Up on the Roof

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Gotham Green’s flagship greenhouse built in 2010 is the first commercial scale rooftop greenhouse in the United States. (Photo: http://gothamgreens.com)

Use the word “startup” and the image that percolates to mind is a room filled with bros coding for 40 hours and squeezing in foosball tournaments. That’s an image well-grounded in reality. There are shared workspaces, volunteer professional networks and angel investing groups—along with dozens of top-tier venture capital firms centered on New York’s famed Silicon Alley.

New York City has no fewer than a dozen incubators—ventures designed to help entrepreneurs create new ventures. Most are affiliated with universities—NYU Poly, SUNY Downstate, Fordham Foundry, Pratt Design, City College’s Zahn Center Columbia’s Audubon. Others are affiliated with industries (fashion’s CFDA) or companies (Accenture’s FinTech.) The most ambitious may be Cornell Tech, which is planning a full campus on Randall’s Island. The city also boasts regular “hackathons,” competitions where aspiring entrepreneurs, designers and software engineers get together—often without previously knowing the folks they team up with—to develop new business or apps around a specified theme.

The plants are grown without soil. All the water is recycled.

But sometimes, we are struck by innovative start-ups that have very little to do with computers, software, apps or cell phones. One such venture caught our attention last week. It is called Gotham Greens, a giant urban farm on rooftops in Greenpoint and Gowanus that has now expanded to Chicago. The company was founded in 2008, and opened its first giant greenhouse in 2011. The Gowanus facility sits atop a Whole Foods Market, one of the company’s largest customers. Gotham Greens is currently delivering 100 tons of premium-quality, pesticide-free produce annually. Gotham Greens grows bok choy, arugula, kale, basil and tomatoes, among other leafy greens and vegetables.

The hydroponic technique means that the nutrients are delivered through the water supply, and the plants are grown without soil. All the water is recycled.

With mid-city locations, the use of the word “local” takes on new meaning. The company likes to say it’s harvested before breakfast so that they can be on customers’ plates by lunch. The founders have backgrounds in architecture and strategic planning, and the management team includes a plant physiologist with a “discerning palate.”

Our excitement about the venture was piqued when we saw the new Ridley Scott movie, The Martian. In it, Matt Damon plays a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars. The character’s training is as a botanist, and one of the key dramatic themes is whether he will be able to grow food on the dry, inhospitable planet and not die from his quickly diminishing food supplies. At one point, creating a video diary for those future space travelers who might find his body, Damon says, “I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the best botanist on the planet.”

Gotham Green’s new venture belies the image of start-ups being all about apps. Whether they are the best botanists in the neighborhood is not for us to judge. But we do believe they give new meaning to the 1962 hit by The Drifters, “Up on the Roof.”

Up on the Roof