Talking Funding & Form Factors With Sensei Ag CEO Sonia Lo
Sensei Ag CEO Sonia Lo will lead the Indoor Ag-Con keynote presentation, “Improving Human Wellness One Farm At A Time,” on Monday, October 4, 2021 from 11:30 am – 12:20 pm. A headliner event at the October 4-5, 2021 edition at the Hilton Orlando, Lo’s discussion will focus on Sensei Ag’s form factor agnostic approach to building and expanding indoor farms.
Tapped to head Sensei Ag in 2020, Sonia brings more than 32 years of combined agriculture, technology and business experience to her leadership role. Ahead of her October keynote, we had the chance to talk to Sonia about her company’s mission, funding insights, thoughts on how we value our industry and more.
Sonia, please share with our audience some of your insights into funding in the controlled environment agriculture industry. You’ve stated in the past that venture capital funding alone is not enough to win the day as it relates to indoor vertical farming. Rather, you’ve posited that when/if large, commercial farms are in some way “tied” to the energy grid, municipal bonds would come into play as a viable funding vehicle for these new operations. Can you elaborate on that further?
Venture capital is indeed an important source of funding for the economy, and I am by no means downplaying the role of the VC investor. I myself have run my own investment fund which has invested over $150 million in growth stage companies. Nevertheless, we often see venture capital looking to invest in companies that:
1) Are already well on their way to becoming profitable
2) Have very sophisticated fundraising teams or
3) Have deep relationships already in place with the venture or private equity communities.
Smaller, developing indoor farming companies as well as large commercial farms are less likely to have these connections than say a traditional tech company. It would be more likely that they would be candidates for municipal bonds or green bonds that would be accompanied by much lower interest rates and not tied to earn outs and profitability but instead to the greater good of society.
This brings me to the concept then of how do we value our industry? If we can’t properly value indoor agriculture, then neither banks nor venture capital will be able to provide adequate funding to spur our growth. You may have heard me say this in prior publications, but my true hope is that by developing a collective body of knowledge on indoor growing, financial institutions, public and private, will be able to risk asses our businesses, value them long term and provide the necessary funding to spur growth, technology and innovation for our industry. At Sensei Ag, we are positioning ourselves to be one of the key aggregators and generators of such data, moving our industry forward for all who are looking to make a difference in the ability to feed our growing global population healthy, nutritious food.
Sensei Ag has stated being a “form factor agnostic” grower is the goal. When you look to the mix of greenhouse, indoor farm, open field and any other growing environment, tell us how varied grow form factors and crop mixes (leafy greens and fruiting crops) will provide variety and diversity among Sensei Ag’s offerings to your customers?
Being form factor agnostic is core to Sensei Ag’s business model and growth plan. We are indoor growers – not just greenhouse growers, not just vertical farm growers. With that said, it’s not just about the types of leafy greens and other produce we will be able to grow using different form factors, but also the ability to venture into new regions of the globe, areas that were traditionally considered food deserts but through one form factor or another can now become food oases.
At our greenhouses on Lana’i, we currently grow hydroponically and produce a variety of exceptional leafy greens, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other delicious produce. We are regularly trying out new varieties of cultivars and look forward to introducing even more delicious produce to Hawaii.
This is now the second indoor agriculture company for which you are serving in the important role of CEO. What attracted you to join Sensei Ag and to the company’s overall mission?
When I began by career over thirty years ago with a Stanford degree in political science and math, agriculture was definitely not where I imagined myself down the line. That said, after spending the majority of my career in finance and tech, I can truly say that I am the happiest growing local, nutritious food for others. I joined Sensei Ag last April for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spearhead a company developing science focused on human wellness from food and agriculture systems. As CEO, I am very honored to lead an exceptionally talented team of professionals who together share one vision and that is to increase adoption of indoor agricultural production globally.
Of course complicating this all was no doubt joining a company right in the heart of a global pandemic. Much of our team, with the exception of our farming team on Lana’i, spent the past year working over Zoom. We are only now finally getting a chance to collaborate and spend time in person – and of course seeing more than the top halves of our bodies!
Nevertheless, the journey thus far has been incredible. I’ve never been known to take the straight and narrow path. Ask anyone about the twisted, curvy roads on Lana’i. Yet, in my mind, there’s never been a more crucial time in our world’s history to address global food insecurity, to encourage and develop new means of promoting health and wellness and to heal and nourish our planet. I look forward to the adventure that lies ahead.