Steven Bourne and Brandon Hebor are the founders of Ripple Farms, an agri-tech start-up dedicated to tackling food insecurity through aquaponics. Bringing farm to city, the social enterprise merges aquaculture and hydroponics to provide a new and alternative approach to a fully sustainable method of food production.
Ripple Farms has been offering a green solution to food insecurity since launching in 2016, and judging from the numerous partners and projects they’ve acquired, to the $2.75 million the pair have fundraised for a new project, there is a growing appetite.
Steven Bourne shares how Ripple Farms started, and his experience with starting a business.
When asked about Ripple Farms, Steven Bourne describes the business as providing an “integrated” solution to food insecurity. Through the self-contained and self-perpetuating food production spaces for food production developed for their clients, the solutions devised by Ripple Farms also provide additional opportunities from employment and retail to education programs. Integrated, it seems, is the perfect word the for the innovative start-up.
As with all business ideas, what Ripple Farms is today is not what Steven and Brandon set out to create. In fact, the two met by chance – introduced by a mutual friend with plans to start a joint business. But the second Steven and Brandon bonded over a shared interest in and passion for sustainable development and aquaponics, a new path was set.
“At the beginning of our next meeting I actually came to the table with a business proposal I had written about a year prior that is the foundation of Ripple Farms today,” says Steven.
The pair are a perfect union of business and expertise – Steven from a business background and Brandon from science and agriculture – providing a solid starting point for their joint venture. While this established a framework for the business, Steven says it is the unifying power of food that is at the core of what they do.
“Something Brandon always says is that food has the ability to bring everyone around the table, no matter their race, religion, beliefs…whatever it is, everyone eats. And that’s kind of the foundation of culture as well,” says Steven.
“No matter where you travel, everyone has a grandmother, and everyone has a favourite dish by that grandmother. Food touches everyone so it’s a great way to integrate with everyone.”
Ripple Farms started as a pilot project in Evergreen Brickworks in November 2016 – a 150-square foot custom-built shipping container with a greenhouse on top that grows food and supplies fresh vegetables to the café on-site. With only 200m separating the shipping container and the café, the structure signified a truly local and modern take on the farm-to-fork food experience.
“We poured our life savings into it,” says Steven.
“Futurpreneur was one of our first sources of money in, [and] that was a huge success, seeing that validation from creating nothing to something and actually being able to move forward with it.”
Steven and Brandon have since focused on growing Ripple Farms by creating sustainable solutions for various partners and community organizations. They have partnered with Ontario’s largest trout farm, Blue Spring Trout Farms, and Seneca College, and have delivered education sessions on urban agriculture and sustainable business models to students and Indigenous communities.
One of the most meaningful projects the pair have worked on has been their collaboration with DANI, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing and nurturing independence for adults with disabilities. The organization has a greenhouse on the property in Thornhill, and was looking to increase the level of programming available to participants in the space; a mutual connection introduced the two groups and the project took flight throughout the winter and spring of 2019.
“We went in, we assessed the situation, we eventually said yes and got that operation up and running for them where they have some of their members working in the greenhouse, working a living wage, and producing micro-greens for not only their catering kitchen but also selling that to restaurants. That was a great milestone story for us,” says Steven.
Having a lasting impact is an important aspect of their business, and it’s one that Steven also extends in his mentoring work.
“I also try to mentor and coach other people who are in the same space, or are maybe just starting up a company now, to give them a bit of a helping hand and help solve all the issues that they’re working towards as social entrepreneurs.”
Today Ripple Farms continues to grow and evolve as a boutique firm, with new projects lining up and a team of four steering the urban agriculture and sustainability movement forward. The long nights, countless business model iterations and immense pressure to make payroll and acquire new projects has been an exercise in patience and persistence. But for Steven and Brandon, the learning experience of entrepreneurship has been invaluable.
“We joke that I could’ve done an MBA or start a company, and I’ve hands-down learned 10 times what I would have learned doing another graduate program or MBA,” says Steven.
“If any entrepreneur says they know everything they’re lying. You learn something new everyday. Not being the smartest person in the room is always the best place to be because you’re always looking for lessons from other people and trying to learn.”
When it comes to managing the pressures and uncertainty that comes with entrepreneurship, Steven says focus on your driving force – your vision.
“Make sure you have the passion for what you’re doing. Don’t focus on trying to be rich. If you’re doing something just to get a quick buck, or to be rich, you’re going to lose passion for it, and people see that,” says Steven.
“And that also makes life a little more enjoyable – doing something that you love and that you believe in.”