Business Sprouts for UW Grad Student

March 2, 2012
Man gardening
Nathan Storey of Bright Agrotech examines lettuce growing in the company's patented vertical towers inside a University of Wyoming greenhouse. Storey, a UW graduate student in agronomy, has developed an innovative approach to growing crops using fish waste.

Nathan Storey never thought of himself as a good student. In fact, he considers it "amazing" that he's about to graduate from the University of Wyoming with a doctorate in agronomy.

But Storey will leave UW with much more than an advanced degree: He has patents, valuable intellectual property. A budding entrepreneur, Storey is one of the founders of a company that seeks to revolutionize the way produce is cultivated and sold.

For the past six years, Storey has been experimenting in UW's greenhouses with systems that use plants to treat waste from fish farms. His research led him to found Bright Agrotech, which uses an innovative approach to raise crops and deliver them to consumers.

Bright Agrotech is a client of the Wyoming Technology Business Center (WTBC), the university's business incubator that assists Wyoming entrepreneurs. Storey, from Cheyenne, and business partner Paul Bennick of Gillette were winners of the 2011 UW College of Business $10K Entrepreneurship Competition. They received $12,500 to help start their company and one year of free business counseling services and space at the WTBC.

Storey and Bennick plan to build their own greenhouse in Laramie this year to prove that their crop-raising approach can work at a commercial level. Storey is confident they'll succeed.

"We would really like to keep the business in Wyoming and Laramie," Storey says. "In the next 20 to 30 years, I see Laramie being a real seed of innovation, and I want to stay and be part of that."

Innovative is certainly the right word to describe Bright Agrotech. The company's technology combines the principles of aquaponic systems -- in which crops are grown above containers with aquatic animals -- and vertical crop growing.

In the UW greenhouse, Bright Agrotech is raising a variety of plants - including herbs, lettuce, tomatoes and watermelons - in plastic towers. Inside the towers are air-spun fibers made from recycled plastic bottles, containing worms and bacteria. Water continually flows through the towers, which are above tubs containing tilapia, a type of fish that has been farmed for centuries. The waste from the fish serves as fertilizer in the towers, where the worms and bacteria oxidize the ammonia and turn it into nutrients for the plants.

The system produces no waste. Storey says about 1 percent of the water is lost daily to transpiration, but there's no waste discharge.

"We're just priming nature to do what it does best," he says.

Captivated by research

Storey's business and cultivation models evolved during his time at UW. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in agroecology in 2006, he wasn't inclined to stay in college - "I've never been good at school; it's not a place I always wanted to be" - but he was persuaded by his adviser to stay and pursue a master's degree.

Storey decided to focus his research on raising fish and treating the waste they produce, long a challenge for aquaculture enterprises. While other aquaponic systems follow the "raft model" - with crops grown on horizontal, floating beds aimed primarily at cleaning the water for fish production - Storey decided to use vertical tubes to increase plant production.

Vertical plants towersAfter completing his master's degree, he revamped the system by introducing the recycled plastic fibers and redesigning the towers, which are made of PVC. His research also led him to a major realization: The best chance for commercial success was to focus on crop production and sales.

"The fish faded to the background," Storey says, noting that the herbs raised by his company make about 10 times more in profit than the tilapia could. "At best, fish are a break-even proposition."

The key to making money in crop production is the way Bright Agrotech delivers its produce to consumers. The towers containing the plants are placed in special store displays designed by the company, allowing customers to pick the produce live. That model eliminates the expense of harvesting and packaging produce, which accounts for about 50 percent of the cost of those items at the grocery store.

Bright Agrotech covered its operations costs last year selling produce at Laramie's Big Hollow Co-op and the local farmers market. Sales of the patented towers rounded out the company's profitable first year; several producers in Colorado already are using the devices.

"Our goal with this is to enable people to farm even if they don't have much land," Storey says. "To make something new that feeds people - that's what excites me about the towers."

By building its own greenhouse and moving out of the UW facilities, Bright Agrotech will "be able to find out how this works on an industrial level," Storey says. Eventually, he hopes the company will be profitable designing and producing equipment to clean water using plants, possibly with franchises along Colorado's Front Range.

Storey also looks forward to being able to give the company his full attention. It has been a challenge to run the business while working on his doctoral dissertation, which he's wrapping up this spring.

He's grateful for the assistance provided by the WTBC, a department under the UW Office of Research and Economic Development. That includes regular meetings with Christine Langley, the center's chief operating officer, focused on helping the company achieve its goals through marketing and advertising. The incubator also has helped Bright Agrotech with graphic design and accounting software training.

"The folks here are so smart. I'm not a business person -- we're complete greenhorns - and having people here to coach us has just been huge," Storey says. "I know we wouldn't be where we are without their help."

Langley says the sky is the limit for Bright Agrotech.

"(Storey) has major competitive advantages over any competition: the innovative intellectual property on his design," she says. "His approach to using vertical space and vertical growing is incredibly innovative and unique. At this point, it's really about sales and marketing. He has all of the foundational pieces, and now he just needs to push them out to market."

Storey notes that the patents for his system and devices were obtained through UW, meaning the university stands to receive royalties if the company succeeds.

"The university was responsible for the development of the technology, and we're working to move the technology to market," Storey says. "We're all interconnected. We function as a community."

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