#SoFiStartups: How This Cofounder Transformed His Passion for Food and Design into One of NYC’s Hottest Startups
SoFi supports entrepreneurship and startups through our Entrepreneur Program, which provides members with networking, mentorship, and an opportunity to defer their student loans. Our #SoFiStartups series profiles members who participate in the program, highlights the ups and downs of their entrepreneurship journey, and offers advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
With a background in architecture and engineering, SoFi member Ben Silverman spent the early part of his career designing building facades that were highly energy efficient. But his interest in sustainability soon extended past structures and into another one of his passions—food.
“I realized that the food industry posed just as many challenges to the sustainability of our country and world as the construction industry,” he says. Now co-founder and Chief Design Officer of Edenworks, a Brooklyn-based indoor farming startup, Ben has combined his interest in sustainable design with his love of growing and eating great food.
Founded in 2013, Edenworks aims to provide locally grown produce to stores, using innovative farming techniques and technology to reduce food travel miles and improve the product’s quality in the process.
The seed of an idea
Ben began exploring the roots of how food was grown after receiving his Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008. The following year, he volunteered his design services to develop an RFP for an urban aquaponics project with Architecture for Humanity. He then volunteered for a month on an organic farm in North Carolina before heading to the Stevens Institute of Technology for graduate school in 2010.
“On that farm, I realized I never wanted to actually be a farmer myself. But I became fascinated with all of the systems, tools, and architecture of farming,” Ben says.
After graduate school, Ben became a designer for Enclos, a contracting firm specializing in high-performance, energy-efficient building facades. At that time, it was his father, a successful software entrepreneur, who facilitated the fateful meeting with Edenworks cofounder and CEO Jason Green that ultimately altered Ben’s career course.
Working with New York University’s DUMBO Incubator, Ben’s dad learned that Jason, who was part of the NYU program, was looking for a architectural designer to help launch his company. So he connected the two in August 2013.
“I met Jason for a drink, and we immediately hit it off,” Ben says.
Ben and Jason discussed the inefficiencies of trucking produce from California to New York grocery stores, as well as the potential for aquaponics to provide a more sustainable, urban farming solution. Aquaponics is a system that utilizes fish waste to fertilize plants, with bacteria working as the middlemen to convert the fish waste to the nutrients plants need.
For a little more than a year, Ben balanced full and part-time jobs while helping to start Edenworks. He joined the company full-time in November 2014.
Prototyping to perfection
Ben, Jason, and Matt LaRosa, another Edenworks cofounder, who is also the company’s construction manager, have spent the last three years designing and improving on their original aquaponics system at their Brooklyn-based R&D facility, Farmlab. One of the biggest changes was realizing that they didn’t need to rely on sunlight to grow their plants. The increasing affordability of LED lights, which have dropped in cost by 85% since 2011, meant that they could use the lights to farm fully indoors.
“We created a natural ecosystem indoors,” Ben says. “Our focus has always been on encouraging natural processes.”
During their R&D process, the trio also found innovative ways to reduce labor costs. Traditional farming still expends a lot of money on manual labor, such as harvesting crops. However, Edenworks developed a processing line that automates much of their produce handling. As a result, it only takes two farmers to man their 800-square-foot indoor farm. This and other innovations will enable them to scale their operation. In fact, their next indoor farm will have 40 times the capacity of the current farm and require only eight farmers.
They’ve also developed an app that tracks all of the operations data, from product yield to building temperature to humidity, to further improve efficiency and help determine how they can consistently grow the highest quality vegetables.
“We look over the data with our Agronomy team, and analyze why we had a great month. Was it the pH in the water? Was it the temperature? We can review the data, figure out why, and then replicate it.”
In true startup fashion, iterating on their initial idea has helped Edenworks focus their business model. “At first we were super excited to grow everything,” Ben says. “But then we realized that there’s a large demand for fresh, local baby greens and microgreens used for salad.” Of the salad greens currently sold in East Coast grocery stores, 98% of these greens are trucked in from California and Arizona, meaning that they can be more than a week old by the time they’re on store shelves.
A runway for growth
The founders’ passion for creating truly local, high-quality produce is contagious. Since starting the company, Ben and his partners have pitched at startup competitions and to investors, raising $2 million over the past two years. They used the funds to grow their staff to 10, adding data scientists, biologists and engineers.
Similar to many entrepreneurs building their dream company shortly after college, Ben struggled with making his monthly student loan payments, while still remaining focused on Edenworks full time. However, by becoming a SoFi member in 2015, he was able to refinance his student loan debt and reduce his monthly payment by 10%. Ben will also save over $2,500 over the life of his SoFi loan.
Last August, after refinancing his student loans, Ben also joined SoFi’s Entrepreneur Program. The program is helping him to further build Edenworks’ network. “The best thing about the program is the community aspect,” Ben says. “I appreciate the ability to network with founders from various industries, including manufacturing, tech, and consumer products.” Ben is also able to troubleshoot problems with program peers and tap into SoFi’s experts for advice on social media marketing and advertising.
Ben also took advantage of the entrepreneur program’s deferred payment benefit, which allowed him to pause his loan payments for six months. That benefit gave him the financial breathing room he needed to focus on his business.
“We were already two-and-a-half years into our business when I was given the opportunity to delay payments,” he says. “But it extended my financial runway a bit, allowing me to work on the startup longer.”
A promising future
In pursuing Whole Foods, the fact that Edenworks is truly local and able to deliver ready-to-eat, great-tasting greens within 24-hours of harvest was the primary selling point.
“Edenworks recently received its Article 20-C license, and is now the first indoor farm selling pre-washed, ready-to-eat greens, which is the standard for the big California farms and processors selling greens to the east coast,” Ben says. “Other indoor farms sell packaged greens, but haven’t yet established the technology and operations for washed and ready-to-eat products,” Ben notes.
Edenworks’ produce sells for the same price as organic brands from California, and shoppers will be able to find their greens at the Williamsburg Whole Foods beginning this month.
Next spring, Edenworks plans to open a new indoor farm facility in either Brooklyn or Queens, which will provide microgreens and baby greens to all 12 New York City-area Whole Foods Markets. The founders also plan to begin selling its fish via retail and wholesale outlets next year.
For Ben, the journey from concept to company has been exciting and unexpected. He never planned on becoming an entrepreneur, yet he’s now a cofounder of one of New York’s most innovative startups.
“People are getting really excited about what we’re doing, and that excitement has all been driven by networking and telling our story,” says Ben. “Where food comes from is such a cultural concern right now. Eating has always been my favorite thing to do, and I wanted to feel good about it. Now we know it’s clear others want to feel the same.”
Follow Edenworks on Instagram – @EdenworksGrows
Advice for Fellow Entrepreneurs
Here are Ben’s top three tips for aspiring startup founders:
1. Find the right partners, especially in the early days. Look for people who are smart and have skills that are different than yours.
2. Be persistent. There were so many times when we felt that our design and engineering wasn’t working, but we were diligent in trying to improve it. We made sure that we kept working through big and small challenges until we did it right.
3. Prepare financially. Part of being successful with a startup is making sure you that you can last as long as possible on little income. Finding ways to reduce your debt payments and other expenses is critical.
If you’re a founder or co-founder working on your own business full-time and you have student loan debt, visit sofi.com to learn more about how SoFi can help you.