Entrepreneur: Tarren Wolfe, founder of Surrey, British Columbia-based Urban Cultivator, which produces automated hydroponic growing appliances for indoor home and commercial use.
"Aha" moment: After about 11 years with his company BC Northern Lights, which produces hydroponic growing boxes for medical marijuana, Wolfe saw a new market opportunity: the locavore movement. In 2010 he started Urban Cultivator, geared toward developing "the ultimate growing unit"--one that would allow professional and amateur chefs to produce their own micro-greens, herbs, flowers and veggies. "Everyone was talking about the 100-mile diet; we're offering the zero-mile diet," he says.
Grow power: Two units are now available: the Kitchen Cultivator and the Commercial Cultivator. The first is connected directly to home power and water systems and made to fit in a standard dishwasher profile or as a standalone "island" on wheels. The commercial unit is about the size of a refrigerator, with four tiers that can hold 16 flats. Each unit is preprogrammed with optimal growing cycles and includes automatic light, fan, temperature and watering settings.
Why? "Our motto is, ‘Grow your own,' and there are so many benefits," Wolfe says, noting that freshly grown greens provide more nutrients than precut ones; additionally, the Cultivator requires no pesticides and saves energy that would have been used for transporting food. Wolfe says the units can pay for themselves in one to two years.
Customers: The Jamie Oliver Foundation, Vancouver's C Restaurant and Four Seasons hotels in Vancouver and Whistler, British Columbia, are among those using the Cultivator.
Marketing: Wolfe has garnered local media coverage, and he pitched to VCs on the Canadian reality show Dragons' Den in May 2011; word-of-mouth has also produced leads. So far, 178 Kitchen Cultivators and 84 Commercial Cultivators have been sold.
Cost: The standard kitchen unit starts at $2,200; the commercial unit is $6,000.
Up next: More deals are in the works with restaurants, nutrition stores and hotels, including three more Four Seasons in the U.S. and Canada. Wolfe wants to reach out to TV cooking shows as well as to grocery stores like Whole Foods Market that could offer a "living produce aisle."