We catch up with Kate Hofman, CEO and co-founder of GrowUp Urban Farms, to find out how things have changed for her and the company since winning the EIT CHANGE Award for Climate-KIC in 2013.
In her own words, Kate Hofman (pictured right) wants to change the way we feed people in cities. She wants to show how fresh food can be grown anywhere in a city, in a way that's sustainable and commercially scalable. It's this desire that drove her and GrowUp Urban Farms to create the GrowUp Box, an upcycled shipping container with a greenhouse on top that's powered by the science of aquaponics. An innovative product with a great capacity for social impact, GrowUp also led to Kate being named the very first winner of the EIT CHANGE Award for Climate-KIC in 2013.
Less than two years on and Kate hasn't slowed down. "It's been a very exciting couple of years," she says. "After building our prototype, the GrowUp Box, we worked on how to scale the business and build a commercial model for urban farming using aquaponics. By the end of 2014, we’d successfully raised over £1.1 million of funding to build our first commercial farm, which is what we’re working on now. We’ve also taken on our first employee."
For Kate, the GrowUp Urban Farms story began back during 'The Journey', the Climate-KIC summer school that she credits for giving her the skills and confidence to set up her own business. Admittance into the Climate-KIC Accelerator followed, where the Climate-KIC team helped Kate to transform GrowUp Urban Farms from an idea into a commercially viable business.
This close relationship with the EIT and Climate-KIC has brought a variety of rewards to both Kate and GrowUp Urban Farms. "Probably the best benefit for us has been our fantastic Mobility intern Mandy!" Kate enthuses. "Having another Climate-KICer on the team has been invaluable – someone who shares our passion for innovation and meeting the challenges of climate change. We also still love being part of the Climate-KIC network, particularly the Alumni Association – I really enjoyed the CKAA get-together in Valencia last year and seeing the energy and potential in that group of people."
Yet despite their impressive progress, she still considers GrowUp Urban Farms to be at the start of its journey. "In order to have a real impact, we have to scale our business exponentially, and that’s something we think about every day – how can we grow more food and feed more people. But I think we’re starting to see a lot more interest in locally grown food for cities, and we’re proud to be part of that movement."
The EIT isn't the only organisation to recognise the potential of Kate and GrowUp Urban Farms. She's been selected as a London Leader 2015 by the London Sustainable Development Commission, which annually supports individuals who have shown commitment to tackling the numerous sustainability challenges facing London.
But what does that mean on a practical level? "During my year as a London Leader, GrowUp Urban Farms and I will be supported through training, masterclasses, pairing with an experienced mentor and an increased opportunity to network with other leaders in sustainable business," Kate explains. "It’s a great opportunity to get more visibility for our business and to develop our reputation as leaders in the field of sustainability."
Alongside this, the next generation of the GrowUp Box is coming. "Since we first built the GrowUp Box, we’ve been refining the design based on what we’ve learnt through operating the Box, and also through feedback from customers and the wider market," Kate says, when asked about the Box's future. "We think the Box has the potential to be a fantastic tool for education and learning, and for building food resilience in small communities. So we’ve made some modifications to the design to make the Box easier to access and more simple to build. Now we’re exploring the opportunities with customers in London with the eventual aim of making the design more widely available."
As for the future of GrowUp Urban Farms as a whole, Kate is full of enthusiasm. "We're really focused on getting our first commercial-scale farm up and running, and building the operating and training model that goes alongside the farm, so that we can build more farms, more efficiently, in the future."
Kate Hofman has accomplished what many young entrepreneurs aspire to: she's turned an innovative start-up into a sustainable business that's beginning to have a real impact on the way people are fed in cities. When asked what advice she'd offer to this year's EIT CHANGE Award nominees, as they look to emulate her success, she says, "Don't worry about making mistakes! It happens all the time, especially when you’re doing something new and solving difficult problems. You just have to learn from those mistakes and do things differently next time."