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Going Mainstream | Q & A With Babylon Micro-Farms CEO Alexander Olesen

Alexander Olesen - Babylon Co-FounderCEOFrom the beginning, Babylon Micro-Farms CEO Alexander Olesen has sought to make vertical farming accessible to mainstream markets. Combining subscription services with advanced technology and innovative equipment, the Babylon Micro-Farms “all-in-one” farming experience does just that for a growing customer base, including universities, hospitals, restaurants, resorts, senior care facilities and more.

We had the chance to catch up with Alexander to learn more about his innovative company and exciting plans for the future in this month’s CEO Q &A.

Can you share a little about how and why you got started, including the story behind the name of your company?

We started out exploring applications for small scale hydroponic systems in refugee camps while studying at the University of Virginia. Through that process, we built prototype systems capable of feeding a family and observed that the user experience was complicated and commercially available automation was prohibitively expensive, which represented a fundamental constraint for the adoption of small scale vertical farms.

We founded the company to miniaturize the semi-automation found in commercial-scale farms, at a fraction of the cost and designed it to be controlled via the cloud to allow for aggregated data collection.Today we’ve built and deployed that underlying technology on our fleet of distributed Micro-Farms in North America. We’re just getting started in our journey to apply our underlying technology to different vertical farming systems and in doing so expand the market for sustainable indoor farming.

We decided to call the company Babylon to pay homage to the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the first known aquaculture systems and one of the ancient wonders of the world.

Congrats on securing $4 million in grant and investment funding earlier this year. Tell us what this means for your Babylon IQ software program and expansion plans.

Babylon Micro-Garms Data MiningWe’re accelerating the commercialization of indoor farming service with hundreds of Micro-Farms being installed in foodservice operations across North America. We’re confident in our technology’s ability to deliver an unparalleled growing experience and it’s exciting to see the data coming in from our growing base of happy customers.

What do you hope to achieve with the partnership you’ve entered into with collegiate food service company, Harvest Table Culinary Group.

Cafeteria Babylon Mico-Farm

We’ve built a tremendous partnership with Harvest Table Culinary Group and they’re one of the most innovative culinary teams in the US. They’re pioneering a new level of responsible, local food sourcing at college campuses across the country and we’re proud to support them in their efforts to inspire a new generation of healthy consumers.

You’re also working with senior communities and hospitals. What advantages and goals do you have for these sectors and are there other markets you’re looking at?

There are organizations of all different types that are demanding their foodservice operations source higher-quality ingredients and reduce their environmental footprint. The technology we’ve developed and the service we’ve built on top of it enables these organizations to literally source food on-site, all year round, without any of the headaches associated with outdoor farming.

It’s a new way of doing things and it’s amazing to see hospital patients, senior citizens, students, and many other groups adopting Micro-Farms as a means of sourcing the highest quality produce and growing it right in front of the end consumer. The benefit of our remote management platform and our growing customer base is that the data is flowing back to us in abundance.

We’re gaining a very granular understanding of how our customers operate, what they consume, and, critically, how we can help to have a better experience. These insights are driving our success in the institutional foodservice space and they’ll allow us to expand into adjacent markets in the near future.

Where do you see your company 5 or 10 years from now – what’s your ultimate goal?

Bablylon Micro-Farms PlatformOur goal has always been to make vertical farming accessible to mainstream markets. We’re proving that it’s commercially viable with our foodservice partners and simultaneously we’re seeing the rapid expansion of the local food movement that’s driving a ton of innovations in the CEA space.

We’ve developed our technology and service specifically for small scale on-site vertical farms and we’re now pioneering an “intel inside” model to enable new vertical farming systems to be successful.

In 5 to 10 years we are going to see a plethora of on-site systems for different markets and crop types and we hope they’ll all be powered by BabylonIQ.

To learn more about Babylon Micro-Farms:

P: 877.589.2884
W: www.babylonmicrofarms.com
E: info@babylonmicrofarms.com

Babylon Micro-Farms Video Resources

 

AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg Kicks Off Indoor Ag-Con 2021 With Opening Morning Keynote Address

Rosenberg Headlines Full Roster of Keynotes, Panels, Networking & Expo Floor Innovations For In-Person October 4-5, 2021 Edition In Orlando

“We are thrilled to have an industry leader like David Rosenberg join us as we kick off our return to the live event format,” says Brian Sullivan, co-owner, Indoor Ag-Con LLC along with other event industry veterans Nancy Hallberg and Kris Sieradzki. “We look forward to gathering with our industry colleagues again and are working hard to bring the best possible combination of networking, education and exhibition opportunities together in Orlando.”

