AgTech X distinguishes itself as a co-working space to develop business concepts and projects, and to educate about sustainability and new urban agricultural technologies

AgTech X’s tower garden.

In the 1940s, agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug developed new disease-resistance and high-yield varieties of wheat, which were introduced to Central and South America with the hope to solve the problem of food shortage in those areas. This development marked the beginning of “the green revolution,” a set of research and technology initiatives that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world.

Yet seventy years later, people in different parts of the world still are affected by food shortage. Neighborhoods identified as food deserts, areas that lack access to fresh produce, exist all across New York City and all over the country. But: the need for fresh healthy foods which are environmentally sustainable, especially in urban areas, has sprouted a slew of agricultural tech businesses dedicated to bringing locally and sustainably grown produce to underserved communities.

Brooklyn has become a particular hot spot for urban agricultural ventures and technologies. Edenworks and VertiCulture in Williamsburg, and Square Roots in Bedford-Stuyvesant are three well-known names in this burgeoning industry. In April 2017, AgTech X, co-working and learning space for enthusiasts of hydroponic farming, opened its doors in Williamsburg.

AgTech X’s salad wall.

Co-founded by Ricky Stephens, a native New Yorker, and Henry Gordon-Smith, a veteran of urban agriculture, the “newcomer” AgTech X distinguishes itself from other established ventures as a co-lab for professionals to develop business concepts and projects. Moreover, it also aims to educate about sustainability and new urban agricultural technologies including hydroponic farming, a technique of growing plants placed in water and nutrient-rich solutions instead of traditional soil. 

But AgTech X is not only for agricultural professionals. Stephens hopes that the bright purple lights hung above the hydroponic unit in the windows will attract also random passers-by who have no knowledge on urban farming, feel curious and compelled to walk in, to inquire and maybe join the movement. For those new agricultural adventurers, hydroponics technician Kate Lodvikov teaches classes on urban farming while using indoor growing systems such as the two hydroponic units located in the office – the tower garden and the salad wall – which offer hands-on experience to new students and other inquisitive minds.

Additionally, for those who do not have a green thumb yet, AgTech X has a collection of tools to facilitate and guide them on their path to urban home gardeners. There is Urban Leaf’s “world’s smallest garden,” which enables people, especially urban dwellers, to grow leafy greens in bottles in their kitchen and whose leaves can be cut for cooking later on. There is also HAMAMA, a combination of a grow kit and seed quilts containing micro green seeds developed by two mechanical engineering students at MIT. Water is all that is needed for the seed quilt to grow, once it’s placed in the grow kit. Both Urban Leaf and HAMAMA make growing food at urban homes incredibly easy. Intrigued by the “from farm to table” idea? Well, here is your “from table to table” experience.

For more experimental souls, AgTech X offers a food computer, a chamber that creates conditions to suit different plants’ growing needs. The concept of the food computer was developed by MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative, with the goal to make farming and gardening accessible to everyone. A different kind of tabletop food computer was built by one of AgTechX’s collaborators for a Brooklyn-based perfume maker to grow flowers, which until recently had to be imported from South America.

A food computer developed by MIT’s Open Agricultural Initiative.

For now, AgTech X is still at its conceptual stage, but Stephens’ ambition goes far beyond providing a co-working space. His next project is to develop a digital platform to connect people who share a passion for hydroponic technology and to provide them with comprehensive information on the subject.

“We want to break hurdles such as [how to] acquire land, understand zoning laws, look for funding and find collaborators. [In short], we want people across the whole spectrum to connect with one another in a more fluid way,” Stephens said. Imagine a professional platform that has WeWork and LinkedIn combined into one, exclusively for the hydroponic industry!

While still in its early stages, AgTech X hopes that its model, along with other hydroponic ventures’ ideas and practices, will go far beyond New York City and the United States, and will offer solutions to “how to feed the world in 2050,” a question that has been on the agenda of the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in recent years.

When that happens, maybe Brooklynites can say: it started here with us.

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This is the second in a three-part series examining Brooklyn’s fast-emerging technology landscape. Click here to read the first story: Technology in Brooklyn: an Emerging Industry, an Echo of History

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