Fortune went hunting on Tuesday for the coolest startup trying to turn sustainability into a business. After hearing the pitches and weighing the potential impact of their ideas, we’ve picked a winner.
Fortune invited four “Cool Companies” to Fortune’s Brainstorm E conference in Carlsbad, Calif. to showcase their businesses to the audience and judges. The entrepreneurs from the following companies participated: Eco-farming upstart Grove, solar-powered water cleaning system company PV Pure, sustainable fashion brand Tom Cridland and its “30-Year Collection,” and green modular builder Barcelona Housing Systems.
And the winner was…Grove!
Grove CEO Gabe Blanchet ended up hitting all the right notes on stage with a four-minute pitch that honed in immediately on what the company does: Help people grow their own fresh healthy food—and what it sells. To achieve that, it sells an aquaponic indoor garden that combines an aquarium filled with fish, LED lights, and a garden bed encased in a bamboo box to grow fresh herbs, veggies, leafy greens, strawberries and other crops.
You can even grow marijuana. But Blanchet, who co-founded the company with Jamie Byron, told Fortune the brand is really focused on teaching people how to grow food.
Grove introduced its product, the Grove Ecosystem, six months ago, and has already sold “hundreds” of units, Blanchet says. Grove is on pace to rake in $1 million in sales before the end of year, he says.
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The crux of his pitch:
Our business model is pretty simple. We ship the ecosystem for $4,500 directly to homes, restaurants, offices, and schools fully assembled and ready to grow. Every month or two our customers buy curated seeds, fish food, and supplies through a mobile app called Grove OS. Grove OS communicates with sensors right to the ecosystem to control the efficient LED lights, the fans, and the pumps. We get all the data back from each ecosystem as well. Grove OS gives you a green thumb. It literally teaches you how to farm. It’s like Farmville, but in real life.
The three judges: Ilan Gur, founding director of Cyclotron Road; Dhiraj Malkani, investment director at SAEV; Abe Yokell, a partner RockPort Capital Partners; all supported the Grove’s idea and business plan. But they had one concern: the cost of the company’s product.
Blanchet believes the company can eventually achieve a price of under $2,000, which he says will help it appeal to the mass market. The company is already exploring financing options to customers beyond the 12-month payment plan that’s currently available, Blanchet told Fortune after the competition.
It could be similar to what companies like SolarCity did to make solar panels more accessible such as lowering the annual interest rate or extending the length of the financing period.
“I think there’s a megatrend here: solar and helping people grow their own food is turning people from consumers into producers,” Blanchet says. “Once people are producing value, the financing options become really interesting.”
The company that uses fish to manage vegetable gardens:
Partnerships with companies, some of which approached Blanchet during Brainstorm E, could also help lower the price of the unit through distribution.
“We’re not in a big rush to do this, but it is something over time that could really help drive scale,” he added.
The data component is another compelling piece of the puzzle for Grove. “This is a data-driven company,” Blanchet told Fortune, noting that its 16-person team includes Apple, Bose, and MIT alumni. “The most interesting data we’re seeing is around agriculture, what systems are people setting, what types of crops, and the outcomes they have.”
Blanchet says eventually the company will be able to use the data to help people tweak their systems to achieve different results with their food such as a sweeter cherry tomato.
“We’re inspired by what Elon Musk and Tesla have done,” Blanchet says. “They brought something that’s new to people, the electric car, and took a no holds barred approach, especially with the Model S. We want to do the same.”