AeroFarms Launches New Brand IdentityScheduled for opening morning, October 4, Rosenberg’s address will be held from 8:30 am – 9:20 am.  Rosenberg co-founded and leads AeroFarms.  AeroFarms has been leading the way for indoor vertical farming and championing transformational innovation for agriculture overall.

On a mission to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity, AeroFarms is a Certified B Corp Company with global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, United States. Named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company three years in a row and one of TIME’s Best Inventions, AeroFarms patented, award-winning indoor vertical farming technology provides the perfect conditions for healthy plants to thrive, taking agriculture to a new level of precision, food safety, and productivity while using up to 95% less water and no pesticides vs. traditional field farming. Grown for flavor first, AeroFarms enables local production to safely grow flavorful baby greens and microgreens all year round.

ROBUST 2021 CONFERENCE SCHEDULE NOW IN DEVELOPMENT

In addition to Rosenberg’s keynote, look for additional announcements coming soon on other CEO keynote presentations planned for the October event. The 2021 conference will also include a full roster of panel discussions, fireside chats and presentations offering a deep dive into three core tracks – Business & Marketing, Science & Technology and Alternative Crops.
In addition to the extensive educational component, attendees will find more new initiatives and show highlights to explore, including:

NEW LOCATION: HILTON ORLANDO – DISCOUNTED HOTEL RATES, TOO

Indoor Ag-Con’s Hilton Orlando venue makes it the perfect opportunity for a business vacation. Centrally located to all major theme parks and attractions, it is just minutes from the eclectic dining scene and entertainment of International Drive. What’s more, the Hilton Orlando resort sits on more than 26 acres of lush landscaping and tropical inspirations making it a true destination of its own. Indoor Ag-Con has arranged for discounted hotel rates for attendees and exhibitors starting as low as $129/night. Complete details are available on the show website.

NEW ASSOCIATION ALLIANCES

Indoor Ag-Con is also forging new alliances with other events, industry associations/groups that will play an integral role in its marketing outreach and conference programming. Look for partnership announcements coming soon.

EXPANDED EXHIBIT FLOOR & NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES

The Indoor Ag-Con team is working to bring even more resources for farmers/growers to explore across all sectors – everything from IT, energy, AI and lighting solutions to substrates, vertical farming solutions, business services and much more. Attendees and exhibitors alike will also have even more networking opportunities with daily luncheon sessions and receptions on the show floor.

QUICK FACTS:

WHEN: Monday, October 4 – Tuesday, October 5
WHERE: Hilton Orlando, 6001 Destination Pkwy, Orlando, FL 32819
INFO: For information on exhibiting or attending visit www.indoor.ag or email
hello@indoor.ag

ABOUT INDOOR AG-CON LLC

Founded in 2013, Indoor Ag-Con has emerged as the premier trade event for vertical farming | indoor agriculture, the practice of growing crops in indoor systems, using hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic techniques. Its events are crop-agnostic and touch all sectors of the business, covering produce, legal cannabis |hemp, alternate protein and non-food crops. In December 2018, three event industry professionals – Nancy Hallberg, Kris Sieradzki and Brian Sullivan – acquired Indoor Ag-Con LLC, setting the stage for further expansion of the events globally. More information: https://indoor.ag

 

Q & A With AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg

ROSENBERG KICKS OFF INDOOR AG-CON 2021 WITH OPENING MORNING KEYNOTE ADDRESS

AeroFarms has been making a lot of headlines of late. In addition to last month’s announcement that it will become a publicly traded company through combination with Spring Valley Aquisition Corp, AeroFarms has brokenDavid Rosenberg AeroFarms Indoor Ag-Con Keynote 2021 ground on the world’s largest and most technologically advanced aeroponic indoor vertical farm and  launched a new brand identity.  What’s more, Indoor Ag-Con is excited to announce that AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg will headline Indoor Ag-Con, as he leads the opening morning keynote address for the 8th annual edition scheduled for October 4-5, 2021 at the Hilton Orlando, Florida.

AeroFarms Launches New Brand IdentityAhead of our October 2021 in-person event, Indoor Ag-Con Content Chair Jim Pantaleo had the opportunity to talk with David about his company’s exciting developments and plans for the future.

