AURA brings nature into offices
Aquaponics comes to the workplace! Founded by Vincent Boissard and Thomas Demerens, two engineers who met in secondary school, AURA aims to contribute to the well being of corporate employees and to dietary self-sufficiency in the heart of cities.
When neo-farmers rediscover an ancient technique
How can we feed the cities of tomorrow while preserving natural resources? To answer this question, Vincent Boissard and Thomas Demerens turned to aquaponics, an ecological agriculture method that combines growing plants without soil (hydroponics) and farming fish (aquaculture). Graduates of the Lycée Aquacole de Guérande, they decided to create AURA (Responsible Urban Agriculture for the Future) in September 2015.
Invented by the Aztecs more than 2000 years ago, aquaponics has been receiving renewed interest from citizens around the world who view it as a sustainable solution to present and future dietary challenges. Indeed, aquaponics offers many advantages. “Since it uses a closed loop system and is made with recycled material, it economizes a lot of water - around 90% compared with traditional in-ground methods,” explains Thomas Demerens. A no-soil growing technique, aquaponics is a way to grow edible fish and organic plants (aromatics, fruits and vegetables) all year long, and is perfectly adapted to the constraints of an urban environment (lack of space, soil pollution, etc.).
WHAT IS AQUAPONICS?
Aquaponics is an ecological agriculture method that involves creating a mini-ecosystem in which fish, bacteria and plants coexist in perfect symbiosis. Fish waste is rich in nitrogen that is transformed into nitrates by bacteria inside an organic filter. The plants consume these nutrients necessary to their growth and help to purify the water, which can then be cycled back into the aquarium.
A change of route
“When we created AURA, our objective was to open an urban farm in the Nantes city centre in order to grow and sell produce in a market setting,” says Thomas. In December 2015, after working on their project for three months, the duo had to face the question of its economic viability. If the cost of operating an aquaponics farm is low, the cost of installation, on the other hand, is very high. It would take a long time for such a system to become profitable; too long for Vincent and Thomas. And so they decided to focus on companies, which they saw as unique spaces for raising awareness about an agriculture method still rare in France and Europe. They began to develop new business by showing employers how aquaponics could improve the well being of their employees and enrich the CSR aspect of their offer.
It was no longer a matter of selling aquaponics products, but the systems themselves, by offering companies a turnkey solution including the installation of an aquarium “that requires only a simple outlet”, as well as educational activities aimed at employees. A Proof of Concept was launched in August 2016 at the Cube in Issy-les-Moulineaux, and the first aquarium model was released in February 2017.
Like a fish in water
Hosted by Societe Generale’s Le Plateau since February 2017, the AURA team benefits from an “optimal infrastructure” for its development, as well as its efforts to market the aquaponics system. It was here that they installed their first marketable aquarium model. “When we were developing the product, we imagined exactly this type of coworking space. For us, it’s the ideal way to showcase the system,” says Bertrand Munier, Head of Operations, who joined AURA in January.
Beyond this, Thomas explains: “Le Plateau creates and maintains a veritable ecosystem. Working side by side with both internal and external startups allows us to address various types of issues and build a synergy of competencies. For example,” he continues, “a brainstorming session with the other residents on the value proposition of our product led us to adapt our marketing pitch.”
“At #LePlateau, we host startups that expose us to fields completely different from—and at the same time very close to—our own work,” explains Flore Jachimowicz, Le Plateau and Partnerships Manager. “Feeding nine billion human beings in 2050 is a problem that concerns us all. We will have to finance new production solutions such as aquaponics. AURA pushes us to consider the future role of our work, its evolution and our ability to offer support in the face of these major changes. And with their help, we are now starting to implement these systems in our office!”
As they process their first orders, Thomas and Vincent have not lost sight of their initial objective: producing organic fruits and vegetables and selling them through a short supply chain. “This early shift in focus helped them to realize that awareness-raising was indispensable in order to ensure the ongoing development of urban agriculture,” says Thomas, underscoring one of the essential qualities that a startup must possess: in the face of setbacks, knowing how to adapt and land back on its feet!