Space Station Lettuce (copy)

A home-grown salad for the history books: In August, astronauts Kjell Lindgren and Scott Kelly sampled red romaine lettuce they grew on the International Space Station in plant chambers developed by Orbitec, of Madison.

NASA photo

Orbitec is going to the White House and bringing VEGGIE, the plant-growing system that lets astronauts eat fresh lettuce in space.

The company, with locations in Madison and Middleton, will take part in White House Astronomy Night on Monday to show off the Vegetable Production System, known as VEGGIE.

“What a great honor for Orbitec,” said Paul Zamprelli, business director, who will be making a presentation to 190 school children on the White House lawn — at President Obama’s invitation.

In August, astronauts on the International Space Station ceremoniously chomped on red romaine lettuce they grew on-board, in a greenhouse unit with LED lights, devised and built by Orbitec.

A tweet from NASA called it “one small bite for a man, one giant leaf for mankind.”

Monday’s Astronomy Night is part of the president’s effort to get students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

“The event will bring together scientists, engineers and visionaries from astronomy and the space industry to share their experiences with students and teachers as they spend an evening stargazing from the South Lawn,” says a news release from the White House Offfice of Science and Technology Policy.

Orbitec (Orbital Technologies Corp.), founded in 1988, has nearly 100 employees and was acquired by Sierra Nevada Corp. in 2014.

MADISON CLUB’S SHARK TANK: OpenHomes won the Shark Tank-style pitch contest at the Madison Club on Thursday night, and with that, a year’s membership to the 106-year-old, private social club that looks out on Lake Monona.

It says a lot that “an organization as staid and traditional as the Madison Club is excited about the startup community in Madison and is ready to support entrepreneurship in a real way,” said Kelda Roys, who founded OpenHomes in 2013.

The young company, at 30 W. Mifflin St., offers a new way to sell homes that it says is faster and more efficient and involves only a 1 percent commission.

“The average agent closes nine deals a year. With OpenHomes, one agent using our platform can close about 45 deals a year,” Roys said.

A graduate of the Madison- and Milwaukee-based gener8tor accelerator, OpenHomes has four employees and is operating across southern Wisconsin.

Roys is starting a fundraising round and hopes to get $500,000 from investors to expand into Illinois and Minnesota in 2016. “Our company is growing. Now, we want to scale and that’s going to take additional capital,” she said.

With the win, Roys will have a classy place to hold lunch meetings with potential investors.

This was the third startup pitch competition that’s been held at the Madison Club and about 30 people attended and helped choose the winner. The event was organized by Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council; Bram Daelemans, director of the council’s Wisconsin Angel Network, and Joe Kremer, CEO of Isomark, a Madison startup with a device to sniff out infections.

In addition to OpenHomes, the other young companies making seven-minute presentations at the contest were Pegasus Sustainability Solutions and Chefs for Seniors. They each received free meeting space at the Madison Club.

All three companies will be among the startups featured at the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, Nov. 4-5, at Monona Terrace.

MADWORKS’ NEW CLASS: The Madworks startup accelerator, in University Research Park, has chosen its latest group to mentor.

All Madison startups, they are: Fortel, helping food and beverage wholesalers forecast demand; Clutch Connect, with software and equipment for audio and visual production; PARTS to MOVE, an online marketplace for power sports parts and accessories; turnoverapp, an app to track the progress of moving in or out of an apartment; Vistrata, automating administrative processes for health insurance companies; Freelance FindHER, an online hub for hiring freelance workers who are women; and Tanya Cunningham Textiles, with Illusion Knits.

This is the fifth class for Madworks, which offers a 10-week, lean startup program.

Contact Judy Newman at with tips and story suggestions.


Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.