A local entrepreneur is growing crops with tidal power. The county wants to put a stop to it
Written by WSLR News on Monday, August 21, 2023
A Sarasota entrepreneur is growing mushrooms offshore, and local restaurateurs love his stuff. But Sarasota County is giving him a hard time.
By Ramon Lopez
Original Air Date: August 18, 2023
Johannes Werner: A Sarasota entrepreneur is growing mushrooms offshore and local restaurateurs love his stuff. But Sarasota County is giving him a hard time. WSLR is Ramon Lopez joined the mushroom grower on Sarasota Bay to see for himself.
Host: In placid waters just offshore of a quiet residential neighborhood of Siesta Key, a six foot tall metal structure bobs in the water with only the top of it visible above the waterline. Inside, a crop of oyster mushrooms is growing with the help of desalinated water and solar power and, eventually, robotics to lessen labor costs. It’s called an OPod, short for ocean pod.
But the OPod prototypes inventor, Todd Kleperis, is fighting with Sarasota County on whether or not his innovative project is a vessel, as he maintains, or an illegal agricultural structure as the county claims. He has provided proof of his registration and title from the state of Florida, showing the OPod is documented as a vessel. Sarasota County thinks otherwise.
Storm clouds are on the horizon for the local entrepreneur over the legal dispute. Kleperis faces stiff fines from the county, roadblocks to his research and a hindrance to his fundraising. A mid-June enforcement. deadline passed for Kleperis and his startup company, TEKMARA, short for “technology for tomorrow.”
Sarasota County threatens to find him up to $500 a day if his OPod stays in the water. The outcome of his battle with bureaucracy, seeking to shut down his development, may come out of a critical meeting with county officials on August 24. But Kleperis is ready to take his dispute to court if he doesn’t like what he hears that day.
Kleperis is currently selling his mushrooms to local high-end restaurants, but he sees pods as a way to end hunger worldwide. We asked him why OPods are needed.
Todd Kleperis: Drought will be the biggest issue in the next 50 to 100 years for your grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids’ generation. If we don’t get in front of that, we’re gonna have a massive problem. So, the oceans endangered, we’re gonna suffer from drought.
What do we do? We create a system that pulls the water out of the ocean, that helps the ocean, and actually creates a coastal protection system that enables us all to be better as humans, globally.
Host: He told WSLR News that the sustainable ocean-based growing system can produce food without fresh water, power or soil. The OPod was inspired by floating gardens found on rivers and lakes in Cambodia, Thailand and other Asian countries. What’s new is TEKMARA’s application of advanced technologies and corporate partnerships to increase the yield.
Todd Kleperis describes how his invention, which looks like an outdoor shower stall or a construction site Jiffy John, works.
TK: So, the current system is, the most viable product was built at a facility that really didn’t have the design scope that we’ll have when we bring out our next level. So, when we’re at a production ready unit, it’ll be cylindrical in shape. The pods itself are round. And in the pods, you have a complete infrastructure that would enable the growing system—I can go through that, but imagine a round cylindrical shape that can move autonomously in the future.
Why is that important? Well, because if you have a big wave surge, you don’t want these pods sitting in front of this massive area that they can have a problem with. The prototype is something that looks like a combination of, as I had said before, into a shower stall, all the ways down into a shed. What it really comes down to is the design of the interior is what was important, not the exterior. So it’s always what’s the inside, not the outside.
So it’s actually about a 3×5 device right now, three foot by five foot device right now. It will be a 10×10 device as we roll out to production, when we get to next levels. For right now, it proved the point. That’s exactly what we had to do. We had to take desalinated water, create a food source and then use it with renewable energy. [It] creates the seedlings, the seedlings and grow, that’s harvested, and then that’s done by solar, wind and wave power. There’s no power cost. You have wind, water and wave. And solar too. So solar, wind and water is the major components there. The water as in wave power, that’s going to be trialed here within the next two months.
We have a wave generation system, which is another thing that people are going to get blown away by because no one even thinks that you can generate—look at the current out here. You see what we have out here. There’s not a lot of current. But with enough wave action, you can create power, and we’re going to prove that here in Sarasota.
Host: Kleperis says the types of produce that can be grown in OPods is endless. And he says the amount of veggies produced is enormous. But why mushrooms?
TK: I wanted to use something that uses less sunlight, had a small footprint, and could actually be harvested multiple times. Well, mushrooms are a great resource. Also, my wife really loves mushrooms. So that was an easy one for me. To pick something that was simple and to make it so that it was a proof of concept. That was the goal. We’ve also grown other things in there since then, we’ve grown all types of basil. We’ve grown all types of different—we have aloe vera that’s now been ported from our pod to our other pod, our other vessel. We’ve got all kinds of plant structures that can grow inside this thing.
Host: Kleperis is hopeful that the August 24 meeting with county officials will provide some sort of resolution to the dispute.
TK: We’re going to a meeting on the 25th which was requested of us to go. My lawyer says we don’t need to go but I’m going to go just because I want to represent our company in the right way. The magistrate has no actual valid jurisdiction over this, but we’re gonna go anyways.
Host: The county’s enforcement action has delayed a planned $2 million round of financing and slowed the project’s timetable.
TK: We have lost interest from a couple of investors, where they said that they’re not going to get involved with something before it’s solved at the county level.
Host: The county has had little to say on the matter. A spokesman said Sarasota County Planning and Development Services does not comment on pending or active litigation. He did say that Kleperis will receive a fine notification and a date to meet with a special magistrate to discuss the dispute.
Kleperis charges that Sarasota County is playing hardball with him at the request of wealthy homeowners who live across the street from the shoreline he owns and where the OPod prototype floats. He says they don’t like what they see and don’t want to know what this project is all about.
TK: The people that are behind us are worth multi millions of dollars. The houses that are here are easily between five and $15 million. Somebody there said, we don’t like what he’s doing. We don’t like what it looks like. You got to get rid of it, and then the county went full force to try and make sure that we were not going to be here any longer.
Host: It remains to be seen whether Kleperis pays any fines and files a lawsuit down the line, but he does say he has the financial backing for a long drawn-out court battle, even to the Florida Supreme Court.
This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.