Fluid Farms, an aquaponics company that wants to scale up to meet local and regional demand for fresh produce and farm-raised fish, won the Launchpad pitch competition on Tuesday evening along with its $50,000 first-place prize.
The award, provided by Gorham Savings Bank, comes at a crucial growth period for the bootstrapped agriculture business as it prepares to build what will become, at 36,000 square feet, Maine’s second largest greenhouse (the first belongs to Backyard Farms in Madison).
Fluid Farms is not your normal farm. It’s utilizing aquaponics — a hybrid approach that utilizes aquaculture, or raising fish in tanks, and hydroponics, which is growing plants in water instead of soil — to produce its offerings, which are currently limited to organic heirloom lettuces and striped bass.
The company will use the $50,000 to make energy efficiency improvements on the new greenhouse, which will be built in Dresden.
“The hurdle to year-round agriculture is energy and this is really going to make all the difference, and really allow us to operate smoothly year round,” Tyler Gaudet, Fluid Farms’ co-founder, said.
The company’s current, smaller greenhouse, which it built in North Yarmouth after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2013, is able to produce approximately 1,200 plants per week and 800 pounds of fish per year. It is Maine’s only MOFGA-certified organic aquaponic greenhouse. It sells its lettuces to local groceries like the Portland Food Co-op and the Gardiner Food Co-op, and its fish can be found at Portland restaurants like the East Ender.
The new greenhouse, however, will allow the company to scale up production to a point where it will have the capacity to produce up to about 15,000 plants per week and four tons of fish per year. That ramped-up production will allow the company to serve the Maine market, as well as target lucrative markets like Boston and New York City.
“The demand for clean, local produce has never been higher,” Gaudet said during his pitch to the three judges who would decide the Launchpad winner. “As drought in places like California threaten the stability and availability of fresh produce, Fluid Farms is well positioned to fulfill that need.”
That’s pretty good for a business that begin in 2012 with a few fish tanks in Gaudet’s spare bedroom.
“We got to where we are with passion and a bootstrap approach,” Gaudet said.
Gaudet, though plagued by a microphone malfunction, kept his cool during his pitch as he explained to the judges what the $50,000 would allow the company to do. In addition to the energy efficiency improvements, the company is also experimenting with different product offerings. He caught the judges’ attention when he told them they were working with a hydroponics company to develop strawberry production.
“Can you imagine having fresh strawberries in the middle of winter? It’d be pretty wild,” Gaudet said.
The four other businesses that pitched at the competition were Blue Ox Malthouse in Lisbon Falls, Garbage to Garden in Portland, which operates a curbside composting service; Good To-Go in Kittery, which produces dehydrated gourmet meals for campers and other adventurers; and UniteGPS in Portland, which has developed a GPS-based product, CrossWalk, to allow parents and students to know when the school bus will arrive each day.
Garbage to Garden won the first-ever audience choice award, which came with free consulting services worth $10,000.
“All the other businesses were really amazing and have had some amazing accomplishments,” Gaudet said after taking the top prize.
The judges considered the companies on the following criteria: viability of the business plan, scalability, uniqueness, strength of the management team, potential economic impact if the business succeeds, the founder’s presentation style, and how impactful the $50,000 would be to the company’s success.
The three judges this year were Melissa Smith, CEO of WEX Inc.,;Chris Claudio, co-founder and CEO of Winxnet; and Michelle Neujahr, director of Southern Maine Community College’s Entrepreneurial Center.
Neujahr has been a judge at every one of the three Launchpad competitions and said this year’s competition proved the toughest decision for the judges.
“I’ve been a judge every year and this was the hardest year. I felt in the past we got into the room and we all knew,” she said. “This year we really hammered it out, but we really loved [Fluid Farms’] vision. I said to Tyler, ‘I’ve watched probably 12 students at SMCC write a business plan about this concept and it’s so exciting to see they’re actually doing it.”
Gorham Savings Bank created the Launchpad competition in 2013 as a way to support early-stage companies. The past three winners of the award, which was previously $30,000, were Flowfold, Pika Energy and Bixby & Co.