David, thanks for sitting down with me today. Obviously, the big news at AeroFarms is the recent merger with Spring Valley Acquisition Corp…Can you speak to this exciting new collaboration?

AeroFarms CEO David Rosenberg To Lead 2021 Indoor Ag-Con KeynoteWe are thrilled to announce our merger with Spring Valley Acquisition Corp, who shares the same ESG philosophies to make a positive impact on the world, while serving the interests of our shareholders. AeroFarms’ mission is to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity, and we are executing on this by taking agriculture to new heights with the latest in technology, innovation and understanding of plant science.

Our technology empowers our operations – this is how we get closer to where the problems, opportunities and solutions are. We also have the capabilities to innovate fast by turning our crops a typical 26 times per year that allows us to continuously learn and improve yield and quality while simultaneously reducing capital and operating costs. Our business is at an inflection point where we will scale up our proven operational framework and begin our expansion plans in earnest as we have shared with recent farm news for Danville Virginia and Abu Dhabi, UAE.

The other piece of interesting AeroFarms news is the expansion to Danville, VA. Please share how you envision that facility in terms of AeroFarms technology to be deployed. And, what impact do you foresee the operation having not only for AeroFarms but also for the local community?

The science, technology and innovation that underpin our proprietary growing platform allow us to drive superior unit economics and scale up our business to deliver on ourAeroFarms Breaks Ground On Largest and Most Tech Advanced Aeroponic Indoor Vertical Farm mission of growing the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity. Our customers love our leafy greens, which consistently win on quality, flavor, taste and texture. We are excited to break ground on our new farm, expand our retail presence in the region and bring our exceptional, great tasting products to more customers. Danville-Pittsylvania County is the perfect location to introduce our next-generation Model 5 farm that will be able to serve the more than 1,000 food retailers in the region.

Our new farm will deepen our established retailer partnerships even further and make our sustainably grown, pesticide-free and always fresh leafy greens available throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, while also creating high-quality jobs in the area. This new facility represents an inflection point in our growth trajectory as we scale our technology and expand our retail distribution footprint and customer reach.

Speaking of expansion, please tell us how Abu Dhabi is progressing and the great (R&D) work which will come from there once fully operational?

This new cutting-edge R&D facility leverages our agriculture expertise and science-driven roots. We will be conducting leading research in plant science, vertical farming, and automation, accelerating innovation cycles and commercializing a diverse range of products. We will be partnering with major international companies, local universities, and AgTech startups to help solve some of the most pressing agriculture needs of our time, and AeroFarms is proud to play a pivotal role to helping establish the Emirate of Abu Dhabi as a global hub for AgTech innovation

What does David Rosenberg do for fun when he’s not leading one of the world’s most dynamic and innovative indoor vertical farms?

I am proud to serve as a Managing Trustee of New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center and a mentor at Endeavor, to help impact entrepreneurs succeed. In addition, I enjoy SUP paddle boarding and spending time with my family.


AeroFarms has been leading the way for indoor vertical farming and championing transformational innovation for agriculture overall. On a mission to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity, AeroFarms is a Certified B Corp Company with global headquarters in Newark, New Jersey, United States. Named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company three years in a row and one of TIME’s Best Inventions, AeroFarms patented, award-winning indoor vertical farming technology provides the perfect conditions for healthy plants to thrive, taking agriculture to a new level of precision, food safety, and productivity while using up to 95% less water and no pesticides vs. traditional field farming. Grown for flavor first, AeroFarms enables local production to safely grow flavorful baby greens and microgreens all year round.

 

Register Today & Save Your Seat For David Rosenberg’s Keynote Address On Monday, October 4, 2021 at 8:30 am 

ZipGrow Expands to New Facility, Inks Deal with Sodexo

Indoor Ag-Con 2021 Exhibitor ZipGrow has expanded its footprint, moving from leased premises to its own building at the corner of Cumberland and Seventh Street in Cornwall, Ontario Canada. The new building more than doubles the amount of space available to the manufacturer of the world’s most installed vertical hydroponic equipment.Indoor Ag-Con Exhibitor ZipGrow

“Demand for our products continues to soar,” says Eric Lang, President of ZipGrow. “The new building allows us to be more efficient while at the same time giving us room to grow in the future.”

