December 2, 2004

Students Produce Eco-Friendly Fertilizer

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Think back to great ideas that have changed the world, and you will find that they started small: Franklin had has kite and Newton had his apple. These college students, however, have their garbage.

TerraCycle is a student-run company that relies on trash — and an army of red worms — to create organic fertilizers that are completely eco-friendly. Originally started at Princeton three years ago, a branch of the company has wormed its way into Cornell.

“Literally everything — from the packaging to the sprayers to the products themselves — would have ended up in a landfill,” said Steve Kurz ’07, who started the Ithaca hydroponics division.

TerraCycle produces its product by feeding garbage to red worms to be reprocessed. The result, literally ‘worm poop,’ is then liquefied and packaged in reused 20 oz. plastic bottles and misprinted gallon containers.

Its two current products include TerraCycle Plant Food spray and ProFusion, an organic plant stimulant for hydroponics nutrient bases. They are 100 percent organic and outperform chemical competitors.

When Kurz read about the TerraCycle’s unique concept, he knew he had to contact Tom Szaky and Jon Beyer, the Princeton students who had co-founded the business.

“I called [Szaky] and said if he could get the company that far without some of the great things that Cornell has to offer — a great school of agriculture, an entrepreneurship network, two undergraduate business programs and a business school — just imagine what we could do with TerraCycle with all these resources,” Kurz said.

Armed with a sense of humor and business savvy, his team is now tackling the hydroponics industry from their own Ithaca office. Working with him are Sean Quarry ’05, Bryan Chen ’05, David Gull ’07, Mike Rapawy ’06, Michael Mormile ’05, Jared Hakimi ’08 and Kevin Martineau ’07.

Their start is modest, but they have big plans for the Ithaca division.

“For now, the weekly business trips to our office consist of overstuffing Steve’s sedan full of grown men. What can I say, every company has to have its humble beginnings,” Chen said. But, “the challenges that arise drive us and keep things exciting. There are always plenty of risks associated with any start-up, but this was a risk I could not see myself pass,” Chen explained.

The team’s commitment to TerraCycle’s growth is evident in the way business spills from office to home.

Case in point: in one corner of Kurz’s house sit plants that look ready for a science fair. They are shrouded in light and tin foil. Kurz explains that he is conducting his own experiment to compare TerraCycle ProFusion to competitors’ chemical hydroponics products. So far, TerraCycle is winning.

“It’s tough to give the plants attention with all of the schoolwork,” said Kurz. Luckily, TerraCycle’s research and development facility at the New Jersey Eco-Complex is on the job. There, research is done alongside Rutgers University and NASA scientists.

However, Kurz hopes to bring future hydroponics research to Ithaca and involve Cornell groups and departments in the project.

“TerraCycle is one-of-a-kind. It is business, entrepreneurship, environmentalism and goofy college kids all mixed together,” Kurz said.

Archived article by Irena Djuric
Sun Staff Writer