Tinia Pina didn’t set out to create a supercharged organic fertilizer for hydroponic agriculture. It just worked out that way.
Pina’s initial concern was the tons of food wasted annually by relatively well-fed Americans. Turning it into organic fertilizer isn’t an entirely new concept, but taking it where Pina and her team are going is wholly innovative.
Pina’s Re-Nuble Inc. actually represents “an amalgamation of a lot of different interests,” the entrepreneur noted, starting with all that wasted food. There were also new technologies to explore, and what Pina called “social injustices” regarding national nutrition and food distribution.
“I was personally frustrated with what I felt were not satisfactory options for treating food waste,” she said. “I also felt strongly about certain issues regarding food and how it’s prepared – specifically, processed foods and fast-food options in areas where more nutritious local products are more expensive.”
Convinced there had to be better alternatives to chemical fertilization and “a really indifferent system,” Pina set out to cook up some food-prep transparency. She soon came across anaerobic digesters – a “really capital-intensive” technology through which microorganisms break down biodegradable materials in the absence of oxygen.
The process creates energy and a leftover liquid that can be used as a fertilizer, albeit one with what Pina called “low nutrient availability.” But that fertilization punch increases dramatically when the liquid is used as a growth accelerant in hydroponics, a hydroculture subset that grows plants in mineral nutrient solutions, sans soil. Not only can the organic liquids boost hydroponic yields, they can do it at a fraction of the cost of chemical fertilizers.
Headquartered since June in the communal Harlem Biospace, Re-Nuble this summer became a “virtual tenant” of Stony Brook University’s Clean Energy Business Incubator Program. It also maintains a Long Island City production facility, where it has churned out gallons of fertilizer since April.
Not only does the fertilizer accelerate hydroponic crops, but the Re-Nuble operation has the added benefit of steering food waste away from landfills, which contribute significantly to greenhouse gases. Re-Nuble also adds to a system in which healthier, chemical-free food options can be grown locally at lower costs, including the potential for year-round indoor agriculture in virtually any climate.
While Pina and her team, including full-time researcher and lab technician Priya Gandhi, have holistic goals, there’s no denying the economic potential of their endeavor. Counting home users, commercial greenhouses and the 3,000 or so specialty farms growing everything from unique herbs to giant tomatoes, the U.S. hydroponics industry is already pushing $2 billion annually with more growth ahead.
Cannabis, an increasingly legal crop that’s made use of hydroponics for decades, represents another potential vertical.
Outside of the United States, hydroponics is an even bigger deal: Global growth is reported around 6.8 percent annually, according to Pina.
“All this growth is coming from the fact that we have these big natural-resource challenges, whether it’s the availability of water or the availability of land,” she said. “Also, from people looking for fertilizers that don’t use herbicides or pesticides or any chemicals in general.”
Pina kicked in $40,000 of her own money to get the company started – the stake went to equipment and research – and this spring added a $50,000 seed investment from Irish private-equity fund SOS Ventures, made through its Manhattan-based international food-business accelerator, Food-X.
Re-Nuble also applied in September for a utility patent covering its method and formula for turning waste into nutrient-rich fertilizer.
Over its first six months of production, Re-Nuble has pumped out thousands of gallons of Away We Grow, nutrient promoting “vigorous vegetative growth,” and Booster Shot, a metabolic fuel delivering a payload of vitamins, amino acids and other micro-nutrients during the flowering and vegetating stages. Sales are picking up, according to Pina, and the plan now is more R&D. Specifically, the Re-Nuble teamwill investigate the options for creating automated nutrient machines fueled by farm waste, a potential closed-loop system that could create fertilizers to be used on-site.
That project should take up the bulk of her company’s 2016, said Pina, who hopes to involve SBU researchers in these and other efforts.
“As a virtual tenant and a clean energy-affiliated company, we take part in a lot of the services provided by CEBIP,” she noted. “Doing some more research with Stony Brook is something we’re working on. We’re trying to figure out which contacts at the university would be interested in the research initiatives we have planned.”
There have been many hurdles to overcome to this point – “No one on our team really had any experience with this technology,” Pina noted – but the ceiling is high, especially considering the economic trends Pina believes point toward a hydroponic-heavy future.
“I really see some futuristic perspectives supporting what we’re doing,” Pina said. “Global microeconomic trends of people migrating toward urban centers support a more efficient economy, in terms of where and how our food is produced.
“We’re still in a proof-of-concept phase and looking to scale up to a much larger model soon,” she added. “There’s not a lot of applied research on how to use food waste in hydroponics. If we can close the loop on these farms, creating a method where they could use their own waste on-site, it will take off from there.