Growth is on the menu at ZipGrow, with the company launching an innovative partnership with Sodexo to introduce sustainable growing systems to facilities throughout Canada and the United States.

“Having been installed throughout the world over the past decade, our system enables growers, both big and small, to access fresh produce no matter where they are located”, explains Mr. Lang. “We are excited to move ahead with this new partnership with Sodexo. Together we will be able to introduce sustainable food to Sodexo locations throughout North America.”

ZipGrow technology is a patented system that utilizes both hydroponic growing systems and vertical planes to maximize production volume within a small footprint. Primarily growing leafy greens such as lettuce and kale, along with herbs and small fruiting crops such as strawberries, ZipGrow systems will be installed in Sodexo locations including educational institutions, conference facilities, and corporate food service centres.

“This new partnership with ZipGrow not only enables us to reduce our carbon emissions of distance traveled for food source, onsite food waste, and packaging requirements, but also to introduce innovative technology to our facilities and team members”, said Normand St-Gelais, Director of Corporate Responsibility, Sodexo Canada.

About ZipGrow

ZipGrow is an international leader in indoor, vertical farming technology. The company’s flagship product, the ZipGrow Tower, is a core component of many of the world’s most innovative farms; from indoor hydroponic warehouses to vertical aquaponic greenhouses and high-density container farms

Story sourced from  from Choosecornwall.ca  

Talking AI With Samuel Bertram, CEO & Co-Founder, OnePointOne

OpenPointOne Bertram Brothers Indoor Ag-Con Blog
L-R: OnePointOne Co-Founders Samuel and John Bertram

What’s in a name? For brothers Samuel and John Bertram, it signifies nothing short of a desire to improve the human condition by revolutionizing agriculture through automated indoor farming. Their company, OnePointOne, is on a mission to nourish and heal humanity by unleashing the power of plants.

Born in Melbourne, Australia, the duo came to the US in the 2010s on collegiate tennis scholarships. Over the years, they honed skills off the court– including electrical, mechanical and robotic engineering — and began searching for business opportunities that could affect large-scale, positive changes on human health, the environment and agriculture.

Galvanized by the fact that 1.1 billion people began this millennium malnourished, Samuel and John co-founded OnePointOne, Inc. in 2017. Serving as a constant reminder of what they’re aiming to solve, aptly named OnePointOne has developed an automated, aeroponic, indoor farming system to grow fresh food in urban areas around the world. OnePointOne’s proprietary technology now powers Willo, the company’s new consumer brand, which launched earlier this year. Willo’s Farming as a Service (FaaS) subscription model is designed to reconnect people and families directly to the farm and the initial response has exceeded all expectations.

In this month’s Indoor Ag-Con Q & A, OnePointOne Co-Founder & CEO Samuel Bertram shares his thoughts on opportunities for the vertical farming industry, emerging AI innovations and plans for his own growing business.

When one thinks of AI for indoor agriculture, what are some of the key areas of need that indoor growers have today?

AI refers to the developing ability for machines to replicate human decision-making and behavior. That said, areas for useful AI development include:

  • Plant Health – Using AI to determine the health status of any plant by comparing large—predominantly imagery—data sets against in-situ imagery: disease detection, photosynthetic health, etc.
  • System Monitoring – Beyond direct sensor readings, large data sets of factors like CO2, fluid flow, fluid pressure, temperature, and others, can be used to determine more anomalous malfunctions of the system
  • System Optimization – Large data sets describing the life experience of the plant, i.e. light levels, temperatures, and humidity, can be used to improve the performance of the system to any cultivar.

OnePointOne Consumer Brand Willo.Indoor Ag-Con Q & ABy taking in large quantities of data from a variety of environmental, system and plant sensors, AI techniques can be applied to optimize performance of the vertical farming system and assist growers in their role as farm operator. While traditional sensor readings like temperature, humidity and flow rate are vital, plant imagery is a requirement to unlock AI’s power in vertical farming. Without high-frequency, high-resolution, hyper-spectral imagery of all plants in vertical farm production, the vertical farming industry will never reach its full potential. OnePointOne has focused heavily on collecting, analyzing and providing that imagery data to our growers.

It’s important to note that while AI can handle far more data than a human being, humans are still superior when it comes to complex decision-making in most cases. Therefore, AI should be focused on deriving learnings from massive data sets, informing growers of those learnings, and unlocking the potential of the system and the grower.

