HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 130

Houston innovator: 'The climate has already changed' — here's the impact indoor farming can make

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast just ahead of Earth Day. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Modern agriculture and produce farming is not sustainable — whether you're using the environmental impact definition of that word or in terms of a lasting economy.

This concept has been made abundantly clear to Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., a vertical indoor farming company producing leafy greens and herbs and delivering them locally to grocery stores in Texas and nearby states.

"The inspiration for Dream Harvest is really the problem with our food system and agriculture today," Shauk says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Thirty-five percent of the produce grown is thrown away before you even have a chance to eat it. Almost more astounding than that is that 80 percent of our water use as a nation is agricultural."

Shauk brings up California as an example because the state's constant water shortage is hindering outdoor farming. The country relies on California for leafy greens, and both due to the lack of water and the fact that it takes produce seven to 10 days to travel from the West Coast to Texas grocery aisles, it's not an ideal process in any way. Dream Harvest can change that.

"The climate is changing now. We talk about Earth Day and the importance of realizing our impact on the planet, but we are already there," Shauk says on the show. "The climate has already changed."

The future of produce depends on making more environmentally friendly changes to the supply chain, and new technologies are enabling vertical indoor farming to effect these changes in some part. Dream Harvest recently received a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston to scale production. Shauk says he's also using the funding to support research and development to expand into other types of produce, but he has a lot to consider — affordability of the produce, maintaining sustainability, and more.

"It's going to take a lot of work and a lot of research. What I do know is we've come a long way with leafy greens," Shauk says. "When we started, we weren't growing in a way that makes financial sense with the amount of money we have to spend growing the product — and now we do."

Some of the reasons for advances in vertical farming is new technology — which is coming out of a slightly different green industry.

"Cannabis has really driven a lot of the innovation — there's been so much money poured into the marijuana industry to grow it for commercial sale, and that's evolved a rapid development in technology for indoor growing," Shauk says, adding that one example of this is indoor lighting. "There's so much interest in making money on marijuana, that we're benefiting off that from produce."

Shauk shares more about the future of Dream Harvest and vertical farming, as well as what Houstonians can do to shrink their carbon footprint, on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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