Ted Caplow is a pro at finding opportunity in unlikely places. Where one person might see an over-crowded school, he sees a big flat roof with endless possibilities. Or where another might see one of the most polluted rivers in the country, he figures, “Why not build a floating greenhouse on it?”
That kind of thinking drives NY Sun Works, a non-profit founded by Caplow in 2003 to promote sustainability education, particularly in urban schools. The bulk of the organization’s work involves building hydroponic greenhouses in classrooms, on rooftops and, most famously, right on the Hudson River (the so-called Science Barge now has a permanent home on the Yonkers waterfront). The idea behind the greenhouses is to introduce students to sustainable agriculture practices at a young age. Meanwhile, the schools are more than happy to welcome the additional science resources amid ever-shrinking budgets.
“Our country is waking up to the fact that we have a huge unmet need for science education and we’re slipping behind our peer nations,” says Caplow, who himself learned the importance of protecting the environment at a very young age, albeit far away from a classroom. “When I was 8 years old, I went snorkeling on a coral reef in Jamaica and was bowled over by the explosion of colors and shapes. When I went back to that reef five years later, it was all gone, and that really puzzled me for a while. I couldn’t believe that a natural treasure like that could disappear so rapidly.”
Over the years, Caplow developed what he calls a “green heart” which, combined with his keen enterprising mind, makes him the perfect model for today’s environmental innovator. He can hang with the activists (his freshman biology class was taught by the famed conservationist E.O. Wilson), but he also understands the market forces that drive the green-tech sector. “I find the ballyhooed conflict between the environment and the economy pretty artificial at times. There is tremendous profit to be made in green technology and environmental innovation. Because at heart, most green tech is about greater efficiency, which is also the key to greater profits in most businesses.”
That emphasis on immediate and tangible efficiency benefits extends to Caplow’s work as chairman of BrightFarms, the commercial arm of his earth-saving operation. BrightFarms builds hydroponic greenhouses at or near supermarkets, allowing big vendors to sell a variety of fruits and vegetables without having to ship them halfway across the country. And if greenhouses on land and sea aren’t enough, Caplow is also working on implementing vertically integrated greenhouse technology allowing for skyscraper-like hydroponic systems rising up to 100 feet in the air, while keeping all the farming activity at the ground level. “Our primary emphasis is building physical systems first, then building programs around them. I have a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘Build it, and they will come.'”
But sometimes being an activist, an entrepreneur, and an engineer still isn’t enough, as Caplow discovered when working to make his Science Barge a reality. “Even though we found many friends and supporters in New York City’s power structure, we were doing something that hadn’t been done before. For the Science Barge project, we had to convince the Parks department, the Hudson River Park Trust, City Hall, the borough president, three community boards, the Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Coast Guard that the barge would be safe and beneficial for kids.” Lucky for the thousands of young people who ended up visiting the barge, Caplow is as effective at evangelizing as he is at engineering.
Like overcrowded schools and polluted rivers, Caplow views impending constraints on natural resources as an opportunity rather than a crisis. And with his model of innovating today, while educating the innovators of tomorrow, Caplow is more than up to the task. “It’s an exciting challenge and an exciting time to be alive.”