Coming to a Rooftop Near You
Story by Ana Y. Leon
hat if you could get more local than vegetables from the nearest farm—for Bostonians, a mere seven miles from the State House? What if you could access fresh herbs and leafy greens all year round? Is Boston ready for this shake-up? Alice Leung, Founder and CEO of Top Sprouts, a company ready to “integrate rooftop greenhouse systems” across the country, thinks so. She wants to bring fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs closer to you—as close as your rooftop—all year round. Her idea stems from a trip to New York’s Science Barge, “a self-sustaining renewable energy project.” The Science Barge, recently relocated to Yonkers, NY, is a sustainable urban Greenhouse powered by a biodiesel generator, wind turbine and biofuels. Its crops are grown hydroponically in a closed loop environment, using mineral solutions in water instead of soil and reducing water loss by as much as 10 times when compared to traditional farming methods. Its mission, like Alice’s, is to educate urban dwellers in sustainable living. She says “Educating the general public on the issues of the current agricultural system and knowing that food travels thousands of miles to the northeast during winter.” This is her motivation for working in the green industry, after earning her MBA from Babson College. Before her trek to business school, Alice served as community organizer for the Chinese Progressive Association for three years. She worked side-by-side with Boston’s Chinatown residents to overcome language barriers, increase community involvement, and advocate for a voice in new developments in the neighborhood. During this time, a number of large housing developments moved into the area creating a “ripple effect in which hundreds of families saw a shocking increase of rent by 1025%.” Despite these battles, she remained invested in tackling immigrant issues including housing, access to better jobs, education and helping those looking for a better quality of life.
With her dedication to community, Alice, the sales and marketing force, and the Top Sprouts’ management team (Akshay Kolte, director of finances; Del Mandawe, who oversees project construction) is geared up to start construction of their greenhouses. The structures are pre-fabricated with an aluminum frame, hard plastics and glass. For it to be environmentally sustainable, a closed-loop system (some or all of its output is used as its input) is installed. Alice explains, “Constructing a closelooped system eliminates the problem of run-off,” which occurs when water flowing along the ground becomes contaminated. The greenhouse will use passive cooling in the summer and thermal blankets in the winter, allowing plants to thrive year round. Situating the greenhouse atop buildings adds another heating element by capturing waste heat the building emits. Supermarkets with large refrigeration units, bakeries and restaurants with ovens, and even old buildings, emit a great deal of heat making them ideal sites for rooftop greenhouses. Alice notes that, “Top Sprouts is not introducing new technology. Instead, we are fitting the mechanics together so that their environmental and social impact makes agronomic sense.” Top Sprouts will have a Greenhouse grower planning and maintaining a growing calendar that focuses on the needs of the community. As a start-up, they are still figuring out the best model for selling the produce. For now, they are considering wholesale to restaurants and grocery stores, which will allow these businesses to offer fresh, local greens and herbs year round. Their first greenhouse will launch atop a 30,000 square foot building, containing a bakery, in Boston, MA. The team is looking for funding from investors interested in the green industry and potentially government grants. The next time you are in the city, don’t forget to look up; you may see a rising glass structure growing tomatoes and basil in December.
Issue 7 (Asian Boston Magazine)