Cost is a critical component to any indoor farm operating, hopefully, profitably. Please share some idea of the cost spectrum (low to high) when one considers the implementation of ANY AI technology system within an indoor farm.

I would break this down as follows:

1. Labor is the highest operating expense cost inside of a vertical farm. Therefore, vertical farms must optimize their utilization of labor.
2. After automating processes like seeding, plant movement, and plant harvest/packaging, vertical farms must solve the problem of system and plant monitoring costs.
3. If system and plant monitoring become automated, high-skilled labor can be centralized.
4. Centralizing high-skilled labor dramatically improves the cost and scalability metrics of vertical farming.
5. Without high-frequency, high-resolution, hyper-spectral imagery of all plants within a production system, centralization of high-skilled labor cannot occur.
6. Without this significant improvement in labor utilization, vertical farms will continue to struggle for profitability.

OnePointOne Consumer Brand Willo Is Farm As A Service.Indoor Ag-ConThe highest-impact application of AI in vertical farming is through the analysis of environmental, system and plant-imagery data-points and their corresponding impact on plant yield and quality.

Then, AI can “automatically” improve the quality and yield of biomass, while optimizing the use of resources, i.e., light, HVAC and irrigation.

Optimizing the usage of electrons for lighting, temperature and humidity control is the perfect job for AI. This will dramatically improve the economics of vertical farming over time.

You are a Bronco from the University of Santa Clara. How can higher education, top horticulture universities and R&D institutions help accelerate AI technology in indoor vertical farming?

I see three clear ways these institutions can help:

1. Cultivating high-quality minds that will push our industry forward
2. Conducting vast numbers of experiments to develop AI algorithms to detect optimal and suboptimal plant health (potentially high-throughput phenotyping, for example)
3. Licensing state-of-the-art vertical farming technology to standardize production in pursuit of standardizing data

Given OnePointOne’s location in the heart of the Silicon Valley, are you seeing any large tech firms getting involved with AI for indoor horticulture? If so, who?

Absolutely. Two come immediately to mind:

Google is diving deep into imagery-data analysis for outdoor farms. It is only a matter of time before they venture into the vertical farming space.

Amazon (AWS) has developed several teams and tools that can assist vertical farms in their storage and analysis of data.

What are some of the AI advancements OnePointOne is focused on now?

Imagery, imagery, imagery. Similar to Tesla, high-frequency, high-resolution, hyper-spectral imagery data sets from production and research farms will give OnePointOne a sustainable competitive advantage. Beyond real-time image analysis — like leaf-edge detection, discoloration detection and discontinuity detection, etc — large imagery data sets will drive system optimization unlike anything else. With enough imagery data, software models of plants can be created, then used in production settings to ensure optimal plant performance.

Above all else, OnePointOne is focused on plant-quality. Employing AI to our imagery data allows us to constantly improve the quality of our plants, while minimizing the required input resources.

Last, but certainly not least, let’s talk about this year’s launch of your consumer brand Willo. What was the rationale behind this subscription model and what type of response has it received?

Willo Farm Mobile App.Indoor Ag-Con Q and AFor ten thousand years farming was local and provided a diverse range of nutrients for the community. Today, we have no idea where our food is coming from and we are losing the nourishment battle. Willo exists to reconnect us to the farm and ensure that we are nourished by the highest quality foods imaginable.

Willo’s mission is enabling personalized plant-based nutrition to optimize human and environmental health. We achieve this through Willo’s personalized farming service, which allows members to control their own farm plot and regain access to locally grown, high quality produce unlike ever before.

Within a matter of weeks of our launch, Willo sold out the first farm. We are now in the process of building a farm ten times larger to accommodate the building waitlist for our personalized farming service.

Visit the OnePointOne and Willo websites to learn more!

Q & A With Jake Counne, Founder, Wilder Fields

Jake Counne Wilder Farms Q and A With Indoor Ag-Con
Jake Counne, founder, Wilder Fields shares greens with Calumet City Mayor Michelle Markiewicz Qualkinbush. Pictured announcing Wilder Fields’ commitment to build and operate a full-scale commercial vertical farm in a former Super Target store in Calumet City, Ill.

 

When Jake Counne established Backyard Fresh Farms as an incubator in 2016, he knew that most large-scale vertical farming operations were large-scale financial disappointments.

