By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
One of the recommendations entrepreneurs frequently hear from advisors and mentors is the importance of a co-founder. It makes the journey easier, particularly if the two individuals have complementary skills and experiences.
That is certainly a key ingredient for the team behind Urban Valley Farms, the local start-up with a stated mission of providing “a sustainable source of protein on a scale that can have a real impact.” In their case, it is crickets they raise and then grind into a powder.
Carson Bone, a native of Columbia, TN, and John Borden, who grew-up in Knoxville, are the co-founders of the company that has its home base at Sizzle TechStart, the co-working incubator we spotlighted in this recent teknovation.biz article. It’s located in the farmhouse where Sam Weaver, a well-known serial entrepreneur, started Proton Power. Ironically, both Bone and Borden were on the same biosystems team from Proton Power that worked on several of the Wampler’s Farm Sausage installations as well as Proton Power’s new biodiesel facility in Rockwood.
During a recent interview with the duo at Sizzle TechStart, we saw first-hand the friendship and mutual respect the co-founders have for each other. It was first displayed when we asked a simple question: “What’s the genesis of Urban Valley Farms?” Borden pointed to Bone, and they both started laughing!
“It needed to be in agriculture,” Bone explained. “That’s what I know, but I also knew it just couldn’t be me. I had to convince someone else.” Borden fit the bill, in no small part because of the candor-based relationship the former co-workers at Proton Power have. “He’ll tell me straight-up if I’m wrong,” Bone said.
Another criteria for the start-up was it did not need to be a capital-intensive operation.
Because Bone said he wanted to be part of a start-up, he had been searching for just the right idea. “I read daily, and the topic that kept coming-up was an alternative source for protein,” he explained. In early 2017, there was an opportunity to participate in the “What’s the Big Idea” competition sponsored by The Development Corporation of Knox County and coordinated by the Knoxville Entrepreneur Center (KEC).
“We did not win the competition, but it caused us to do a deeper analysis,” Bone explained. “We did not even have a product, but we drove people to a website to understand what they wanted.”
Then, in the summer of 2017, they participated in the “AgWorks Accelerator” that KEC offered in conjunction with AgLaunch out of Memphis. After those two experiences, it was “game on” earlier this year when Urban Valley Farms started growing and harvesting crickets in a retrofitted old storage trailer just beyond the Sizzle TechStart lab.
“The demand for alternative sources of protein is outpacing the supply nationally,” Borden says with Bone adding,” We have two competitors right now who produce on a larger scale.”
The two co-founders have taken a conservative approach to growing the business in several ways. For starters, Borden has a full-time job elsewhere, devoting his after-hours to their joint venture. Bone continues to work part-time at Proton Power and also part-time at Urban Valley Farms, a flexible arrangement that he credits to Weaver and his commitment to entrepreneurship.
The start-up is also pacing itself, ramping-up to the time in the not too distant future when it is harvesting a consistent product on a daily basis. Urban Valley Farms currently harvests a generation of crickets every 45 days, although it could increase production significantly with additional space.
“We want to be ahead of the (growth) curve, but not too far,” Bone says of the start-up’s strategy. “It could get out-of-hand quickly if you allow them (the crickets) to proliferate faster.”
While that has not yet occurred, there’s a significant opportunity on the horizon. The start-up is currently in negotiations with a large nutritional supplement provider that has more than 70,000 customers on its eCommerce platform.
Once a large contract is secured, Urban Valley Farms expects to pursue a small capital raise of about $500,000 that will allow it to secure a 7,500-square foot building to grow and harvest crickets on a daily basis.
It’s been a team effort so we had to ask how easy has it been to work together to grow their start-up? “We joke that we always start at different ends and end-up in the middle,” Borden says.