Truleaf Set To Begin Production At Innovative Farming Facilities
May 01st, 2015
With California’s drought raising concerns about food supply, Gregg Curwin is well placed to begin producing leafy greens out of his indoor farm near Truro.
Many of Atlantic Canada’s vegetables are grown in California. Curwin, president and CEO of TruLeaf Smart Plant Systems, said that’s problematic.
Nutrients are lost during transit and storage, and California’s drought is highlighting the vulnerability to supply disruptions.
Curwin intends the TruLeaf indoor production method as a way to improve the health of Atlantic Canadians and protect the food supply.
“About 90 per cent of the leafy greens eaten here come from California, and California is perilously close to running out of water,” Curwin said.
“Atlantic Canadians are among the least healthy people in North America. Good nutrition is key to health. Our greens will be ultra-fresh, ultra-nutritious and ultra-clean.”
TruLeaf vegetables will be available in Atlantic Canadian stores, restaurants and hospitals by September, at a price comparable to California organics, Curwin said.
The entrepreneur’s plans begin regionally, but his ambitions are international. Curwin said TruLeaf’s farming system can help feed the world.
His farm near Truro is being built inside a warehouse, but the technology can be adapted to allow farms to be created inside containers. These containers can be rapidly deployed anywhere, including to remote areas or disaster zones. The first deployable version will be operating in Nunavut this fall.
“We’re building an indoor farm in Iqaluit,” Curwin said. “There, a fresh lettuce can cost three times what Atlantic Canadians pay but offer less quality and nutrition.
“We’re also working with chefs at a resort in the Bahamas to create a culinary experience.”
The TruLeaf system grows plants in stacked trays under LED lights. Energy, including 90 per cent of water, is reused, and there is no effluent or runoff.
Curwin said the Truro facility will be one of the largest multi-level indoor farms in North America.
The New Brunswick-raised entrepreneur established TruLeaf in 2009.
He first majored in marketing and finance at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Later, he spent two decades in health-care innovation industries, including medical devices and retail.
He became intrigued with indoor farming after seeing a picture of a Japanese multi-level farm.
He raised seed capital from Innovacorp and private investors, receiving additional funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Curwin said TruLeaf has been supported and advised by Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture, the Perennia Innovation Centre and the people of Truro.
“I had zero experience in the space but hired people familiar with plants. I’m proud of how swiftly we evolved.”
TruLeaf has just completed a $4-million financing round that includes equity and debt. Raising capital on the East Coast is notoriously difficult, and investors favour tech companies that provide quick returns, Curwin said.
“The challenge is that venture capitalists are all giddy about the three-year exit (sale). One VC said, ‘I don’t look at anything that’s living.’
“But we say, ‘No, we’re a bigger story. It may take five to seven years, but you will change society and obtain a good return.’”
Fundraising was assisted by the fact agricultural technology is popular right now, Curwin said.
“Anything involving food, energy, water has become highly attractive.”
Beyond food production, Curwin said TruLeaf is working with a pharmaceutical company about growing drugs out of the Nova Scotia facility.
“We want to displace synthetics with precision-dose botanical extracts. Vaccine production can be done in facilities like ours where organic medical compounds can be grown in tobacco, which grows very fast.”
TruLeaf offers 30 plants in the leafy greens/herb category. Future plans include producing high-nutrient powders, oils and beverages.
The staff now stands at 12 and will soon rise to 20. Farm workers will receive an above-average hourly rate of $16 to $17.
Curwin said TruLeaf’s timing is good.
“Consumers are realizing the importance of diet. We can be a global leader.”
Disclaimer: Innovacorp, Acoa, Dalhousie and St. Mary’s are clients of Entrevestor.