A NEED, AN IDEA, AND A LOT OF OPPORTUNITY
Symbiotic Aquaponic, LLC was born out of a need in our society - a need for sustainable, responsible, and effective agriculture; a need for reconnection with our food through localized, familial, and community efforts; and a need for knowledge, understanding, and respect for the Earth and its limited natural resources. Kaben saw that aquaponics answered so many of these needs and so he set his compass in this direction. With years of farming experience, a strong sense of respect for the Earth, and freshly armed with a couple of graduate degrees, he set-out to make a difference in the world with aquaponics. Within a month he'd secured the support, partnership, and technical expertise of of his younger brother Shelby.
The first challenge was money, fresh out of graduate school Symbiotic Aquaponic was little more than a couple young entrepreneurs with more debt than capital to their names. Kaben and Shelby quickly began exploring options, finding opportunity with their tribe, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. The tribe enrolled the brothers in an asset-building program designed to empower individuals and businesses through investment matching with completion of the financial education program. With a few thousand dollars to their name, the brothers did what we're so often told not to do, they went and spent it all in one place. That place was Kiowa Public Schools.
Kiowa Public Schools serves the rural community of Southeast Oklahoma located in the midst of sprawling grassy prairies that border the Ouachita Mountatins. While the town of Kiowa counts approximately 700 residents, the school serves more than 300 students grades K-12. It's a conservative community where people live modestly and value self-reliance, tradition, and family. It was the perfect place to field-test our proof of concept for aquaponics. Kiowa Public Schools was also the first place where we found a champion willing to take a chance with us and our novel aquaponic ideas. With no "aquaponic" components easily accessible, the brothers sourced and re-purposed other items (farm equipment) to build the school's system. Food troughs for livestock and cement blocks created the structural components, while plumbing and system design were built into these elements. While not an aesthetic work of art, they sufficed for their purpose. The students were immediately on-board, intrigued and excited to use the system in their science classes and afterschool clubs (like Future Farmers of America); however, many others were skeptical. As classes worked the aquaponic garden and system began to produce, individuals across school, the staff, and community quickly embraced their new aquaponic system happy to use the lettuce for the lunchroom and sell starter plants to fundraise for clubs. The proof of concept was a success and so the brothers started to leverage this success to grow the company.
Kiowa Greenhouse Aquaponic System
Aquaponic Lettuce used in the School Cafeteria
Proof of Concept for Aquaponics at Kiowa Public Schools
The next challenge was to take this success and grow it. The Hitachi Foundation provided this unique opportunity. In 2013, the entrepreneurship applied for the Hitachi Foundation's Yoshiyama Young Entrepeneurship Program Award. Recipients of the awards are promising "young business leaders addressing social issues with market-based solutions." Also known as social entrepreneurs,these are people who make it their livelihood to do good in the world through their products and services. After a rigorous application process and interviews, Symbiotic Aquaponic was selected as one of five businesses nationwide for the Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneurs Award. This prestigious award was not only validation of the business and proof of concept, but provided the company a notable endowment as well as professional and experienced business mentorship to move forward.
MAKING PROGRESS TOGETHER
The Yoshiyama Young Entrepreneurs Award was instrumental in where we are today. It enabled and pushed us to develop and grow. From employees and contractors to aquaponic products and services, we've come a long way. It helped us move forward with our ideas and designs, enabling us to invest in our equipment and products. Our state-of-the-art grow beds are far beyond the food troughs we initially sourced. While re-purposing food troughs for livesotck worked for a little while, it had its drawbacks and problems which had to be addressed and corrected. In this correction process we realized that every re-purposed item had some serious drawbacks for use in aquaponics and that the few for-aquaponic components out there still did not meet all the needs of the industry, so we made our own. Through research, experimentation, and collaboration with national manufactures, we created the ideal aquaponic components.
This innovation of aquaponic design and attention to detail has enabled us to grow and to meet the diverse needs of individuals, communities, and businesses. With the focus on growing food, we developed components and a system design that is scalable from small backyard systems to robust commercial-sized systems that all use the same principles, parts, and technology. This consistency and ease of use reduces some of the uncertainties about aquaponics, making it more approachable and accessible to a variety of people of all different backgrounds - which is exactly what we're aiming for. Today, we're proud to partner with and support aquaponics through numerous schools, non-profits, tribal groups, communities and commercial operations. One of these partnerships is Eastern Oklahoma State College (EOSC) in Wilburton, Oklahoma.
Eastern Oklahoma State College is 2-year public institution offering students a variety of courses and degree plans. With a heightened focus on agriculture, horticulture, and food science classes, it was a natural for EOSC President Smith to inquire about aquaponics sytems for the school from his newest faculty member, Kaben. Since that fateful first discussion between the two colleagues, aquaponics has become a growing part of EOSC program offerings. The college is home to two top-rated green houses, both of which house commercial aquaponic systems. The most recent of these is exclusively dedicated to the school's new Aquaponics Incubation Program. The program is developed to provide students with a working knowledge of aquaponics and business, preparing them to be aquaponic farmers and entrepreneurs. Beyond the Aquaponics Incubation Program, we have partnered with the school to educate, empower, and advocate aquaponics in our region. One day introduction certificate classes are offered 3-4 times during the year at EOSC. In 2016 classes were extended to another host location and aquaponic partner, Redlands Community College in El Reno, Oklahoma. Redlands Community College is a unique school that provides students the opportunity for undergraduate research, particularly in the STEM fields. It has been an honor to work with them as they research and explore aquaponics (and its uses) in their Aquaponics and Sustainability Laboratory.
So while our expertise is aquaponics, we chose it because it appeals to our core value of taking care of others. We believe it can help improve the lives of our fellow man and influence the well-being of the planet. Today, while still a small, family-business, Symbiotic Aquaponic includes multiple partners, employees, and contractors. Our leadership works hard to attract talented people through fair treatment and competitive wages. Though investors have come forward, full company ownership is maintained by Kaben and Shelby's immediate family and life-long, family friends and business partners Regina and Trevor. The close-knit leadership and family commitment provides a strong foundation for the business that resonates in Symbiotic Aquaponic's activities, projects, and interactions. We care about people, families, and communities... and we think it shows in the work we do. If you're interested in working with us, want to collaborate on projects, or are intersted in learning more about aquaponics (or us), please feel free to send us an email or give us a call. Let's Grow Together!
EOSC Aquaponics Incubation Greenhouse
Working the Greenhouse at EOSC
Aquaponics and Sustainability Learning Lab at Redlands Community College