Design Lab’s Stories #2: We Are The New Farmers

NYU MakerSpace

We are delighted to share with you our second Design Lab’s stories of prototyping and innovation at NYU MakerSpace – featuring the We Are the New Farmers team.

We Are the New Farmers started as a project at the MakerSpace, funded by the Prototyping Fund ((a collaboration of the Design Lab @ NYU Tandon MakerSpace and the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute) and has grown and greatly evolved since Fall 2016 when Jonas met with the first members of his team, at the time, Super Food Computer. Some of the members of the original team recently graduated and created a new venture.  (To learn more about We Are the New Farmers and spirulina, please check: (www.new-farmers.com). The urban farm they created is still in the MakerSpace and is now integrated in the Urban Lab VIP Project, led by Omar (read our Design Lab’s Story 3 to learn more about the Urban Lab).

Below you’ll read the story written by Jonas Guenther, one of the co-founders of We Are the New Farmers. We love how Jonas exemplifies all what we aim to create through the Design Lab and the MakerSpace: taking the risk to try an idea, experimenting and continuously learning and iterating, collaborating across disciplines and giving back to the community – through his efforts in creating a new model for sustainable food with We Are the New Farmers venture, but also by creating the Urban Food Lab Series to share his passion for food and sustainability with other students… Enjoy the read!

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Give us a bit of background info on you your team

Today, We Are The New Farmers has three co-founders: Michael and me, we both graduated in May from NYU Tandon and Dan, who studied at Princeton.

Michael and I met in the Makerspace in 2017: he was part of the group of volunteers who helped setting up the farm. Dan came to one of our Urban Food Lab events (run by at the time the Greenhouse, and what is now the Design Lab). He expressed interest in our project; and a few long conversations later, he decided to quit is job and became a co-founder.

Jonas, Michael and Dan

Tell us about your idea. What is it exactly? What problem does it try to solve? Who is the audience? 

We grow the micro-algae Spirulina in our farm in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Spirulina binds CO2 from the atmosphere and is one of the most sustainable sources of protein and among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Spirulina today is mostly grown overseas and processed into a dried powder that can have a funky taste. By growing it in the city, we can offer it as a fresh paste, that tastes better and is easier to use. We want to make Spirulina a staple in our diet to increase the nutritional value of each meal and to help fight the climate crisis.

From We Are the New Farmers website

What first inspired to develop this idea?

In the next 30 years 2.5 billion additional people will live on this planet and we will need to find ways to feed all those additional people. At the same time, our current food system is one of the biggest contributors to global warming, excessive pesticide use is harming the environment and the food that arrives on our plates lacks the micro-nutrients that we need. The question of how we grow our food in the future more sustainably and healthy is what drives us since day one.

 

Iteration and prototyping in images:

Plants in the Food Computer (Prototype #1)

                                                                                                Some of the first prototypes 

Prototyping Fund Showcase

Sketches for the Farm (prototype #3) in the basement of the MakerSpace 

 

And how’s the ride been so far? 

In our first year we received funding from the Prototyping Fund: we were awardees for both phase 1 and phase 2. During the first Prototyping Showcase, two of the Prototyping Fund mentors recommended us to apply to the NYU Green Grant from the Office of Sustainability. This is what we did in our second year and we were fortunate to receive the Green Grant as this allowed us to build the farm that is today in the basement of the Makerspace. We also used part of the Grant to participate in workshops and conferences to learn more about the food ecosystem and build up our network. This summer (2018) we participated in the Summer Launchpad accelerator program at the Leslie eLab. In September we moved into our very first own production space, which is a great feeling!

What role the Design Lab @ NYU MakerSpace and the MakerSpace played in your journey?

The NYU MakerSpace was the perfect launchpad for us. I remember the day the MakerSpace opened for the first time in September 2016 – I had just arrived at NYU – I was talking to Mike Knox about my idea of food production and right away, he promised to support me in whatever ways and to organize my first financial support “to get me started right away”. I met my entire team in the Makerspace, the mentors pointed out the resources that I would need, and I got the space and tools I needed to get started.

  

                                             Building the farm in the MakerSpace

At the end of our first year, when we received the Green grant funding we were looking for a space to build our next version of our prototype which was much bigger than our first version. Eventually, Victoria Bill kindly accepted to host us in the basement of the MakerSpace as she had hosted the previous version. Later on, we were also encouraged by the Design Lab team to create what became the Urban Food Lab events, where we met Dan, our current co-founder.

But the most important part for me was the continuous encouragement and support of all the students in the Makerspace that kept me motivated even when things got difficult.

Tell us a bit about prototyping and its iterative nature 

I could have spent hours and hours in the library researching different ways of growing food, but the reason I am know able to run a company is because I learned about growing food by building prototypes. When I look at the farm today, I do not only see the things that work but I remember all the other things that didn’t work. You don’t prototype to proof that you are right, you prototype to find the many ways you were wrong.

What are your future plans for your idea?

We just moved into our first commercial production space in the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park and are currently busy increasing our production capacity. We want to see Spirulina on every plate and maybe someday you will be able to find our product on the supermarket shelf.

Jonas Guenther studied Management of Technology and graduated from Tandon in 2018 after spending 2 years working on We Are The New Farmers. Today he is working full-time on his startup trying to make our food healthier and more sustainable.

 

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