(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a series spotlighting the start-ups that participated in the recent “AgLaunch Bootcamp” hosted by the AgLaunch organization and the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center.)
“It’s been more of a brainchild than a true start-up until the last six months,” Mat Halter told us a few months ago in explaining his start-up that was one of four participating in the recent “AgLaunch Bootcamp” in Knoxville.
Named Sustainable Fermentation Systems, the company has developed a device and process for which he has secured a provisional patent. The idea involves the recycling of fermentation off-gas for greenhouse CO2 enrichment, resulting in increased crop yields and productivity.
In essence, what is an unused by-product of one enterprise – excess CO2 generated by breweries, wineries and distilleries – becomes an important resource for those who own and operate greenhouses for crop production.
“Plants eat CO2 and are limited by the amount around them,” Halter said, noting that CO2 levels can drop quickly in confined spaces like a greenhouse. This results in the owners having to buy bottled carbon dioxide or produce it by using propane burners.
Both approaches clearly add cost to the final product.
“We want to improve the efficiency of greenhouses,” Halter explains. It’s a technical area he understands very well, having earned a B.S. in Biochemistry at East Tennessee State University and his M.S. in Plant Sciences and Biotechnology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“I came-up with the concept about two years ago,” the Chattanooga native told us. “CO2 enrichment is being done everywhere, but the fermentation approach is not. My plan was to open a greenhouse next to a brewery and use the CO2 generated through fermentation in the greenhouse.”
Halter, who has thus far advanced his concept through a small investment by friends and family, said the funding required for the original plan – co-locate a greenhouse with a brewery – proved too much of a challenge.
Through his journey, Halter says he discovered that “the true value is not a single greenhouse but many greenhouses.” Now, his “go-to-market” strategy is to license the technology and facilitate relationships between those who generate excess CO2 through fermentation and the owners of greenhouses.
Halter sees a three- to five-year timeframe to get to market, at least in part because he has a full-time job, and there are at least three phases before full commercialization. The initial phase is a small-scale proof of concept that confirms that fermentation off-gas works as he thinks it will. Phase 2 would be manufacturing a full-scale device as well as the development of the software to control the device. Phase 3 is partnering with a large-scale greenhouse producer.
Like many tech-focused entrepreneurs, Halter is currently exploring a variety of grant opportunities, particularly those under the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs.
“The benefit from the ‘AgLaunch Bootcamp’ was immense,” Halter said. “I’m a tech person, and the team helped me develop a working revenue model among many other things.”