the energy needs of the container. The biodigester will convert food waste to methane fuel, which in turn will power the farm operation, so the unit does not need to be connected to the grid. Besides significant savings on electricity, the biodigester will also provide additional profit streams through organic waste collection fees and sales of the high-value organic fertilizer that is a byproduct of the biodigestion process. Because the farms will use food waste that otherwise would go to landfills, in addition to healthy food production they will also help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Because the farms are containerized and do not need to be connected to the grid, they can be easily stacked, transported, and used anywhere food is required – after a natural disaster, in refugee camps, or in food-poor rural or urban areas.

Timofeeva and Katsoudas are currently working on the scaled prototype, and they calculate that a full-scale farm unit in a 45-foot-long container will annually produce 14,500 pounds of fresh produce, 1,100 pounds of fish, 110 MWh of energy, and 45 tons of high-value fertilizer and will eliminate 155 tons of food waste and 40 tons of CO2, while generating $40,000 to $80,000 in profit.

The Cleantech Open Accelerator Program identifies promising early-stage clean technology companies and provides them with six months of educational and mentoring support. They have helped more than 1,000 companies raising more than $1 billion in capital. Currently, Timofeeva and Katsoudas are working with Cleantech Open advisers on market research, business strategy, and fundraising.

Timofeeva and Katsoudas first saw the value in startup accelerator programs when they went through the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program to help scientist-entrepreneurs to commercialize their technology, as part of a separate research grant. “We learned so much,” said Timofeeva. “Things like the lean startup methodology, how to validate a product for the market and make the product that customers actually want. It was so inspirational.” They decided to apply what they learned to their own business idea. “We said, ‘Why not us?’”