So rather than attempting to patch up the prevailing model, he and his team chose to build something new from the ground up. “Other start-ups had tried scaling their operations with antiquated greenhouse practices,” he says. “We realized that to solve the massive labor and energy problems that persist with indoor vertical farming. We needed to look to other industries that had mastered how to scale.”

That vision, and several years of persistent innovation, came to fruition in 2019 when Counne announced he would transplant the successful pilot farm—now renamed Wilder Fields—into a full-scale commercial vertical farm. It is currently under construction in an abandoned Super Target store, with an uninterrupted expanse of three acres under its roof in Calumet City, just outside Chicago.

Wilder Fields is designed to supply supermarkets and restaurants in the Chicago metro trade area,. It is scheduled to sell its first produce in the spring of 2021. It will  provide fresh produce to those living in nearby food deserts in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.  In this  Q & A with Jake Counne, Indoor Ag-Con will share more Jake’s vision and plans for the  future.

According to an Artemis survey, only 27 percent of indoor vertical farms are profitable despite attracting $2.23 billion in investments in 2018. Why do you think a small start-up like Wilder Fields can succeed where so many have yet to earn a profit?

We started four years ago by investing our own resources. We were also working on a very limited scale in a small incubator space. I think those constraints pushed us to be more discerning about what we should tackle first. In that time, we developed an array of proprietary software and hardware, many of which have patents pending. And we refined a new paradigm for vertical farming, moving from the greenhouse model to lean manufacturing.

We also had the good fortune of starting up just as many first-wave indoor farms were closing down. So we looked at those case studies to understand what went wrong. And, what they could have done differently—what was needed to succeed. In fact, the founder of one of those first-wave farms now serves on our advisory board and really helped us identify the right blend of automation and labor.

With traditional vertical farming, the bigger you get, the more your labor costs increase. It seemed to us that the first generation of large-scale commercial vertical farms thought they could simply scale-up labor as they grew.

But we realized that operational excellence and efficiencies are essential to marry growth and profitability. It’s very hard to control a wide variety of factors using a 100 percent human workforce; for the most part, our industry has realized we need to recalibrate and find ways to automate.

Wilder Fields Super Target Location_Indoor Ag-Con Q and A
This 135 thousand square foot former Super Target store in Calumet City, Ill. will soon be transformed into one of the world’s largest vertical farms. This former retail space will house 24 clean rooms with the capacity to produce 25 million leafy green plants each year.

 

So automation solves the problem? It’s not as simple as that.

Now the problem that the pendulum has swung a little too far in the other direction. The  industry is almost hyper-focused on automation—as if automation is the answer to all of vertical farming’s problems. It’s not. Remember when Elon Musk tried using too much automation to produce the Model 3? I believe he called his big mistake “excessive automation” and concluded that humans are underrated.

We believe well-run vertical farms, and the most profitable ones, will achieve the right balance of human labor and automation. And that’s been our laser-focused goal from day one—to bring down labor costs in an intelligent way, in order to make vertical farming economically sustainable.

We also reduced costs by repurposing an existing structure rather than building a new one. We located a vacant, 135,000-square-foot Super Target in the Chicago suburb of Calumet City. What better way to farm sustainably than to build our farm in a sustainable way? Along with City leaders, we think we can help revitalize the depressed retail corridor where it is located.

To my knowledge, converting a big box space to an indoor vertical farm has never been done before. So we also are creating a blueprint for how to impart new life to empty, expansive buildings.

We also will provide opportunities for upwardly mobile jobs and environmentally sound innovations, and produce food that promotes community health.

Vertical farming is a fairly new development. How does it fit into the history of modern agriculture?

I make an analogy with the automobile industry. Field agriculture is sort of like the combustion engine. It came first and was easy to scale up, making it available to  more and more people. There were obvious downsides to it, but soon the whole world was using the combustion engine, so we kept churning them out.

But as the detrimental effects began to accumulate, we started asking ourselves how to reduce the negative impact. That’s when the auto industry came up with hybrid cars—they’re the greenhouses in this analogy—and while they were certainly a less bad solution, they weren’t really the solution.

And now we have the fully electric car and it has started outperforming combustion engines on many different levels—just as indoor vertical farming is now beginning to outperform field agriculture

Today’s business mantra holds that the more you automate, the more efficient you become. So why is vertical farming any different?

