By David Cruz
Consider the humble basil plant. It grows fast, tastes good and is good for you. That’s not a stretch of a metaphor for what happens at the Rutgers University EcoComplex Clean Energy Innovation Center in Burlington County, an incubator where, quite literally, small business and environmental stewardship grow in the same soil, even though, for the most part here, there is no soil.
“We are providing them an incubator,” said EcoComplex Director Serpil Guran. “If you think about little hatchlings, your business is like a little egg, your hatching and you need support, and we’re nurturing young companies. We’re providing, as you see in our greenhouse or in our tech scale up labs. So we provide lab space, business support. We have business experts, how to write a business plan and human resources support, labeling, marketing and maybe introduction to legislators.”
Like Reed Gusciora and Herb Conaway, assemblymen who organized this tour to showcase efforts in the Garden State, like the EcoComplex where entrepreneurs can find the fertile ground to do good and do well. Tenant companies that have taken root here here include Olive Creek Farms, run by George Saridakis and his wife, Susan.
“We really couldn’t start a venture like this without a facility such as the EcoComplex because they enable us to, at least when we started, they enabled us to acquire a facility that had the technology that we needed without the multi-million dollar investment to try a concept,” said Saridakis, standing among a quarter acre indoor field of basil being grown hydroponically.
“In this one zone … we can produce the same amount of basil that would be grown on 15 acres in the field on an annualized basis,” he said.
The company — George was already in the produce business and Susan joined after getting laid off from her corporate job — has grown over the past year. It started with George and Susan and now has 15 employees. Their one-year lease is almost up and they’re ready — like the proverbial seedling — to flourish in their own space. George says they’re looking now.
“When businesses come to your town, particularly if they’re clean businesses, it brings jobs; it brings traffic. It helps support other businesses and helps reduce the cost of running the town, so we want business to come to Burlington County,” said Conaway. “We’ll beat Mercer and Monmouth counties. We’ll do whatever it takes to get their business here.”
“We’re talking about things like bio mass, where we can capture food waste products and convert them into energy, which really makes the energy of the future more efficient and less pollutants that are going to be in the air,” said Gusciora. “Every entrepreneur that we saw here today is into recycling, reclaiming garbage and making good use of it so it’s less products that are going into a landfill, less items that will pollute our streams, and recapture that and put it, not only back into the environment, but back into the economy.”
“When you are creating clean energy, sustainable food systems that means that you are respecting the environment,” said Guran. “That means that your carbon footprint, your water consumption footprint is much less. That means you’re helping mitigate climate change.”
In some cultures, basil is used medicinally. In this case, the hope is that it can help ailing local economies get well and help entrepreneurs make some green from being green.