Aquaponics entrepreneur finds food for growth at Sussex resource cluster

Southern Delaware can see the benefit when a dynamic entrepreneur has an advanced idea that fits well into the region’s existing strengths. And Pennsylvanian Robert Weening has exactly that beneficial combination in mind, pairing innovative science with agricultural production. He sees agriculturally strong Sussex County as an excellent place to create his business, which centers around the growing field of “aquaponics.”

“Aquaponics is the combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. In aquaponics, you grow fish and plants together in one integrated, soilless system. The fish waste provides a food source for the plants, and the plants provide a natural filter for the water the fish live in,” Weening explained.

“Aquaponics produces safe, fresh, organic vegetables and fish,” he noted. “When aquaponics is combined with a controlled environment greenhouse, premium-quality crops can be grown on a year-round basis while producing virtually no waste products.”

One aspect of Weening’s business plan that speaks to those living in the area is its job creation goals.

“My plans are to move from Pennsylvania to Sussex County by the end of the summer and be in production by the end of the year,” said Weening. “I plan to start out small, working as a family business, and expand over time, which will involve hiring several employees.”

The challenge for Weening was navigating a new economic terrain while trying to plant the seeds of his new business. He needed a comprehensive source of information to help map the plans for his Sussex County venture. Weening found it by attending one of a series of free resource cluster workshops called “Sussex County is Open For Business,” an event that creates a one-stop experience, with a number of financial, educational and consulting resources to help beginning entrepreneurs and existing companies looking to expand.

Instead of trying to make individual introductory appointments with these resource providers, Weening could immediately interface with many of the pivotal federal, state and county services and consultants guiding businesses in Sussex County. Then he could make appointments to follow up with the particular providers to help him achieve his goals.

Participating organizations and agencies include Delaware Center for Enterprise Development-DSU, Delaware Economic Development Office, Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP), Delaware Small Business & Technology Development Center, Delaware State Treasury, DTCC-Entrepreneur Center, First State Community Action Agency, Job Center of Delaware Libraries, Southern Delaware Tourism, SCORE Delaware, Sussex County Economic Development Office, U.S. Small Business Administration, and YWCA-Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship.

“‘Sussex County Is Open For Business’ was a great way to meet with the local government,” Weening related. “Working as a team they answered many questions and pointed me toward valuable resources I can use to achieve my goal of opening a profitable business in their community.”

The workshop series was developed by Sussex County Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC), a nonprofit partnership of business people, educators and government officials to further retention, expansion, creation and attraction of better business for Sussex County. SEDAC’s goal is creating resources to support existing businesses, fostering entrepreneurship, facilitating improvements to infrastructure and nurturing a well-trained workforce.

The resource cluster events have to date served more than 20 businesspeople, helping them clarify their plans and find ways to accomplish them.

However, the participating service providers can also benefit from access to prospective entrepreneurs and growing companies. Brenda Whitehurst of YWCA-Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship reported being able to fill her classes on business plan development with “Sussex County Is Open For Business” attendees looking for guidance. That was quite valuable for the Center, which, she said, continually seeks individuals to utilize its programs and resources.

According the Whitehurst, “Even if one person shows up at a ‘Sussex County Is Open For Business’ session, it’s worth me being there.”

“Sussex County Is Open For Business” is sponsored by Delaware Small Business & Technology Development Center and is made possible through the support of University of Delaware Sustainable Coastal Community Initiative.

There is no charge to attend. Regular resource events are held the fourth Monday of each month, excluding December, at the Georgetown Public Library, 123 West Pine Street in Georgetown, 8:30 to 11:00 a.m. For more information or to pre-register, call (302) 856-1555 or visit SEDAC’s Web site, at www.sedac-de.org.