There are certain efficiencies that don’t require specialized robotics, especially if these tasks can be accomplished in other ways that sustain quality and reduce costs. For example, instead of our workers going among the plants to tend them, the plants come to the workers in assembly-line fashion that requires fewer harvesters. So it’s always a balance between the investment in specialized machinery and the cost of the labor that it will eliminate.

And while there’s definitely room for automation, it doesn’t always require new specialized robotics. In our industry, plenty of mature automation already exists that can be used to good effect, such as automated transplanting and automated seeding: both employ proven, decades-old technology.

So when I see some other start-ups trying to reinvent these processes, it’s hard to understand. They design and build new, expensive equipment—something possible with an unlimited budget—but in fact, a more affordable, simple solution already is available.

Start-up costs are notoriously difficult to finance. How were you able to get off the ground? What advice would you have for others in the industry?

There’s no easy way to bootstrap from a small start-up to a large scale without that big infusion of capital. You’ve got to decide early on if you should try to secure venture capital from institutional folks or search out more, smaller checks from friends and family and accredited investors.

As I see it, venture capitalists look to the founders’ background and education more than a business model that needs to be tested. If you don’t have that pedigree out of the gate, it’s an uphill battle.

We chose to take a different path, one that has proven successful for me in the past.  It’s one where  I led a group of investors who acquired overlooked residential properties on Chicago’s South Side.  We brought stability to neighborhoods and now manage a large portfolio of quality rental properties. There was no white paper when we embarked on that venture, but we shared a vision for revitalizing good housing stock.

I also tell people to explore equipment financing, which thanks to the cannabis industry has opened up more and more. It’s definitely possible to finance some of this equipment. That seems to be a good route as well.

How will vertical farming impact the types of the crops you grow?

Wilder Fields grows and will continue to grow a wonderful variety of leafy greens. Many will be new to people because they can’t be efficiently raised in a field. So we are building our product line around flavor and texture as opposed to supply-chain hardiness.

But remember, the indoor vertical farming industry is in its very early days. Soon we will have a whole new frontier of applications and crops to grow. Especially now that certain companies are offering indoor-specific seeds. We’ve seen this movie before. When greenhouse-style vertical farms first came on the scene, they used seeds that were really bred for the field. They were doing okay. But, as soon as seeds were bred specifically for that greenhouse environment, yield and quality shot through the roof.

Now that we’re on the cusp of having specialized seeds bred specifically for our purposes, I think we’re going to see that same leap in yield and quality as well.

Of course, your initial planning could not have factored in a global pandemic and ailing economy. How have the ramifications of COVID-19 affected Wilder Fields, and your industry at large?

This is a time for us to champion the benefits of indoor agriculture because vertical farming is doing really well. Any farms primarily serving restaurants obviously had a problem. Companies that pivoted away from restaurants have been able to reach consumers more than ever. They’re capitalizing on their indoor-grown—and therefore much cleaner—product.

Supermarkets are our primary market. With people cooking more at home and looking for fresher and healthier choices, they’re eating more leafy greens.  This is another positive phenomenon.

The success of your model relies heavily on your proprietary technology. Do you have any plans to eventually license your innovations—to make them available to others, for a fee?

That’s a question we’ve been asked a lot, not only from our industry but also from the cannabis industry. We may revisit that opportunity in the future, but it’s not something we’re immediately considering.

Here’s why. When I first entered the industry in 2016, I noticed there were so many consultants. Many people were licensing technology, but none of them were actually using that technology to grow leafy greens at scale. They’re like the folks who sell the pickaxes and the shovels instead of mining the gold.

My perspective is, “You’ve got to venture into the mine to know what sort of shovel and pickaxe you need”; in other words, that’s how to understand what models to create for logistics and ergonomics and what tools are needed to make them work. I did not want our company to be one of those that are just sort of camping outside the mine and hawking its wares.

I think the only way we can  develop a solution that’s worth its weight is operating our own technology and equipment at scale. And I haven’t seen anybody do that yet. Is it possible that we license our technology somewhere down the road once we’ve actually proven it out at scale? Maybe; but it’s not part of our business model right now.

So, along those lines, when will Wilder Fields deliver your first produce—grown in your first full-scale commercial vertical farm—to grocers in metro Chicago?

We have committed to the end of the first quarter of next year: March, 2021.   In addition to this Indoor Ag-Con Q & A with Jake Counne, you can  learn more about Wilder Fields visit the company website